Four months of hearings into charges of racial discrimination in Washington's fire department ended yesterday with both sides expressing doubts about whether the proceedings have accomplished anything.
Hearing examiner Patrick Kelly said it will be about 20 days before he issues a decision on the discrimination complaint. The mayor and fire chief, however, have announced plans to proceed with long-frozen hirings and promotions at the department without waiting for Kelly's ruling.
"We've spent four months in these hearings that we didn't want in the first place," said attorney Joan Burt, representing the Progressive Fire Fighters and the Black Fire Officers--the two groups of firefighters who filed the original complaint alleging discrimination with the D.C. Office of Human Rights.
"We're angry," Burt said, "because the mayor has circumvented the whole process by ordering the hiring and promotions to take place irrespective of the findings of this hearing."
At the same time, representatives of the predominantly white International Association of Fire Fighters Local 36 said that the black firefighters had failed to prove their case through the series of nearly 50 hearing sessions.
"We contend that the black firefighters did not prove discrimination," said attorney Jeremiah Collins, who represented Local 36. "There is no evidence that bears in any way . . . on proving that there has been discrimination in promotions or hiring."
The black firefighters have argued that city law requires positions within the fire department, which is about 35 percent black, to reflect the racial balance of the city, which is about 70 percent black. City law requires that in every agency "all salary and wage levels and scales" be filled according to the racial makeup of the city.
Last November, the city's Office of Human Rights ordered city personnel director Jose Gutierrez to fill 60 of 70 then-vacant fire department positions with blacks. Gutierrez demanded a hearing, and agreed to freeze hiring and promotions until a decision was presented by the hearing examiner.
However, he recently said the hearing has lasted too long, and he advised Mayor Marion S. Barry to hire 88 new firefighters by April 12.
A spokesperson for Acting Fire Chief Theodore R. Coleman said that Coleman "does not plan to wait for the hearing examiner to give a decision on the discrimination allegations. The hearing has nothing to do with his plans."