Berkeley disproportionately contracts with white-male-owned businesses

photo of the city council building
Sunny Shen/Senior Staff
A study conducted by the Mason Tillman Associates firm found that the city of Berkeley does less business with minority-owned companies.

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Berkeley City Council sought to address a “progressive blindspot” by examining the inequities present in the city’s contracting record at their meeting Tuesday, according to City Councilmember Ben Bartlett.

The majority of city contracts are under $25,000, the amount at which the city is legally required to review bids from multiple companies, according to Eleanor Ramsey, president and CEO of Mason Tillman Associates. City Council members listened while she presented the company’s findings on Berkeley’s contracting record. According to the firm’s study, Berkeley does less business with minority-owned companies than would be expected given the demographics of local markets.

Ramsey said the firm found that, on average, the city would do about 57% of its contracting business with businesses owned by white males. But from 2016 to 2019, 82% of the city of Berkeley’s contracting business went to businesses owned by white males.

“We are effectively on notice of what appears to be a pretty significant case of continuous discrimination,” Bartlett said during the meeting.

Specifically, Ramsey said the study found disparities in prime contracts bid by the city, informal prime contracts awarded by managers and subcontracts awarded by prime contractors. It also found a disparity within the city’s Local Vendor Preference Program, which was established in 1983 as an economic justice initiative. Ramsey added during the meeting that the data shows the program’s goals have not been achieved.

Mayor Jesse Arreguín said during the meeting that he was committed to rectifying these disparities with a new policy at a future meeting. Councilmember Kate Harrison emphasized she wanted real solutions to support — “not just a paper exercise.”

“We have to address these disparities,” Arreguín said during the meeting. “This is an area where we have direct control.”

During Ramsey’s presentation, she recommended the council consider bid discounts on contracts with minority-owned businesses as well as contract and subcontract equity goals.

Several residents thanked Ramsey for the presentation and emphasized the importance of resolving the contracting inequities.

“There are a lot of talented people here in Berkeley that are often overlooked,” said Berkeley community member Rosa Higgs during the meeting’s public comment session. “I’m so glad someone has put it into data.”

The council also approved salary increases for city department heads, as well as a somewhat controversial 28% raise for City Manager Dee Williams-Ridley.

Council members also adopted a motion opting into the Alameda county reduction and recycling ordinance, which will require Berkeley properties with five or more units to sort their recyclables.

Former councilmember Gordon Wozniak also stopped by the meeting to talk about replenishing the Marina Enterprise Fund, which helps fund a city project to promote environmental protection and recreational use of the Berkeley Marina. The council discussed but ultimately sent the issue to the city’s Budget and Finance Committee, tasking it to search for alternative revenue streams.

Rachel Barber is the lead city government reporter. Contact her at [email protected], and follow her on Twitter at @rachelbarber_.