Staff File Photo / The mayor and next mayor and current and future Chattanooga City Councils — who meet at City Hall — could determine what part race and gender should play in awarding city contracts.

If all things are equal, what part should race and gender play in the awarding of city government contracts?

That's what outgoing Chattanooga Mayor Andy Berke, the outgoing Chattanooga City Council, the mayor who will take office in five months and the city council that will be seated in April will have to determine.

A five-year study of city contracts by Atlanta-based consultants Griffin & Strong revealed that just 10.78% of contracts were given to Black, Hispanic, Asian, Native American and white woman-owned businesses. Yet, minorities and women own 22% of eligible businesses.

The study showed that the lower use of women- and minority-owned contractors in the areas studied of construction, architecture and engineering, professional services, other services, and goods did not result from a lack of bidding or capacity for performance, but from discrimination instead.

The period studied was during the administration of the city's most liberal mayor in the last half century.

Berke, according to newspaper archives, has said he increased city business for minority- and women-owned firms from 1% when he came into office in 2013 up to 14%.

The disparity between the 14% the mayor has claimed in the past and the 10.78% the study found may be a result of the limited areas the report researched.

How and why the discrimination occurred was chalked up in the study to not "one moment in time, specific individual or administration, but a cumulative history."

A diversity study has been requested by some city council members since late in the 20th century. In 2008, council members said such a study had been delayed 10 to 12 years.

But the council that year did not agree to a $450,000 study suggested by the city's Office of Multicultural Affairs by the same consultants, Griffin & Strong, calling the price too high.

At that time, during the mayoral administration of Ron Littlefield, the city's director of general services said projects paid for with city money were awarded to the lowest and best bidders. Officials did not consider race or gender in the process, he said.

In 2012, the year before Berke took office, the city purchasing agent said the city encouraged minority-owned businesses to bid on projects but did not keep records on how many contracts were awarded to such businesses. And unlike some other Tennessee cities, Chattanooga didn't require that each city contract include a minority supplier or vendor.

Berke, despite the study's suggestion of discrimination, has worked to increase the number of contracts for such businesses.

As early as his first year in office, changes were proposed that included accepting more diverse business enterprise certifications and advertising for jobs in minority-owned publications. The office of Multicultural Affairs also pledged to host workshops to educate owners on specific qualifications needed to do business with the city.

Then-Deputy Chief Operating Officer Brent Goldberg said a short-term goal for the city could be the 14% of the state's contract jobs that were with minority- or women-owned businesses.

By 2014, then-Office Of Multicultural Affairs Director James McKissic said 7.2% of the city's business partners were companies owned by women or minorities. The goal, he said, was 14%.

A 2016 city report said the percentage of businesses owned by women, veterans and minorities working with the city had grown to almost 14%, the goal cited two years earlier. Later that year, Berke signed an executive order to start a minority business owners task force and said he hoped to increase their reach beyond city government contracts.

In 2018, the mayor signed an executive order encouraging women and minority entrepreneurs to do business with city government. The city, further, created its own internal certification for female- and minority-owned businesses, which the mayor said was a recommendation of the Minority Business Task Force, and developed a supplier diversity website with information businesses need to know to qualify as vendors.

Despite the efforts, the council voted later that year to spend $175,000 with Griffin & Strong for the contractor diversity study.

So what should the city's contractor diversity goal be for women and minorities? Should it be the 22% who own eligible businesses? Should it be broken down by each group? How do you categorize the business if the bidder is both a woman and a minority?

Whenever quotas and goals around hiring (or contracting) by race or gender are discussed, we think of columnist Walter Williams' frequent diversity question of how much sports fans would enjoy the games if pro basketball was limited to only the 13.4% of Blacks in the U.S. or pro hockey was suddenly asked to increase its complement to 13.4%.

The city should always try to improve in the awarding of contracts to minorities and women, but it's a slippery slope when governments try to use subjective data to fit objective goals.