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Judge rejects contracts rule for minorities

A federal court ruling last year put into limbo Hillsborough County'sprogram to ensure that some county contracts go to minorities. This week, another ruling sealed its fate.

In an order issued Monday, U.S. District Judge Elizabeth A. Kovachevich sided with a group of white contractors who said the county's minority business enterprise (MBE) program was unconstitutional.

Kovachevich granted a summary judgment to the contractors, saying the county did not have evidence of discrimination against minority contractors in 1984 when it enacted its MBE program to help them.

A U.S. Supreme Court decision striking down a similar program in Richmond, Va., last year ruled that such programs had to be "narrowly tailored" solutions to documented problems of discrimination.

The county will appeal the ruling to the 11th Circuit Court of Appeal in Atlanta, said Claude Tison, the lawyer handling the case.

Herbert Schlanger, the Atlanta attorney for the nine white contractors, said Kovachevich "adopts the position that we've been arguing all alongA legislative body needs to have the evidence in front of it so it knows what it's curing" before it takes action such as instituting an MBE program.

This week's ruling followed an injunction Kovachevich issued last October barring the county from enforcing its program until the court decided the merits of the case.

The summary judgment means there will be no trial, which the county hoped it would get. Hillsborough County attorneys argued that during the discovery phase of the trial, when they had access to records of contractors during the pre-1984 period, they would find evidence showing discriminatory practices.

But Kovachevich wrote, "The Court cannot permit defendants to 'discover' evidence after the fact to support the legislative action" of passing the MBE program.

Kovachevich's ruling was not unexpected, considering the harsh language she used toward the county when issuing the injunction last October. But Tison said it did help clarify some questions he had about Kovachevich's earlier order.

He says he believes the judge misread the Supreme Court's Richmond decision and will appeal on that basis.

Paul Curtis, president of the Florida Black Contractors Alliance, said he agrees with an appeal, but said the whole issue may soon be moot because the county has adopted a new small business enterprise program, which it also hopes will help minorities. Officials also are working on a revised, legally defensible MBE program.

Black contractors in particular have pleaded with the county for a new program. Since the October injunction, minority participation in county contracts has been virtually eliminated.

Curtis said the county dragged its heels during the case.

"Minority business programs have merit, there is no doubt in that.

However, the particulars as it relates to the old minority business program that Hillsborough County had in place just simply have not been properly defended," Curtis said.