The Montgomery County Council Tuesday introduced an emergency bill that could double the amount of county contract awards to firms owned by minorities and women.
A bill that would end "blind bidding" for movies and enable county theater officials to see films before deciding whether to purchase binding exhibition rights also was introduced by the council amid speculation that the motion picture industry would protest such a change.
The measure that, if enacted, would benefit women- and minority-owned firms was originally requested by County Executive Charles W. Gilchrist last September. Currently, smaller, less financially viable firms are not required to enter into the county's formal competitive bidding process for contracts below a $3,000 value.
Gilchrist argued then that the limit should be raised to $7,000 because "inflation and the growth of the county" requires use of the formal bidding process too frequently under the $3,000 limit. He also recommended that the $7,000 limit be raised annually until it reaches a maximum of $10,000.
Such a move would "contribute materially to the establishment of a viable minority procurement and small business program" by the county, Gilchrist said.
Gilchrist's arguments were based partially on the fact that Maryland already has raised its informal bid limit from $5,000 to $7,500, while the federal government has established a similar $10,000 limit.
Council members David Scull, Esther Gelman and Michael Gudis want the county's proposed bill to do more. They introduced amendments that would require that least 10 percent of county contracts and subcontracts to be awarded "to competent minority businesses. . . ."
Their amendments also would allow suspension of the competitive bidding process for contracts greater than $7,000 in value provided a minority- or women-owned firm comes within 20 percent of the lowest bid.
Council member David Scull, who as a state delegate was one of the principal authors of a similar law affecting state agencies, said he believed that the suspensions would be rare, and added that minority- and women-owned firms have "suffered from being new and too small to compete."
In a worst-case scenario, the program would cost the county $1.3 million, according to the county's finance department. Currently, minority- and women-owned firms account for about 5 percent of county contract awards.
On other fronts, Rockville Republican Joseph E. O'Brien, an attorney, won a 4-to-3 vote by the council to replace Marjorie Sonnenfeldt as chairman of Board of Appeals. Sonnenfeldt is leaving the board to pursue full time her job as director of international government affairs for the public relations firm of Hill and Knowlton Inc.
The Board of Appeals has five members, meets one day a week, and pays its members more than $8,000 a year. Selecting its members is among the council's most important appointments.
Specifically, the board can award licenses and special exceptions and give variances in land use cases and is empowered to hear and decide a variety of appeals.
O'Brien, who was endorsed by council member Rose Crenca, won the chairmanship, defeating Gelman's nominee, liberal Democrat Doris Lipschitz. As recently as Monday night, Lipschitz supporters thought they had the votes to make her chairman.
Crenca, dismissing concern that she was siding with the Republican Party, fought a losing effort to keep Lipschitz from being reappointed to a third term as a board member. Harry Leet, chief counsel for the National Labor Relations Board, was elected, upon Gelman's nomination, to finish the unexpired part of Sonnenfeldt's term.
Gelman also introduced the bill that, if enacted, would "establish fair and open procedures for the bidding and negotiations for the right to exhibit motion pictures within the county. . . ." Prince George's County already has passed a similar law.
According to their attorney, Harry W. Lerch, theater owners are tired of being shackled into bidding for unseen, unreviewed films that they must pay as much as $60,000 and show for a predetermined number of weeks, no matter how bad the movie might be.
Said Gelman, the bill's sponsor, "I'm not advocating censorship, but these people have to show whatever garbage Hollywood puts out without ever getting a chance to see the movie first and then decide."