One of the most experienced professional construction company owners in the region has filed suit against the prime contractor of the "big pipe" Balch Creek construction project, claiming breech of contract.
Vernell West says his lawsuit against James W. Fowler is also an indictment of the City of Portland's lack of commitment to helping minority contractors.
West says the Bureau of Environmental Services signed off on Fowler's decision to kill his $450,000 contract for minority recruitment and training, after West had drawn up a detailed plan for how the operations would be carried out, brought in local minority companies and trained them for the job.
Representatives for James W. Fowler did not return a call for comment at press time, but the company's website identifies itself as a member of OAME, with a record for minority subcontracting that is "one of the best in the industry."
Calls for comment from the city were not returned by presstime.
"Now what's important is that the preconstruction services were fine in such a way that I would have very little problem managing the construction end of things once the project started," West says.
"Fowler took that work and those firms that I groomed for the project, and are now using them without me involved."
Another minority firm has been hired to do the diversity consulting work – essentially using West's blueprint -- for less than one tenth of what West had been contracted to do, his lawsuit claims.
The City of Portland has a decades-long history of struggle around minority contracting issues and the difficulty of women and minority-owned businesses to win work contracts.
The Oregon Regional Consortium Disparity Study, published in the mid-1990s in more than 10 volumes, showed Black-owned businesses winning 14.14 percent of minority and women-owned construction subcontractor jobs from the City of Portland, which is itself a small fraction of all contracts awarded.
The Disparity Study's publication kicked off a wide-scale effort on the part of minority firms to change regional practices in awarding subcontracting jobs – an effort that continues to be fought, often job-by-job.
The Balch Creek construction represents the final phase of the 11-year, EPA-mandated sewage overflow-prevention infrastructure that started on the west side of Portland and is now commencing on the East side, with work to prevent the Columbia River from raw sewage.
West's contract was for recruiting minority construction companies and training them for the specific jobs available.
After being removed from the job, West says he didn't find out about the newly-hired minority firm brought in to do the work until very recently – and before they were hired, the lawsuit says the Fowler corporation had taken his plan and was administering it in-house.
The suit says he was never properly notified of the change in contract, and that when it was in the process of being changed no one from the city or Fowler called him in to renegotiate the job terms or the payment amount.
West says the prime contractor is set to make money by substituting a cheaper contractor to finish the balance of the work, charging that the prime contractor receives a fee of $12.4 million, and if it can get one job done for $39,000 instead of $450,000, then the company can keep the difference – it is not refunded to taxpayers or the city coffers.
"This work can't be done suitably for $39,000," West says.
"And so this is the real bottom line: Fowler gets this amount of money to do this work, and if they contract with you and then they pull your payments or whatever, and they say they're giving it to somebody else for a tenth of the money, they get to keep the difference don't they?"