District of Columbia city officials acknowledged yesterday that they retracted job offers made last month to 24 potential firefighters because 76 percent of all those who qualified for the jobs were black but most of those offered jobs -- 23 of the 24, according to union officials -- were white.
Jose Gutierrez, acting director of the D.C. Office of Personnel, said yesterday that the 24 persons contacted on March 15 inadvertently were offered jobs by a low level office clerk, who was only supposed to ask the applicants if they still were available for city positions in the future.
Gutierrez said that when he discovered the error, he was prepared to let it pass unnoticed, until he found out that most of the 24 persons -- he declined to say exactly how many -- were white.
The city retracted the job offers to all 24 persons on April 1, an action that drew criticism from the applicants -- some of whom quit previous jobs -- from officials of the union that represents the fireman and from Rep. Stanford Parris (R-Va.), a member of the House District Committee. Eight of the affected applicants live in Parris' congressional district, which includes Alexandria, southern Fairfax County and Prince William County.
According to Parris and union president Bill Mould, 22 of the 24 persons offered jobs were white males, one was a white female, and one was black.
The 24 names were drawn from a list of 100 persons on a computer printout. Gutierrez said he did not know how the computer chose the names. But, he said, 72 of those 100 were white. Because of that, Gutierrez said yesterday, he has decided to postpone for at least two months any hiring based on the exam. A total of 948 persons passed the exam.
"Out of this group of the first 100, there were more whites than blacks." Gutierrez said. "I am not going to sit here and allow an instrument that discriminates against minorities to be utilized."
Gutierrez said that he did not know for sure whether those first 100 names were indeed the top 100 scorers on the examination. About 950 persons passed the exam, and the city plans to hire 85 as soon as possible in groups of 24 -- the maximum number of persons the city's fire training academy can handle in one class.
Gutierrez said that an independent psychologist in New York who is an expert on standarized tests has been asked to review the exam to see if it is biased against blacks.
If the test is found to discriminate against blacks, that would pose a whole new set of difficulties.
In the past, the city has filled vacant positions in the department primarily on the basis of civil service rank, principally using the score on the firefighters examination, which was administered by the federal government.
This year for the first time the city is obliged to comply with rigid federal antidiscrimination guidelines for state civil service examinations.
If the examination is found to be discriminatory, the jobs would have to be filled in another way -- perhaps through use of a more random selection system, he said. But he carefully refrained from using the word "lottery" -- a system of selection that earlier had been criticized by the firefighters' union and others.
At a meeting yesterday of the House District Committee, which was discussing city financial matters, Parris, the second-ranking Republican, criticized Mayor Marion Barry for what Parris said amounted to breaking a contract made with the 24 applicants and for suggesting that the city instead use a lottery system for filling the fire department vacancies.
"There was only one black person and one female and apparently the administration didn't like that," Parris said in a telephone interview later. "What is being done to these 24 people is just plain wrong.
"The top people should be hired -- period. You take the top people, regardless of race, creed, color or national origin. The inequities are perfectly clear here -- never mind the legality."
Barry declined to comment on the statement by Parris. Del. Walter E. Fauntroy (D-D.C.) implicity agreed with some of the criticism by saying he was opposed to lotteries, and committee chairman Ronald V. Dellums (D-Calif.) referred to the action involving the 24 as an injustice.