Committee approves $800,000 punishment for contractor over racist displays, canceling 2 of 11 current contracts

MILWAUKEE — City officials said Thursday they're ready to accept a settlement with a controversial contractor tied to a pair of incidents in December. Under the deal, the American Sewer Services would forfeit a pair of its city contracts, costing it about $800,000.

At Thursday's meeting, the Common Council's Public Works Committee discussed possible sanctions against the Hartford-area contractor, which has been in the Common Council's crosshairs since a picture surfaced in early December showing three armed workers at a north side job site -- one brandishing his gun. A few days later, another picture appeared on social media showing a lunch box adorned with Confederate flag and Ku Klux Klan stickers.

The company responded by firing or laying off the workers involved in each incident.

Milwaukee Common Council Public Works Committee

Alderman Bob Donovan

Aldermen Bob Donovan and Mark Borkowski questioned whether the committee was being too strict as it weighed the possibilities to terminating all 11 of the company's open contracts or even banning the American Sewer from bidding on city jobs in the future.

"I'm reluctant to hold individuals and their families responsible for the actions of a few," said Donovan.

"You know what? (such photographs) should not be happening in our community. Now, to terminate, I think, is being a little too rash because I don’t know how much more blood we can get out of them," Borkowski said.

Other aldermen said it makes perfect sense to punish the company for the actions of its workers, citing the work the council does in other matters.

"When the License Committee has a business that their patronage is shooting, had a gunshot, or a fight, or someone's drunk in the bar, who do we hold accountable? The people or the business?" said Alderman Russell Stamper.

Making a deal

While Stamper is among the city officials who have said they want each of the company's 11 current city contracts terminated, the DPW Commissioner Ghassan Korban told the committee he has an agreement with American Sewer Services owner Dennis Biondich to cancel two of the contracts, which are worth a combined total of $800,000.

Korban explained only six of the contracts could reasonably be terminated without hurting the city; he said the other ones are for projects nearly completed and having to restart the bidding process would be a colossal headache for the city. Korban said the settlement would include the company agreeing to not sue the city.

"If I go through this process, (Biondich) will have to agree not to bid on those particular projects," Korban said.

Drama despite the deal

It was a compromise, but the conversation was still heated.

Alderman Nik Kovac

"The rhetoric we just heard from Alderman Borkowski and Alderman Donovan is symptomatic of a general sense of ignoring when possible and then immediately forgiving racism whenever it appears," Kovac said.

"That's a hell of an accusation fella!" Donovan interjected. "I'm extremely disappointed for a colleague to, basically, call me a racist."

Fireworks aside, the settlement moved forward.

"Wiser heads prevailed and we'll let the commissioner do his thing at this point," said Alderman Bob Bauman.

Bauman, who chairs the committee, said despite the settlement, he still plans to subpoena Biondich and have him testify at City Hall.