C. Merritt Pumphrey will pass along more than the keys to the office when his successor is sworn in tomorrow as chief clerk of the Howard County Circuit Court. He also will pass along an agreement to hire more minorities in the clerk's office.

Pumphrey, a three-term Democrat, entered into the agreement with the state Human Relations Commission in 1988 in the wake of allegations that he was not employing enough blacks. Details of the pact have not been made public, although Pumphrey has said he agreed to fill half of the next 16 vacancies in the 37-member office with minorities. The office has 33 full-time employees.

At present, four minorities -- three full-time employees and one part-timer -- are on the staff, according to Pumphrey's successor, Margaret Rappaport.

Rappaport, a Republican who made Pumphrey's hiring practices a campaign issue, has pledged to hire at least enough minorities to match "the proportion of minorities in the {county} labor market."

"Hopefully, I'll do even better than that," she said.

Minorities account for 14 percent of the 93,900 people over age 16 who work in Howard County, according to state figures. They make up about 15 percent of the county's population of 181,800, according to preliminary 1990 U.S. Census statistics.

County personnel officials set targets for minority hiring that exceed the percentage of minorities in the county work force. They use a Baltimore-area standard that shows minorities making up about 21 percent of the work force.

The county's latest affirmative action monitoring report, conducted through Sept. 30, showed that about 21 percent of county government employees are minorities. A department-by-department breakdown showed that corrections, the county administrator's office and citizen services had the highest percentages of minorities, with 51 percent, 36 percent and 31 percent, respectively. The departments of planning and zoning and inspections, licenses and permits had the lowest percentages, with 8 percent and 10 percent, respectively.

Minorities make up 14 percent of the County Council's 22-member staff and 17 percent of the county executive's six-member staff, the report showed.

William Herndon, Howard's assistant personnel administrator, said the county also monitors minority hiring for the sheriff's office and the state's attorney office, both state agencies.

"They've requested that we do this for them. If we were asked to do it for the court clerk's office, we would probably say yes," he said.

Without commenting specifically on the Howard County case, a state Human Relations Commission official said Rappaport would likely be bound by any affirmative action agreement made by her predecessor.

"Any time we enter into an agreement, we usually enter into it with the corporation, so that if ownership changes hands, the agreement is still binding," said Robert Barnes, a case-processing manager for the state commission. Barnes said he is prohibited by state law from commenting on any case that has not reached court.

"We have a confidentiality provision in our law," Barnes said. "I can neither confirm nor deny anything about a case, even to say if there is one."

Rappaport has been equally circumspect about discussing the agreement publicly. She said that Pumphrey gave her a copy of the document last week and that she hasn't read it thoroughly yet.

"I really don't want to look at it before I am sworn in," she said. "I've been advised that to talk about it before then might violate some confidentiality provisions because I am still on the outside looking in." Pumphrey went to court in 1987 over criticism of his hiring practices.

He filed a criminal complaint against the chairman of the county's Human Rights Commission for releasing information about a possible probe of hiring practices. Pumphrey charged that the chairman violated a county confidentiality law barring commission members from discussing pending cases. The case ultimately was dismissed by a Baltimore District Court judge who ruled that the county law did not apply to the chairman because the commission has no jurisdiction over the court clerk's office, a state agency.

Pumphrey said his troubles began when "somebody from the Human Rights Commission, who had nothing to do with this office, just walked in here and saw that there were no blacks."

He has said he does not discriminate. He also said he usually filled vacancies from a backlog of applications and saw no need to advertise for minority candidates. He said he's lived up to the spirit of his agreement with the state since then, but would not elaborate on the accord.

"If she {Rappaport} chooses to release it, that's up to her," he said.