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By Khaled Dawoud
San Francisco Chronicle
Friday, July 2, 1999

A San Francisco supervisors' committee voted yesterday to make the long list of minority groups who get preferences for San Francisco city contracts a little longer by adding Iranian Americans to those eligible for a leg up.

The words affirmative action are never used at City Hall these days, because most such government practices are illegal in California since the passage of Proposition 209 in 1996. And as they did yesterday, the supervisors acted only after a city Human Rights Commission study showed that ethnic Iranians are underrepresented in city contracting and have suffered discrimination.

By being covered under the law, the Iranian Americans, who also call themselves Persian Americans, after the traditional name for Iran, would get preferences in city contracts for supplies, services, consulting and for subcontracts on big projects.

"It is not in the purview of this committee to legislate an end to discrimination," said Supervisor Mark Leno as the Small Business, Economic Vitality and Consumer Services Committee passed the expansion of the preference law. "But we can level the playing field." Before voting, the committee heard testimony from Iranian American businesspeople who said they suffer from bias.

Although many of them are refugees from the fundamentalist Muslim regime in Tehran that the U.S. government has repeatedly tagged as terrorist, the local Persians feel people see them as terrorists. Many people also mistake them for Arab Americans, a ethnically separate group that is already covered by the local preferences.

Mehrdad Javaherian, who operates a small environmental consulting firm, said the mistaking of Iranians for Arabs hurts him in trying to get business with the city. "I have been approached by large companies who think not only can I do the work but I can also help them fulfill the city's minority contracting requirements," Javaherian said. "So at the last minute they exclude me because they find out I am not an Arab, so I can't help them."

The commission study found more than 70 Iranian American businesses in the city. They got 0.002 percent, or $468,525, of the $2.3 billion in contracts awarded by the city in fiscal 1996-97, it reported. The full board will vote on the legislation, sponsored by Supervisor Amos Brown, at its meeting Tuesday.

If the Persians are added, they will join Asian Americans, Pacific Islanders, Chinese Americans, Japanese Americans, Southeast Asians, Korean Americans, Filipinos, Asian Indians, African Americans, Latinos, Arab Americans, Native Americans, nonminority women and locally owned businesses in getting preference points when bidding on city work. In all, 1,663 firms have been certified to be eligible for preference.

K.S. Jahan Giri of the Alliance Against Defamation of Iranians said San Francisco's pending legislation is the first of its kind to protect Persian Americans. But he said his group and others are working to be recognized by other cities and states. He estimated that there are up to 1 million Iranian Americans, with the largest concentration, about 300,000, in the Los Angeles area. Giri estimated there are about 100,000 in the Bay Area, congregated mainly around San Jose.

He put San Francisco's Persian population at about 10,000. The city's preference system, extended for five years last autumn, has withstood two legal challenges since Prop 209 passed, the city attorney's office said yesterday.


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