Ecker reassures minority employers

April 14, 1994|By James M. Coram | James M. Coram,Sun Staff Writer

County Executive Charles I. Ecker and the chairman of the county Economic Development Authority sought yesterday to allay the fears of minority business leaders about the county's commitment to minority enterprises.

"You've got our full support," Richard H. Pettingill, chairman of the Economic Authority board of directors, told members of the Equal Business Opportunity Committee. "This county is only good because of our diversity."

Committee members were alarmed last month when they learned that Deborah L. Jenkins, the Economic Authority staff member assigned to work with them, had been fired.

Authority Executive Director Richard W. Story offered contracts to four of the other six Economic Authority employees, inviting them to stay with the office after March 31 -- the date the Economic Authority ceased being a branch of county government and became a quasi-governmental agency.

A fifth employee took a job elsewhere in county government.

Ms. Jenkins, the department's only black employee, was not offered a new contract even though she was, in the words of committee chairman Earl Saunders, "enthusiastic, cooperative and worked well with us."

Ms. Jenkins has filed a discrimination complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.

It was not simply her dismissal that concerned committee members but comments about the committee included in her January 1994 performance evaluation.

"Levels of expectations of some members are misguided and unreasonable," the evaluation read.

"The committee is directionless and several members are either counterproductively free-lancing or are avoiding their assignment," the evaluation continued. "While this committee has occupied an unproportionately large amount of time, this time has not been productive."

Mr. Ecker sought to dispel those notions yesterday, praising the committee for developing an equal opportunity plan, helping to establish a commission and working to provide a resource center for minority business people.

Mr. Ecker said he would set aside space for the center in the county's new Gateway office building in Columbia.

"You've worked hard over the years, and that work will continue," Mr. Ecker said. "The future looks bright."

Mr. Pettingill said the Equal Business Opportunity Committee is the "most active, visibly involved" of the Economic Authority's committees. "I expect you to continue to better the lot" of business people in Howard County, he said.

Committee members expressed concern about who would work with them now that Ms. Jenkins was gone.

Mr. Story said he planned to hire a "business development specialist" who would serve under Economic Authority Deputy Director Linda Wilson and act as liaison to the committee.

He said he was expecting several hundred responses to advertisements he had placed in area newspapers.

The deadline for applicants is April 22, after which time Mr. Story said that he, Ms. Wilson, an Equal Business Opportunity Committee member and two of the authority's directors will interview 10 to 12 finalists.

Mr. Story said he expected the new person would join the staff in June. "Until then, I'm your valet," he told committee members.

One of the people attending yesterday's three-hour meeting with Mr. Ecker and Mr. Pettingill was the Rev. John Wright, former state president of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.

Mr. Wright said he thought that the meeting was "very good and productive" and that the committee was "on the way back to recapturing its focus -- where we are going and how we get there."

The "very clumsy" dismissal of Ms. Jenkins had led to deep concern among committee members about the transition from government to an independent authority, Mr. Wright said.

Committee Chairman Saunders found solace in what he called "the county executive's reaffirmation of minority business and the equal business opportunity program" in the county.

Mr. Saunders said he also appreciated the "very strong affirmation" the committee received from Mr. Pettingill and his pledge that the staff of the Economic Authority is committed to supporting equal business opportunities in the county.

"This committee has been a very spirited committee, and we have set some milestones," he said. "I am very proud. If all the other [Economic Development Authority] committees are as spirited and enthusiastic as this one, the county can only benefit."

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