Mayor Marion Barry presided over the swearing in of 58 new firefighters yesterday, with officials calling the hirings a stop-gap measure that temporarily leaves aside the question of whether strict affirmative action goals should be established within the fire department.
Sources said, however, that the city selected the hirees not strictly on the basis of test scores, but rather with an eye toward ensuring that about 65 percent of those chosen were black.
The D. C. Office of Human Rights ruled last fall that there had been a historic pattern of discrimination in the department, and ordered a far-reaching affirmative action plan designed to bring the racial balance of the fire department, now about 30 percent black, more in line with that of the work force of the city as a whole, which is nearly 70 percent black.
Four months of hearings were held on the discrimination issue, and a decision is expected from a city hearing examiner within the next 20 days. But Barry's chief personnel officer said yesterday that the city decided to go ahead with the hirings now because the department is understaffed and officers are becoming fatigued from having to work too much overtime.
Of the 58 men sworn in yesterday, 37 are black, 20 white and one Hispanic. Four women were offered jobs, but all declined, officials said. The Office of Human Rights had demanded in its earlier ruling that 60 of the next 70 vacant positions in the department be filled by blacks.
A source close to the personnel office said the decision was made that about 65 percent of the officers to be hired should be black. The source said the list of those to be offered jobs was not based strictly on test scores, but that instead some whites were passed over, with personnel officials citing affirmative action guidelines that have been ruled valid in other instances.
"They went down that list until they found the percentage of blacks they wanted to hire," the source said. "If it meant skipping over, which it did, they had the legal right to do it."
D. C. Government Personnel Director Jose Gutierrez said yesterday that race did play a role in the selection of the new firefighters but declined to specify how, calling the hirings a temporary solution rather than a statement of city policy. "The only thing I will say is that we have produced a list that is balanced according to the interests of all involved," he said. "I don't want to get into a debate about how the list was drawn."
William E. Mould, president of the predominately white International Association of Fire Fighters Local 36, said last night that the new hirees vary "from number two on the list according to test scores to about number 450."
Mould said, "A lot of whites have been skipped over. I'm upset about it. But the mayor has affirmative action commitments. He's trying to keep things on a percentage basis. We'll continue to monitor the hiring process."
Last year, Barry encountered strong criticism when he used a somewhat similar process to fill vacancies in the D.C. police department, disregarding test score rankings and selecting hirees by lot from a pool of those who had passed the entrance examination.
Gutierrez said he advised the mayor "to proceeed with the hirings because the hearing has taken too long and the public safety has been circumvented and we have had 88 empty positions within the fire department for several months."
"We balanced out the interests of the white community, the black community, the Hispanics, the Asians and the women," he said. "We don't expect everyone to be happy about it. Hopefully, people will say it was a Solomon-like decision."
He added, "We still haven't answered the big question of when should you arrive at a fire department that is reflective of the black community. We'll just have to wait for the hearings to conclude and be guided by the hearing examiner's decisions."
A list of 88 potential hirees was sent to Acting Fire Chief Theodore Coleman two weeks ago but 30 of them, including four women, turned down the job offers, Gutierrez said. Those 30 remaining vacant positions are scheduled to be filled in two weeks from a second list of 88 applicants.