Solid Waste Authority of PBC made history by approving the Equal Business Opportunity Policies and Procedures, and amendments to the Purchasing Manual.

Palm Beach County commissioners voted Wednesday to re-establish race- and gender-conscious assistance programs for the Solid Waste Authority, pleasing women and minority business owners who complained they have been largely shut out of contract opportunities.

The 5-2 vote capped a racially divisive debate and offered a possible preview of discussions commissioners are expected to have this fall, when they consider whether to re-establish race- and gender-conscious assistance programs for the county as a whole.

“This is really historic,” Commissioner Mack Bernard said of Wednesday’s vote.

Bernard, the county’s lone black commissioner and chairman of the authority’s governing board, had pushed for the completion of studies reviewing county contracting practices. Those studies showed businesses owned by blacks and women got fewer and less lucrative government contracts in recent years than their proportional presence in the market suggested they should have received.

He said he thought of his three daughters as he pressed a debate that exposed deep fissures in the county’s business and political communities.

“I shouldn’t be in this position at all if I’m not advocating for them,” Bernard said.

The authority is poised to award $450 million in hauling contracts in February, raising the stakes in the debate over whether race- and gender-conscious assistance programs should be reinstated. Bids for those contracts are due in September.

Commissioners Steven Abrams and Hal Valeche expressed concerns about the study results throughout the debate. On Wednesday, both voted against bringing back the types of race- and gender-conscious programs the authority ended in 2012 when the agency moved to a small business assistance program.

For Abrams, the primary issue was cost.

To give the authority time to restore assistance programs, commissioners voted in December to extend the contracts of the county’s current haulers for a year. The move will cost taxpayers an additional $7.5 million in fees.

That cost — and the firms winning contracts without being the lowest bidder — worried some commissioners.

“We proceeded without a full understanding of the cost of the program,” Abrams said after Wednesday’s vote.

Valeche was displeased that the study’s author, Mason Tillman Associates of California, refused to share with the authority details on how it calculated the number of women- and minority-owned firms available to take on contracts. That figure was a key factor in determining whether and how much women and minority firms were underutilized.

The Florida East Coast chapter of the Associated General Contractors, a large construction trade group that has opposed race- and gender-conscious assistance programs, sought that information through a public records request. Saying it was proprietary data, Mason Tillman refused to provide the information sought by AGC.

“The data was not verified,” Valeche said Wednesday. “It was not made available to us. We implemented a very disruptive program based on data that could be bogus. If we’re sued, we have to rely on that data in court.”

Supporters of the study argued that the fight over data was simply an effort to block re-establishment of race- and gender-conscious assistance programs. Backers made the same argument about the possibility, raised by an attorney for AGC, that commissioners could be held personally liable if they voted to return to the assistance programs in the face of warnings that they might be unconstitutional.

A consultant for the authority and the county, Maryland attorney Franklin Lee, reviewed the study and vouched for its methodology. Lee then suggested the authority attempt to close the disparities identified by the study through assistance programs that would be race- and gender-conscious or race- and gender-neutral, depending on market conditions.

As was the case during a tense meeting on June 13, black and female business owners pleaded with commissioners to accept the study’s findings and implement assistance programs.

Ann McNeill, founder of the National Association of Black Women in Construction, said AGC isn’t the only organization capable of suing the county.

“We still stand able to pursue legal action to protect our rights,” she told commissioners. “I’m standing here today for the voiceless. I stand here representing all of the black businesses in this county who don’t have a voice like the AGC. It’s very unfortunate that we can pay taxes but we can’t participate.”

Michelle Anaya DePotter, chief executive officer of the AGC’s Florida East Coast chapter, decried the divisive tone of the discussion.

“It sickens me the divide that’s going on in this community,” she said, adding that coverage in The Palm Beach Post was intended to “sensationalize” the issue.

Commissioners, again meeting as the Solid Waste Authority’s governing board, will get an update on July 18 on how race- and gender-conscious goals will affect the $450 million hauling contracts.

The same battle lines are likely to be drawn this fall when commissioners consider whether to use race- and gender-conscious goals in contracts awarded by the county.

While the hauling contracts serve as tantalizing targets for businesses, the prospect of getting more and bigger pieces of county contracts is even more alluring now that voters have approved a one-cent increase in the sales tax.

That tax increase, which went into effect in 2017, is expected to generate $2.7 billion, with the county getting 30 percent of that money to pay for improvements to roads, bridges and county buildings.

All of that work means more contracts, more opportunities for businesses and, potentially, more elbowing for space at the trough.

“The discussions will probably be even more heated because there’s more at stake,” Bernard said.