Schmoke's new fire chief

April 10, 1992

During his re-election campaign last year, Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke was criticized for his alleged failure to promote blacks in government. His political advisers acknowledged they had a sticky problem. The record showed the Schmoke administration had systematically promoted blacks to executive positions. But the mayor and his campaign officials decided not to emphasize that record, fearing a backlash from white voters.

In his five years at City Hall, Mr. Schmoke has appointed a growing number of black professionals to top-echelon city posts African Americans never previously occupied. Today, blacks lead not only the school system and police department but such other key agencies as housing and planning. There are many other black department heads, along with a growing number of deputies.

Some of the recent city appointments have been made as a result of nationwide searches, others have resulted from in-house screenings. There has been little controversy; the transition has come about quietly. Baltimore is a majority black city. The ranks of black professionals with experience and training have swelled in the past two decades.

Yet this is a potential minefield where any misstep can lead to an explosion of prejudices and envy. We mention this because of the extraordinary handling of the appointment of Herman Williams Jr. to succeed Peter O'Connor, the city's fire chief for the past 12 years.

Mr. Williams will be the city's first black fire chief, ending a long domination of the department by Irish-Americans. This ethnic change does not worry us, although it is interesting as a sociological milepost. We are, however, concerned that in its apparent rush to name Mr. Williams, the Schmoke-appointed fire board never declared a vacancy for the chief's position or sought applicants. Instead, it just went ahead and -- bowing to the mayor's wishes -- appointed Mr. Williams.

He has a good background. Mr. Williams was a firefighter for 26 years, three of them as a battalion chief. He then moved to other spheres of municipal government, serving the past four years as director of the 2,000-employee Department of Transportation. And in recent years, he has campaigned for the fire chief's job, making it clear to every politician within earshot he wanted it.

Such enthusiasm and eagerness may be commendable. But in the decade that Mr. Williams was absent from the fire department, a number of other capable firefighters -- black and white -- rose to positions that would have qualified them as candidates for fire chief. In not giving them proper consideration, the new fire board has gotten off to a dubious start.

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