Rep. Stan Parris (R-Va.) asked the Justice Department yesterday to review the legality of a directive that would force the District of Columbia to hire minority applicants for 60 of 70 available firefighting jobs.
Parris, the second-ranking Republican on the House District Committee, said he also is considering a budget maneuver that would deny city officials the money to fill the Fire Department vacancies unless they decide against imposing what he called "arbitrary quotas."
"We've got a black mayor and a black City Council in a predominantly black city applying a discriminatory practice against the minority, who are now the whites," Parris said in his Capitol Hill office. "Firefighters have told me they don't want to find themselves on the streets of this city with a partner who's not really qualified to be there."
Parris' remarks drew a sharp rejoinder from Mayor Marion Barry, who said he planned to call Parris about the matter. "I had thought that Mr. Parris and I had an understanding that before he would make these statements, sometimes uninformed, he would discuss them with me," Barry said.
The controversy began two weeks ago when Anita B. Shelton, director of the D.C. Office of Human Rights, issued the minority hiring plan in response to a complaint from two unions that represent the city's black firefighters. The 60 minority firefighters would be chosen from a pool of 958 applicants who passed an entrance examination last fall, a procedure that would all but negate the fact that most of the top scorers are white. The 1,410-member Fire Department is 63 percent white in a city whose white population is 30 percent.
Parris said Shelton's approach amounts to reverse discrimination against the white applicants, and he criticized Shelton for making the ruling without holding a formal hearing. In his letter to Attorney General William French Smith, the congressman said he is "greatly concerned that this order may have exceeded the legal requirements" of the 1964 Civil Rights Act.
"What the D.C. government is really saying is that a person with a degree in public safety could be excluded in favor of someone with a high school diploma merely through the luck of the draw," Parris said.
Shelton said yesterday that her office has closely adhered to federal standards, that her decision relied on legal precedents and is "very sound." She said the directive was based on an 11-month investigation by her staff that included a fact-finding conference and repeated requests for information.
An aide to Shelton added that her directive still will not redress the department's longstanding racial imbalance.
Parris first intervened in the dispute last April after the city offered firefighting jobs to the 24 applicants with the highest exam scores, and then withdrew the offers when it became known that all but one of them were white. Under pressure from Parris, the mayor agreed to hire the 24 -- several of whom live in Parris' Virginia district -- but slapped a temporary freeze on further hiring.
Parris sidestepped several questions on how he would deal with the department's imbalance without resorting to some sort of affirmative action hiring plan. He also criticized Barry's recent decision to lower the passing test score for the city's Police Department in an effort to recruit more minority officers.
Parris was accompanied by Kenneth Cox, vice president of Local 36 of the International Association of Firefighters, a predominantly white union. He said the department's entrance exam was specifically developed by the federal Office of Personnel Management as a nondiscriminatory screening device.
"Morally, it's wrong; legally, the mayor has exceeded his authority, and politically, he's incurred the wrath of just about everyone," Cox said.
The dispute has created a ticklish problem for Barry, who declined to discuss Shelton's directive yesterday, saying he might eventually have to hear an appeal of the case. The appeal was initiated by Barry's personnel director, Jose Gutierrez, who said only that the dispute should have a full hearing to "let everybody look at the facts."
Parris acknowledged that it might be difficult to bar the District from hiring the minority firefighters because he would have to attach such an amendment to an appropriations bill on the floor of the House.