Arundel panel to weigh bias claims

Fire Department denies prejudice against blacks

November 02, 2003|By Jason Song | Jason Song,SUN STAFF

The Annapolis Human Relations Commission is scheduled tomorrow to consider whether to investigate allegations made by city council members and some firefighters that the city Fire Department doesn't hire enough black firefighters.

The action by the commission, which can make legislative recommendations but has no enforcement authority, comes on the heels of a series of complaints about the department.

Last Monday, the city council put off action on a proposed contract for union firefighters after Alderman George O. Kelley Sr., a Democrat who represents Ward 4, said black firefighters felt they had been left out of the negotiating process and were worried they could be paid less than their white counterparts.

Two days later, Alderwoman Cynthia Abney Carter, a Democrat who represents Ward 6, asked the commission to investigate allegations of "racial and gender disparities" within the Fire Department.

And the Black Fire Fighter Association released a statement Thursday saying members were interested in reviving a federal consent decree, which expired in the late 1990s, that mandated that the department hire more minorities.

"There was no progress being made in reaching the goals of the Decree," wrote Bruce E. Murrell, president of the association, which is not an official union.

Murrell did not return calls seeking comment late last week.

But Fire Department officials, some city council members and the president of the International Association of Fire Fighters Local 1926 said that they were not aware that black firefighters were concerned about staffing levels.

"None of us are mind-readers," said Mayor Ellen O. Moyer, who wrote a letter on Thursday asking ex-alderman Carl O. Snowden to join a "team effort to enhance recruitment goals."

The lack of minority hiring has been an issue at the department for nearly 30 years. The federal consent decree was signed in 1985 after black firefighters filed a suit claiming they were facing discriminatory hiring practices.

The decree, which mandated that the department maintain a 30 percent minority hiring level, expired in the late 1990s.

However, Murrell wrote that the department and the city "never fulfilled the Consent Decree since its inception."

Kelley said he was concerned about a proposal that would have given some paramedics a 6 percent raise while regular union members would get a 3 percent raise.

Only one of the city's nearly 25 paramedics is black, according to the department. Of the department's 101 employees, nine are black.

Chief Edward P. Sherlock Jr. said the department has had difficulty retaining minority recruits. Many of them left for other jobs or changed professions, Sherlock said.

"The city has made an earnest effort to improve," he said.

Union view

Dallas Lister, president of the International Association of Fire Fighters Local 1926, said the union "worked extremely hard to bring everyone to the table."

During negotiations, Lister said the union pushed for a 7 percent raise for everyone but had to accept a two-tiered approach that gave higher raises to paramedics.

"We didn't want to turn down everything and get nothing," Lister said.

`Really surprised'

Lister pointed out that the raises weren't tied to race but to job title and that the contract has clauses that would allow firefighters to receive extra money if they continued their education.

"None of the raises had anything to do with race," he said. "I'm really, really surprised it came up."

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