Board’s friendly sheriff

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Ernest Williams makes himself a friendly presence on the construction site he’s visiting this morning. To most of the guys—and they’re mostly guys—he delivers a hearty “How ya doin’?” or “Hey, man!” He makes eye contact with everyone. He waves. To one acquaintance, he gives a quick black-power salute.

A lot of the workers and supervisors recognize Williams by his trademark: a hard-hat in the shape of a sheriff’s Stetson.

For Williams, the amiable persona is a tool of the trade: gathering information from a wide variety of people on work sites to make sure contracting firms are following through on promises to hire minority and women workers and to subcontract with minority-owned and woman-owned firms. If he finds that the promises aren’t being kept, the contractors can lose business or lose money outright. The more amicable his relationships, he figures, the easier it will be to get information.

The unannounced visits Williams pays to school construction sites are at the heart of the School Board’s affirmative action program. He and a colleague make separate rounds, visiting about 20 sites a week between them.

At every site, they meet the construction manager, ask what companies have sent workers that day, then walk through the site. Williams talks with about a quarter of the workers on a site, and keeps a rough count in his head of how many minorities and women he sees. When he does stop to talk, he gets workers’ names, makes sure he knows what trade they’re working and at what rate of pay. He often asks what company hired them. Later, when the contractors submit certified payrolls, Williams spot-checks them to make sure that the right names show up in the right places.

He readily admits that there should be more than two compliance officers making the rounds, but he says that this is par for the course on big construction projects. “This program we have is not perfect, but it is one of the best that I have seen,” says Williams, who worked on affirmative action projects with the Chicago Urban League for over a decade.”I’m not saying that stuff doesn’t ever get through, but just by spot checking, you can find out a lot.”