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A Looming Battle

MDC says not to worry, minorities will get their share of the work on the massive Clean Water Project. Others aren't so sure.

Daniel D'Ambrosio

December 18, 2008

If you live in one of the poorest cities in the United States let's say Hartford and you're unemployed, a billion-dollar makeover of the city's sewer system gets your attention. You want a piece of the action, and you want it now.

That, in a nutshell, is the dispute between Hartford's African-American Alliance and the Metropolitan District Commission, the quasi-governmental agency that's responsible for water and sewers in Hartford and eight surrounding communities. The MDC is under orders from both state and federal authorities to fix its leaky, antiquated sewer system that sends about a billion gallons of raw sewage into the Connecticut River every year.

In December, 2004, MDC launched the $1.6-billion Clean Water Project to stop the leaks with an ambitious construction program that involves building underground storage tunnels, increasing the capacity of its wastewater treatment plants and repairing crumbling sewer and water lines. The work won't be finished until 2020 if all goes well.

The question for the alliance and others is whether that work has already begun without the participation of Latino and African-American workers. Clarke King, executive director of the alliance, says it has, and his constituents in Hartford's poor neighborhoods have seen the MDC trucks to prove it.

"People in the community know they're working in your neighborhood and you're not part of it," said King.

MDC denies that work has begun, except for preliminary engineering. Mike Jefferson, MDC's recently hired diversity officer, says even in that initial phase, $5 million of $31 million in contracts went to minority-owned Connecticut companies, although he couldn't say how many were based in Hartford.

During the 2007 legislative session, Rep. Art Feltman and Sen. Eric Coleman, both from Hartford, tried to negotiate a deal with MDC that would have required nearly 19 percent of the work available for small businesses in the Clean Water Project to go to minority-owned firms.

In addition, Feltman, who has since left the legislature, and Coleman, who is still serving, wanted 25 percent of the individual workers on the project to be minorities and 5 percent to be ex-offenders. Those negotiations broke down, but MDC did agree to pay for a disparity study that would determine why minority firms have been unsuccessful in getting sewer work from them in the past. The study is also tasked with figuring out how many minority workers are "ready and able to work" on the project, according to Bob Moore, MDC's chief administrative officer.

Moore said MDC is prepared to comply with the recommendations of the study, which could set the requirements for hiring minority- and women-owned firms higher than the current 9 percent, in terms of dollars spent.

"Our desire is to make sure when you're investing so much money in reconstruction of the city we leave money in the hands of people who live and work here," said Moore. "The more money we can keep in the city the more successful we'll be when we ask people to vote on future projects."

Moore puts the completion date for the disparity study in late winter or early spring, by February or March. But King has no faith in the study, which he says is nothing more than a delaying tactic.

"We know there's disparity in our neighborhoods; they're not skilled," said King. "The study is another thing to prolong the process."

That's why King and members of his alliance protested in front of MDC headquarters in downtown Hartford last week, and will continue to protest every Monday until they get what they want.

"We feel we've been used by them and felt we had to let them know we're still here and still fighting the same issue," said King.

Like King, Senator Coleman is blunt in his assessment of MDC's record where minorities are concerned.

"I am worried only because I know the culture and reputation of MDC and I don't have any confidence that MDC will do anything other than what it's compelled to do," said Coleman. "Unfortunately, after years of observation, I think that, as an organization, they don't have a high regard for minority people."

Coleman said MDC's strategy during the negotiations he and Feltman had with them was to paint the minority hiring quotas as a "black issue" in an attempt to "persuade and enlist the opposition of the MDC member towns that were outside of Hartford."

"Like [President-elect Barack] Obama, I think there are considerable opportunities for training and employment of the underemployed and unemployed," said Coleman.

Trude Mero, an MDC board member who is also African-American, rejects the assertion that minority workers are already being left behind in the Clean Water Project.

"Has the work started yet? No, it hasn't," said Mero. "There's so much misinformation out there."

Mero said she trusts MDC's Chief Executive Officer Charles Sheehan to make sure minorities participate fully in the Clean Water Project. She said Sheehan was also involved in making sure minorities were well represented in the construction of Adriaen's Landing, the massive makeover of downtown Hartford that includes the Connecticut Science Center, the Marriott Hotel, the Connecticut Convention Center and Front Street, a retail development just now breaking ground.

"Chuck fully understands what the requirements are in meeting minority goals," said Mero. "I just have the confidence that once the Clear Water project starts the community will see there is participation by minorities."

We'll see, said Coleman, adding that MDC should be "constantly aware" that he and others are watching to make sure they hire "adequate numbers and percentages of minority firms and minority individuals."

"I hope and pray a time will come when I can relax on oversight on MDC, but now is not the time," Coleman said.

Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Advocate.
| Last update: September 25, 2012 |
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