640-pound contractor fights for minority certification

September 24, 1990|By Michael K. Burns

Donald E. Keister says his physical disability is apparent to everyone except Baltimore's Minority Business Enterprise office.

The 640-pound Baltimore contractor, whose medical condition is diagnosed as morbid obesity, claims that the city illegally refuses to certify him as a minority contractor to make him eligible for preferred status in bidding for city housing rehabilitation projects.

"The city won't even let me apply for minority certification, because I am not black or another racial minority," said the 30-year-old owner of Investors Restoration & Maintenance Association Inc.

"The Americans with Disabilities Act says that I am a minority, the state says I am a minority, and every county I've applied to has said the same thing," Mr. Keister stated.

"The city is discriminating against disabled people," he said.

Mr. Keister sent a letter to the city's lawyers this week threatening suit unless Baltimore recognizes disabled persons as eligible for the minority contractor status.

Under the city minority business program, from 15 percent to 25 percent of the work on municipal contracts is set aside for businesses owned by qualified racial minorities and women.

Because of the law, many general contractors virtually insist on using minority-owned firms as subcontractors for these projects, Mr. Keister said.

He claims to have lost one lead-paint testing and removal job on a city project when the contractor found that his state minority certification was not valid in Baltimore.

The state Minority Business Enterprise Certification Council certified him as a disabled minority contractor in 1989, and several counties promptly followed suit, Mr. Keister said. The state Transportation Department certified him as a minority business operator last month, he added.

"The Americans with Disabilities Act [enacted this year] prohibits discrimination against disabled persons and recognizes that they have been victims of discrimination in the past," Mr. Keister said. The law also incorporates portions of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which provides for assistance to minorities that have been discriminated against, he said.

Mr. Keister maintained that, twice within the past week, he attempted to apply for minority certification with the city and was refused an application form.

A spokesman for the city explained that the Baltimore ordinance for minority business enterprise status applies only to firms owned by members of racial or ethnic minorities or women. It does not include handicapped persons and is designed as an affirmative action program to assist groups with a history of past discrimination, said Clint Coleman, the mayor's spokesman.

The ordinance is under review to bring it into conformance with recent judicial decisions, but no amendment has been formally drafted, Mr. Coleman said.

Mr. Keister's company, which has six employees and uses about 60 subcontractors, specializes in lead-paint testing and removal, but it also does general contracting and consulting work. It is property manager for the Maryland Stadium Authority's projects at Camden Yards, Mr. Keister added.

But the company wants work on the city's extensive housing rehabilitation projects, he said.

"Because of my medical disability, I'm basically unemployable," Mr. Keister said. "I either do this or go on Social Security. I'm physically handicapped, but my mind is not."

Because of his weight, he cannot himself go to job sites and must rely on managing employees from his office, which contains special chairs and equipment to sustain his weight, he explained.

"I went to houses years ago and would fall right through the wooden steps, because they couldn't support my weight," Mr. Keister said. "It costs me a lot more money to run my business because of my condition. . . . I'm fortunate to have real good people working for me."

A successful businessman since he ran a food store while in high school in Ellicott City, Mr. Keister said he first thought about his minority status claim two years ago, when he was filling out forms to qualify several of his black subcontractors for the certification.

"I looked at the forms and thought the minority language would include me," he said. Enactment of the federal disabled discrimination act reinforced his determination to pursue his claim with the city, he said.

"I don't have any reservations about fighting the city," Mr. Keister said. "It's a matter of principle."

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