A District of Columbia special examiner yesterday temporarily blocked implementation of a directive that would force the Fire Department to fill 60 of 70 available jobs with minority applicants.
Veronica Pace, an aide to the city administrator, also ordered the Office of Human Rights, whose director issued the directive, to hold a full public hearing on the issue before drafting a new directive.
The ruling contended that the directive, written by Human Rights Director Anita B. Shelton, failed to document adequately its conclusion that the Fire Department had systematically engaged in discriminatory practices in the filling of job vacancies.
Pace's ruling represents a major victory for the city's mostly white firefighters union, which angrily charged that the Shelton order was tantamount to "reverse discrimination" and would lead to the hiring of scores of unqualified applicants. Following the firefighter protests, the directive was appealed by city Personnel Director Jose Gutierrez on the grounds that the facts had not been "heard in depth."
The controversy was further fueled by U.S. Rep. Stan Parris (R-Va.) who last week asked the Justice Department to intervene and threatened a budget maneuver on Capitol Hill that could deny the city money to fill the vacancies if it proceeded with what he called "arbitrary quotas."
Pace's ruling in effect postpones the minority hiring plan from taking effect for about two months. Under Shelton's Aug. 24 directive, the city would have had to hire the 60 minority applicants immediately and develop an affirmative action plan that gives minorities "preference in all new hiring and promotions." Under Pace's ruling, however, a public hearing must be held within 30 days and a new decision must be reached 30 days after that.
Joan A. Burt, a lawyer representing two groups of black firefighters who brought the suit, charged that Pace's ruling would mean an unnecessary and costly delay. She said that she had already formally asked Pace to reconsider her order.
"It's a waste of the District's money to hold a public hearing at this point," Burt said. "It's only going to delay the entire process. But we don't consider this is going to work to our disadvantage becasue the facts aren't going to change."
Shelton declined to comment on the ruling yesterday, saying through a spokesman that she had not yet time to review it.
In issuing her directive last month, Shelton ordered that the 60 minority firefighters 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. She also ordered that the minority preference affirmative action plan remain in effect until "traditional patterns of racial segregation" in the department are eliminated and "minorities are no longer underrepresented at all grade levels."
As director of the Office of Human Rights, Shelton heads a mostly autonomous District agency that is charged with enforcing the city's human rights law. But in this case she was acting as the city's chief affirmative action officer. Her findings of systematic discrimination in the Fire Department were based primarily on statistical grounds. The 1,410-member Fire Department is 63 percent white while the city has a white population of only 30 percent.
But white firefighters challenged her assertion that statistical imbalance within the department meant there was hiring discrimination and Pace's ruling appears to accept their argument. It repeatedly requested that the Human Rights Office present specific evidence of discriminatory hiring.
Shelton's directive was originally appealed by Gutierrez to City Administrator Elijah B. Rogers. But Rogers said he could not rule in the case because he had been named as a defendant in the black firefighters' complaint of racial discrimination against the city. Rogers then appointed Pace, a member of his staff, to decide the issue.