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Aviation commissioner raked over the coals on minority contracts

Aviation Commissioner Ginger Evans will bring in an outside expert to review policies at O'Hare and Midway airports. | Sun-Times file photo

Aviation Commissioner Ginger Evans was raked over the coals Monday on the shortage of minority contractors and employees at O’Hare and Midway Airports, leaving black aldermen so frustrated that they want to make it more difficult for Evans to qualify for her $100,000-a-year bonus.

“Increasing African-American participation should be a criteria for your bonus,” Ald. Pat Dowell (3rd) said.

Evans, who is the city’s highest paid public official with a salary of $300,000, stoically replied, “I’ll pass that along to the mayor’s office.” She noted that her $100,000 bonus is based on measures taken to improve connectivity, customer service and other benefits to Chicago.

Last month, the City Council came within one vote of blocking a $3.5 billion O’Hare Airport bond issue, delivering another powerful message about the lack of minority participation on the airport gravy train.

On Monday, African-American aldermen who nearly blocked that borrowing had another opportunity to get their point across.

Evans was on the hot seat at City Council budget hearings. And Ald. Leslie Hairston (5th) made sure the seat was plenty hot — by demanding that the commissioner outline her “plan for inclusion” for the thousands of jobs tied to the new runway, hotel, cargo center and international terminal at O’Hare.

“You make it seem like to find black people in the city of Chicago is very difficult to do. You make it seem like to find intelligent people or people with a skill set is difficult to do. . . . Try reaching out to the people that represent 55,000 of ’em in each ward,” Hairston said, referring to aldermen.

“This is an incredible amount of opportunity and you’re squandering it. And I am not going to be here this time next year or the year after and listen to this from you,” she said. “It is completely unacceptable. I’m looking at my notes from last year and you talked about your plans to include South Side neighborhoods and you didn’t. . . . We talked about the high turnover and low wages. You can’t keep doing the same thing and expect a different result. This is too many taxpayer dollars for only a small percentage of people to benefit from.”

Evans countered that she has so far awarded only one contract tied to the massive borrowing, and that contract has “new requirements that have never been in any city contract before” on the issue of workforce development.

“We want to increase participation in all areas. Especially the areas where we’re low. . . . We’re low particularly in design and construction. . . . We aren’t getting the number of African-American bidders on construction contracts that we need to,” Evans said, noting that she has met recently with Black Contractors United, the Hispanic American Construction Industry Association and the National Minority Supplier Council.

To counter the claim that she has bypassed aldermen, Evans said she is “jointly planning” a Nov. 10 event with a couple of aldermen where they will be responsible for inviting people “to make sure that we reach out to as many people as possible.”

“We are certainly making every effort to reach out to all the aldermen. We need you. We want to work in partnership with you. We know that you have a network that we don’t have,” she said.

Evans’ decision to cast a broader net on the issue of minority contracts comes on direct orders from Mayor Rahm Emanuel.

After last month’s near-miss on the O’Hare bond issue, Emanuel made it clear he had talked to Evans and told her that she had “some work to do because I respect the principle of what the aldermen were saying and see that principle and that value.”

During Monday’s hearing, aldermen also held Evans feet to the fire on allegations of $1.2 million in “wage theft” from hundreds of airport employees who draw their paychecks from private contractors.

The alleged “theft” by private contractors includes everything from failing to make up the difference for tipped employees whose gratuities leave them short of the city’s minimum wage to failing to pay employees who work through their lunch breaks and before and after their regular shifts.

“As a city, we need to hold a moral high-ground and not say, `We are third removed. We don’t have the authority.’ When you go back and renegotiate these contracts, know that we’re going to look at that. And you need to lead,” Ald. John Arena (45th) told Evans.