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Missoula County to give preference to minority, women businesses; critics cite discrimination

Missoula County Courthouse
Posted at 9:41 AM, Oct 02, 2020

MISSOULA — With rare public opposition, Missoula County on Thursday moved closer to passing a measure giving preference to procurement bids submitted by women and minority-owned businesses, saying it was necessary to “level the playing field.”

Opponents described the move as sexist and racist, saying it discriminates against other businesses based upon gender and race.

While a vote was pending on Thursday and commissioners expressed unanimous support, county attorneys urged the authors of the measure to rewrite the resolution to more clearly state the statistics that are driving the proposal.

The motion was temporarily withdrawn but is likely to pass once the language is altered in the coming week.

“This is an attempt to try to deal with some of the historical inequities we have based on the structures of our society that tend to be discriminatory,” said Missoula County Auditor David Wall, who brought the measure to commissioner back in July for consideration.

“There’s inequities built into the actual system. This is an attempt to have kind of a correction for that inequity and have more of a level playing field so all businesses have a more fair shot at doing business with Missoula County.”

When the county issues a bid for a service or product, it typically scores the applications on a number of factors, including price and qualifications. The county doesn’t select a vendor based upon a single qualification but rather, it generally selects a vendor with the highest cumulative score.

Once adopted, the measure will award businesses owned by minorities or women a 5% preference during the county’s scoring process.

“Until the day comes when men and women receive the same pay for the same work, and until the day comes when race isn’t an eventual predictor of a person’s eventual wealth, we need to level the playing field,” said Commissioner Josh Slotnick. “Right now it’s not, the system and the culture are rigged to a certain degree against some people and for others based upon the virtue of their birth.”

In defending the measure, Wall said a wealth gap remains between certain segments of the population, including people of color and women, who statistically earn less than men.

Certain demographics haven’t accumulated the same wealth as the majority population, in part due to the nation’s history, Wall said. That lack of accumulated wealth has trickled down through generations, keeping them at a disadvantage.

Without comparable assets, Wall said businesses owned by women and minorities will often have higher credit payments, as lending institutions see them as a greater risk.

“The greater the risk, the higher the interest rate,” he said. “This business will have greater expenses monthly, and they’ll need greater revenue in order to cover those expenses. When some of these businesses bid out for a job, their bids will be higher because they need more revenue because they have greater expenses.”

Sandra Vasecka, a member of the Missoula City Council, voiced opposition to the measure on Thursday. While the intent was good, she said, women didn’t need a “leg up,” just the freedom to compete.

“What this is doing is giving preferential treatment to people or businesses based solely on their gender or on the color of their skin,” Vasecka said. “I think this is blatantly sexist and blatantly racist. You shouldn’t have to put your race or your sex down when putting in a bid.”

Brian Vasecka, a local business owner, also criticized the measure, saying he’d expect nothing more from Democrats. All three county commissioners are Democrats, as is Wall.

Brian Vasecka said the county’s actions will place his business at a disadvantage, thereby doing the very thing the county is looking to overcome.

“You can sugar coat it all you want. You’re not going to give me a bid and you’re going to pay someone else more solely based upon the color of my skin or my gender,” he said. “That’s racist and sexist by definition. You can spin it however you want or tell whatever lie, you’re racist and sexist. I thought there were anti-discrimination laws to prevent this.”

Wall said he understood such concerns and said they’d be correct if everyone were treated equally and had access to the same opportunities. But he said the nation’s history, both distant and recent, place certain groups “behind the starting line.”

“When folks are in a position where they have often been in a favored position for a long time, and then all of a sudden there’s a little more competition, it often feels like that’s discriminatory,” he said. “I get that. But that’s not the intent of this, and this would not be discriminatory toward any group of people.”

Commissioner Dave Strohmaier took offense to critics’ suggestions than the county was sexist or racist.

“I hope there will come a day when we can repeal this because we’ve reached the point where we have leveled the playing field,” he said. “It’s hogwash that this is characterized as any sort of a racist move on our part. It’s recognizing the point of history we’re at, and we have not achieved the finish line we need to, to truly say equity is realized for all.”

While commissioners all supported the measure and were prepared to take a vote, deputy county attorney Brian West urged them to add language to the resolution that more clearly stated the need to give preference to certain businesses based upon gender and race.

He said the resolution should include documentation justifying the county’s actions.

“Any time we have a preference, especially one related to gender or race, we want to be on a very firm basis that the actual preference is narrowly tailored to specifically help what it’s trying to do,” West said. “We want to make sure we have very specific and very supportive objective data that this preference will be a benefit.”