Members of the Howard County Human Rights Commission, saying they felt their work was being undermined, called on local elected officials last week to take a more active interest in racial issues after a dispute that has focused attention on some controversial views of two council members.

The commission said it was particularly concerned about comments by County Council members Charles Feaga and Angela Beltram after its recent inquiry into the council's hiring practices. Earlier this month, the commission sent a letter to the council saying the council had fallen behind on its affirmative action goals.

Feaga, a West Friendship Republican, has frequently stated that he believes discrimination is no longer an issue in Howard County, which has a black population of 14 percent. He added that therefore the county has no need for the commission or affirmative action. Beltram, while saying she supports the commission's activities in general, questioned its approach to the council office and suggested its time would be better spent looking elsewhere.

"I have a problem with the county council and their reaction to us doing our job," said commission member Roger Jones. "Our charge doesn't say, 'If you see discrimination occurring at the highest level of government -- stop.'

"I'm receiving mixed signals. On one hand, the county government is telling us that there is a public policy of eliminating discrimination . . . and yet we have one council member who doesn't believe in affirmative action and another who seems completely unaware of what we're doing."

In responding to the commission's concerns, Feaga, who is white, said, "I take offense when someone says that if they had two qualified people, they'd give the job to the black person. I've never seen two people who are equally qualified. You always have a preference. We're hurting ourselves. We should not have to lower our standards to make way for black people."

He continued: "I think bigotry is not dead in Howard County, but I think you see it practiced by the minorities more than the majority population."

Commission Chairman Thomas Hartman, referring to Feaga's comments, said, "I think it shows the failure of district elections. I think the comments {Feaga} made would not get him elected from several districts or even the county as a whole. I think he is probably representative of the district he got elected from."

Beltram, who is white, maintained that her quarrel had been with the commission's process.

"I don't like rhetorical questions in an inflammatory letter," she said. "They asked if we have an affirmative action plan when they know we do, and they didn't even look at it. If they want to talk to me, they can call me anytime."

She emphasized that according to an affirmative action plan prepared by the county personnel department, the council had met or exceeded its goals for all but one job category. That one, she said, was off by only one percentage point. She also faulted the commission for not counting a disabled staff member as a minority in its calculations.

"I don't think blacks are the only minorities in this county," she said. "Handicapped people have a bigger handicap than blacks in this community. I think we've done an excellent job."

While Feaga and Beltram were singled out for criticism, the three other council members and County Executive Elizabeth Bobo were not exempt. Although the commission agreed that it considered Bobo and council members C. Vernon Gray, Ruth Keeton and Shane Pendergrass to be allies, commissioner Rudolph C. Chapple said he was distressed by their low profiles during his recent legal wrangles with Circuit Court Clerk Merrit C. Pumphrey.

Last month, Pumphrey took Chapple to court for releasing public information about a possible investigation into Pumphrey's hiring practices. The case was dismissed by a District Court judge.

"If something happened that is contrary to the policies of this county, I would think our leaders would be out front saying, 'This is deplorable,' and 'We won't tolerate this sort of thing,' " Chapple said.

Hartman said he was disappointed by the county personnel director's recent decision to withdraw a controversial proposal that would have helped speed women and minorities through the ranks of the police department, even though the director's action had the backing of an organization representing minority police officers.

The commission's comments came at the end of a meeting in which County Council Chairman Keeton and the council's executive secretary, Robert Vogel, had appeared to respond to its letter. They told the commission that its information about the council's affirmative action record, which had put the number of minority employees at one out of 19, was incorrect because that number did not include two disabled staff members.

Counting those employees and two vacant positions that have since been filled, the council's actual record is three minorities out of 21 employees, Vogel said, adding that the relatively small size of his staff and its low turnover rate had made the council's record seem worse.

"If you have a staff of 20 people and you lose one {minority}, you look terrible," Vogel said. "If I hire one person, I look great."

The county personnel department is revising affirmative action goals for each government department to include a certain percentage of disabled persons. Responding to Vogel's remarks, Hartman said that did not excuse the council from meeting goals that had been established for racial minorities.

"Taking your position, you could meet all your goals with handicapped people and still end up with an office of all white men," he said.