Potential Liberty Builders lawsuit looms
by Joshua Arce
San Francisco – Over the past year, the San Francisco Bay View has tracked the efforts of Liberty Builders to break through the barriers and challenges that have historically kept local minority contractors from winning public works contracting opportunities. After many months of back-and-forth discussions with the City regarding the rescission of an award to rebuild the Bayview Library, Liberty has retained San Francisco civil rights attorney DeWitt Lacy to pursue possible legal remedies for what Liberty alleges is a discriminatory breach of contract.
With San Francisco’s historic local hiring law in effect as of March 25 and communities across the country clamoring for jobs, the Bayview Library benefits from neither the provisions of the new local hiring law nor the safeguards of a local prime contractor with a commitment to local workers. The Bayview Library was advertised for bid last year, when San Francisco’s Local Hiring Policy for Construction was just a twinkle in Supervisor John Avalos’ eye.
Liberty Builders won the library bid on Sept. 1, 2010, and emails produced in the January 2011 issue of the SF Bay View show a string of communications between Liberty and City officials regarding certain administrative requirements before the award was formally rescinded on Nov. 5. KCK Builders, a firm with a bid $310,000 higher than that of Liberty, was awarded the library contract on Nov. 12.
Liberty has argued that the Bayview Library situation is as much about the particular facts of their experience as it is about the burdens on the capacity of minority-owned construction firms seeking to become prime contractors that make the case for much-needed reform.
Discussions in search of an informal resolution of Liberty’s concerns have yielded no results, and it has been suggested that the City faces a choice between moving forward with a sense of division in the community or making one last effort to find harmony with the only Black-owned construction firm in San Francisco to win a public works contract in more than a decade. Some have said that the Bayview Library should proceed immediately no matter the cost in light of the need for jobs, while others have countered that without the benefit of the Avalos local hiring law or a local contractor who cares about the community, there are no assurances that community jobs will actually materialize.
In 1997, Liberty Builders overcame the high hurdles that 14 years later have led them to engage attorney Lacy as a final recourse. That year, Liberty won a contract to perform concrete work at the San Francisco International Airport and excelled when given the opportunity to demonstrate what a committed community can do. However, that experience also included an NAACP request for FBI investigation of an incident in which a supervisor for the prime contractor hung a hangman’s noose in Liberty’s trailer.
In many ways, Supervisor John Avalos’ recent landmark local hiring legislation was an effort to present a clean slate as a means of addressing past decades of exclusion within the construction workforce, and the Department of Public Works was an important supporter of the new law since its inception. Historic lack of opportunity for underrepresented communities in construction contracting, however, has yet to be corrected, despite efforts by the Human Rights Commission and other agencies.
“We have run out of options to correct what we believe to be a discriminatory injustice,” said Liberty Builders owner Willie Ratcliff, who also publishes the Bay View. Liberty’s attorney, DeWitt Lacy, noted that “contracts are essentially a set of promises. We hope the City keeps its promise to the constituents of this community and allows them a fair opportunity to rebuild the library.”
With a dynamic and highly capable advocate in the form of attorney Lacy at Liberty’s side, the City would do well to quickly make one more attempt to begin to correct past wrongs as aggressively as Supervisor Avalos moved to reform local hiring by finding a harmonious resolution for the Bayview Library situation.
Joshua Arce, executive director of Brightline Defense Project, can be reached at email@example.com. Brightline is a non-profit civil rights advocacy organization dedicated to protecting and empowering communities. Brightline’s efforts have included campaigns to shut down dirty fossil fuel power plants in Southeast San Francisco, promote local renewable energy, and increase blue-collar and green-collar employment opportunities for residents of economically disadvantaged neighborhoods and environmental justice communities. Learn more at www.brightlinedefense.org.