Minority firms hint at lawsuit against Sedgwick County

A leader of a group representing African-American builders and contractors has reminded its members that a lawsuit against Sedgwick County alleging a lack of diversity in purchasing goods and services remains an option.

United Builders and Contractors has met several times with county commissioners to ask them to adopt a resolution that encourages doing business with minority- and woman-owned businesses.

Commissioners have not made a decision about whether to support such a measure.

United administrator Prentice Lewis said in an e-mail Sunday to members and county officials, a copy of which was forwarded to The Eagle, that "if this foot-dragging continues much longer, it may be in our best interest to seek relief through the federal courts."

He wrote that "during five years of meetings with county staff, individual commissioners and three formal presentations to (commissioners), UBC has never asked for preferential treatment."

County Manager William Buchanan said he thinks the county has done "a pretty good job" of being diverse in its purchasing.

Of about $223 million in goods and services purchased by the county in 2008, slightly more than 3 percent went to disadvantaged businesses, including those owned by African-Americans, Asians, Hispanics, American Indians, people with disabilities, veterans and women, purchasing director Iris Baker told commissioners in March.

Of that, about $53,131 went to businesses with black owners.

Excluding Intrust Bank Arena, about 5 percent of county contracts for goods and services went to disadvantaged-business owners as defined by the county.

Buchanan said Tuesday that Lewis has told the county, "We want you to require diversity." That, he said, "implies special treatment."

Commission Chairman Karl Peterjohn said last week that he wants all small businesses to have a shot at working with the county but does not believe in diversity.

Commissioner Kelly Parks said Tuesday that a lawsuit is one of United's options "if they feel like that they've been wronged."

"We have worked on this for five years, and there's never been a consensus amongst the majority that we need" a resolution, he said.

Board member Dave Unruh said of meetings with United: "Somehow we're just not hearing the words each other say.

"I think a resolution is not necessary," Unruh said. "Our statistics on balance say we're meeting our goals, and we're trying to be fair players."

He said he would rather see United determine "what it takes to win" a contract and work toward that than on forcing the county to pass a resolution.

A lawsuit, Lewis said, "has always been an option, and the group has realized that that's maybe the route that we have to take."