The District of Columbia's personnel director has asked his bosses to suspend a directive to the Fire Department that 60 of the next 70 firefighters be minorities and request the city's human rights director to hold a full hearing into the merits of the politically sensitive issue.
Jose Gutierrez, the personnel director, sent his request to City Administrator Elijah B. Rogers, who notified Mayor Marion Barry yesterday that he could not decide the issue because of his own peripheral involvement in the case.
Before leaving Washington for the Labor Day weekend, Barry directed E. Veronica Pace, special assistant to Rogers, to decide whether the hiring order by Human Rights Director Anita B. Shelton should be enforced or whether a hearing should be held.
The issue creates a potentially vexing political problem for Barry, since a high-ranking member of his administration has now put himself in the position of publicly questioning the way another Barry appointee handled a sensitive and controversial racial issue.
Depending upon the outcome, Barry could find himself in the position of being a black mayor in a city with a 70 percent black population contending that an affirmative action ruling had gone too far.
Shelton last week ordered the city government to fill 60 of 70 available firefighting jobs with members of minority groups and to develop an affirmative action plan to give minorities "preference in all new hiring and promotions" until the proportion of minorities in the D.C. Fire Department mirrors their 70 percent proportion in the city.
Minorities now make up about 31 percent of the department's uniformed personnel.
Shelton did not hold a hearing on the case before issuing her ruling. Rather, she read a complaint from the predominantly black Progressive Firefighters Association charging racial imbalance in the Fire Department and the city's response, and then issued a summary judgment.
Gutierrez could not be reached yesterday, but his staff director, Robert Storey, said the request for a hearing did not reflect dissatisfaction with the thrust of the Shelton order.
"It is not on the merits of the issue. We feel the issue is so important it should be heard in depth," Storey said.
He said the personnel office had been asked to provide factual information but was not given any opportunity to make a recommendation to Shelton.
It was not known yesterday whether Gutierrez conferred with his superiors before filing his request for a hearing.
Rogers said he "recused" himself, a phrase used by administrators and judges to step aside from cases involving personal or professional conflict. Rogers explained that he was named a "respondent" in the case by the black firefighters, as were Gutierrez and Fire Chief Norman C. Richardson.
Everyone publicly involved in the case and its handling is black except Gutierrez, who is Hispanic. Because of early departures for the long weekend, none but Rogers could be reached for comment.
Shelton, explaining her order when it was issued, said it mandates that the 60 minority firefighters be chosen from a pool of 958 persons who passed an entrance examination last November. Although 76 percent of those who qualified are black, most top scorers are white.
The affirmative action plan she ordered would mandate preferences for minorities until "traditional patterns of segregation" in the Fire Department are eliminated, until "minorities are no longer underrepresented at all grade levels" and until the percentage of minorities in the department approximates that of the "available work force of the District of Columbia."