"When a group of black-owned contractors sued local governments two weeks ago for discrimination in awarding government business, the contractors' attorney began a two-front campaign aimed not only at the federal courts but also the court of public opinion.
By last week, St. Louis attorney Eric E. Vickers had opened the second front against defendants Orange County and the Orange County School Board.
Members of the Florida Association of Minority Contractors and their supporters took to the streets in a protest march from the county administration building to Orlando's City Hall charging economic racism. And they promised more protest marches and new lawsuits.
Business litigation rarely spills out onto public streets. ''But unusual cases make for unusual circumstances,'' said Matthew G. Brenner, a partner at Orlando's Lowndes, Drosdick, Doster, Kantor & Reed.
''Most business litigation is just about dollar signs,'' Brenner said.
Vickers is seeking more business dollars for his clients. But his suit is also about economic justice, he said.
Vickers is following a strategy he used successfully in St. Louis and West Palm Beach to bring governments to the negotiating table through legal and public pressure.
''Basically, public entities respond when public pressure is put on them,'' Vickers said last week. Protests are designed to bring community pressure on government defendants, he said.
In May 1991 Vickers sued Palm Beach County on behalf of the Minority Contractors Association of Palm Beach County.
The organization charged Palm Beach County had delayed enacting a new minority business ordinance after conducting a disparity study showing the county underused minority contractors.
By August 1991, the dispute had spread to county construction projects.
Palm Beach County officials closed a $124 million courthouse construction project for one day to avoid workers confronting about 300 minority contractors and their supporters protesting the county's minority business enterprise program.
''We have given them a victory and allowed them to focus attention on their issues,'' said County Administrator Jan Winters the day after the shutdown.
In April, Palm Beach County settled Vickers' suit, paying $170,000 and agreeing to let a local minority business development agency coordinate county contracts to minority contractors on several county construction projects.
Vickers first learned the power of protest in the streets of St. Louis.
There he represented the 400-member St. Louis Minority Contractors Association Inc. Beginning in 1988, Vickers repeatedly sued the city of St. Louis and St. Louis County agencies to increase the percentage of government business going to minority contractors.
Those legal disputes also spread to the streets in peaceful demonstrations - and at times civil disobedience.
For example, in March 1990 the group staged a sit-in at an old General Motors Corp. plant in a black neighborhood of northwest St. Louis. The city was renovatingthe plant as an industrial office park.
A group of 60 minority contractors and supporters gathered at the plant to protest what they called the the insufficient number of minorities employed on the $120 million rehab project.
About 15 members including Vickers blocked an entrance to the plant and were arrested.
Vickers' choice of the plant renovating as a target proved controversial in the black community.
City Alderman JoAnne Wayne, who represents the neighborhood where the industrial center is located, showed up at the protest and spoke out against the demonstrators.
''As far as the demonstration Vickers did at Union 70 Industrial Center (the former G.M. plant), it was done unjustly,'' Wayne said last week. ''The contractor renovating the plant complied with minority regulations better than any other company in the city.''
Vickers disagreed with Wayne that the contractor was complying with all minority business rules.
The Florida Minority Contractor's decision to sue Orange County government agencies and demonstrate against their minority business enterprise programs has also proved controversial.
''I feel the county has made an effort to do something,'' said Derrick Wallace, owner of Construct Two Construction Managers Inc. of Orlando.
Orange County and the school board, among other government agencies, released a study in February examining problems in its efforts to promote minority business development. The two agencies were changing minority business policies and the county's minority business enterprise ordinance when the contractors filed suit.
Wallace, a black general contractor, said he resigned as a board member of the Florida Contractor's Association because he disagreed with its decision to bring the lawsuits.
W. Lloyd Bridge, the contractor association's president, denied that Wallace resigned for that reason. He said Wallace left because the association would not take a position on the recent award of the county courthouse's construction contract.
Meanwhile, Bridge said last week's peaceful demonstration was just the beginning. The association also will consider stopping work at a city or county construction project, he said.
''If the county won't talk we'll take it up a notch higher, and a notch higher, until we're either in court, or at the table settling this matter,'' he said". Courtesy of Orlando Sentinel.