Pinch of Salt Graphic (English)

What do you think about entities offering preferential treatment to one type of person over another, or one type of business over another?

Ayn Rand and "Atlas Shrugged" be damned, we Americans have been doing it for a long time.

I want to talk about some of the institutionalized preferential treatment we've dabbled in since I was a wee lad — which spans quite a period of time, I know.

The first time I really became aware of institutional preferential treatment was when I started scrambling for college scholarships.

That was back when affirmative action was huge. Literally every college around was offering preference to blacks (called African-American back then) and Latinx (called Hispanics then). The idea was to get a more diverse ethnic mix in the student population, and a belief that minorities needed a break to qualify.

I wasn't happy about it back then (fewer potential scholarships for me), but I whole-heartedly endorse affirmative action now. There has to be some way to level the playing field, and — please excuse the generalization — it isn't those kids' fault they grew up in deprived situations.

Today, educational affirmative action is much more diverse and often takes the form of intervention early in the students' lives in the form of mentoring, special programs and more. It's not right that the extra help is still needed, but we're dealing with realities and, I believe, making some progress.

Awareness of the next form of affirmative action came when I began covering city government. I found out it was legal to give local businesses preferential treatment when it came to city contracts. It's kind of the industrial version of a "Buy Local" campaign. One way to keep money in the local economy is to give work to local businesses.

Ironically, that approach runs head-on into another government axiom (an actual law in California, I believe) that you have to accept the lowest responsible bid for any job. For example, if Joe's Hardware says he'll sell the city all the nails it needs at 50¢ a pound and Acme Nails from Walla Walla offers a price of 20¢ a pound, the city has to take the Acme bid even after Joe gets a 5¢ a pound edge for being a local business.

Still, we keep trying to level that field. These days, Long Beach reaches out specifically to any local small business, or minority-owned or woman-owned business, every time they ask for bids. And Tuesday night, the City Council expanded the types of businesses the city helps to include those owned by LGBTQ+ community members, veterans and people with disabilities. (That's the reason I decided to write this column.)

The help includes outreach to get those folks on the city's list of places to send bids to. I'm not sure on this, but I believe they are allowed a percentage in bid comparisons as well — much like veterans get "points" on job applications.

So why aren't more Long Beach business owners doing business with the city?

There are a number of reasons. Perhaps the biggest is there rarely are Long Beach businesses big enough or specialized enough to offer a bid on the city's very specific projects. It's the rare company qualified to rehabilitate a sewer lift station, for example.

Size also play a role in the ability to meet Project Labor Agreement requirements. Then there's the requirement that all employees working on a city project must be paid a "living wage."

That last is a swell idea in concept — we want people working here to be able to live here — but it does make many businesses (big and small) shy away from bidding on company jobs.

It's good we keep trying to help those who need help. But maybe our city leaders should look at the barriers government puts in front of the same people they say they're trying to help.

Just sayin'.

Harry has been executive editor of Gazette Newspapers for more than 26 years. He has been in the newspaper business for more than 35 years, with experience on both weekly and metropolitan daily papers in Colorado and California.

Load comments