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Tangled rules put grant in jeopardy

The federal government has handed the city an ultimatum: Change your minority business program or lose a $300,000 grant.

The Federal Aviation Administration awarded the grant in October so the city could upgrade taxiway lights and install other navigational devices at Albert Whitted Municipal Airport.

Then, in February, federal officials found out that the city doesn't include American Indians and Asian Americans in its minority contracting goals. The federal government's contracting rules include all minorities, so officials said the money would be withheld until an agreement was reached.

In an April 20 letter, the FAA set a 30-day deadline to resolve the dispute. Now the city faces a dilemma.

Assistant City Attorney Robert Eschenfelder said federal law precludes the city from making race-conscious policies unless the city can show it has historically discriminated against a certain group.

Because the city does not have a history of discriminating against American Indians or Asian Americans, they are not _ and cannot be _ included in the city's minority contract goals. Eschenfelder also argued that it is inappropriate for the federal government to impose its rules on a local entity.

The city has several options: Change its minority program, persuade the FAA to accept the city's plan, lose the grant, or sue the federal government.

"The FAA's most recent letter is quite a disappointment," Eschenfelder said. "As the city's legal adviser, I can't recommend something that is unconstitutional."

The issue arose in February when an American Indian-owned firm in Orlando was the lowest bidder for the airport project but was not awarded the contract. Under federal guidelines, the Orlando company would have been chosen.

However, the company did not have enough participation from women, black and Hispanic workers to qualify for the contract under the city's minority business goals. The contract was awarded to the second highest bidder.

The Orlando firm protested, spurring the FAA to look into the city's Minority Business Enterprise program.

In the April 20 letter, FAA civil rights officer Lawrence E. Moore says that to qualify for the grant, the city must change its minority program to comply with federal rules. The city also must re-bid the project and award the contract based on the federal rules.

Airport director Monty Burgess received the letter late last week and forwarded it to his boss and the city's legal department.

City officials have contacted FAA attorneys and local members of Congress. Eschenfelder is researching other recent legal opinions to support his contention that the federal government is on shaky ground.

Within two weeks, Eschenfelder will take the matter to the City Council so members can decide how to proceed.

Burgess, meanwhile, would like to find a solution so the work can get done.

"If it doesn't go through, it'll just call for more maintenance on my part to maintain what we have," he said. "It's important, but it's not so absolutely critical that it has to be done right away."