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RACIAL ISSUE RAISED OVER PLANS FOR YOUTH PRISON

Plans for a new Youth Detention Center in Erie County are stalled because county officials cannot agree on who should build it, and the argument is now bringing up allegations of racial bias.

County Executive Joel A. Giambra wants to hire a California firm, ranked first in the nation for building youth prisons, to do the job.

But some Democrats in the County Legislature, including Legislator George A. Holt Jr., D-Buffalo, want to see the detention center built by Robert T. Coles, a Buffalo architect who is African-American.

Holt is alleging that Giambra's refusal to hire Coles, who worked on plans for the project in the Democratic administration of then-County Executive Dennis T. Gorski, is part of a larger pattern of anti-black bias in Giambra's Republican administration.

"They need to wake up," said Holt, who is African-American. "Be fair. Don't think African-Americans can only work on social services programs. Don't lock us out."

Holt said the Giambra administration is not hiring minority firms to do bond counsel work and is not appointing blacks to county jobs where they will have decision-making powers. Holt said the Giambra administration also botched the situation earlier this year when Youth Commissioner James B. Ward Jr., an African-American, was found to have taken unemployment benefits while he was working in a previous job. Ward resigned under pressure.

Holt tabled the detention center plan in his Social Services Committee on Thursday.

Giambra expressed frustration at the delay and at the allegations of anti-black bias, which he called blatantly untrue.

"It's unfortunate that Mr. Holt would say this without having a discussion with me," Giambra said. "We will not just give out work because of racial considerations. That's intolerable."

Giambra said the delay threatens the state funding that the county receives to care for the 8- to 15-year-old delinquents and offenders housed in the East Ferry Street facility.

Currently, the detention center is overcrowded, badly heated and decrepit. The state has pulled its accreditation, and the county now keeps the site open on a month-to-month permit.

Maria C. Lehman, county commissioner of public works, said that local firms will do 70 percent of work and that minority firms will do 14 percent of work on the design phase of the detention center project. DMGM, the California firm, is overseeing the project but will largely use local small businesses to do the work, she said.

The selection process for the project was open to everyone, and Coles' firm submitted a proposal but was not chosen for the shortlist of five firms, Lehman said.

"These allegations (of bias) really bother me, because I myself have been discriminated against in my career. I'm a woman in a profession where only 4 percent of management positions are held by women," said Lehman, who is the county's first female public works commissioner. "A lot of teams did not make the cut (for the project). This is just sour grapes."

Coles attended Thursday's committee meeting but did not speak. In previous letters to the Legislature, however, Coles has made it clear that he wants to build the detention center and thinks that he is being treated unfairly.

"I know that as an African-American architect I could bring a unique sensitivity to the project that my majority colleagues could not, in developing this facility that would be hospitable to the clients, and sensitive to the concerns of the inner-city community, less than a dozen blocks from where I live," Coles wrote in a letter to the Legislature.

Coles has built large local projects, including the swimming arena at the University at Buffalo. His firm is currently working on a new branch library at Jefferson Avenue and Utica Street for the Buffalo & Erie County Public Library.

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