Fire chief to avoid all-white classes

Goodwin is reprimanded by O'Malley over hiring

says he'll step up affirmative action

April 21, 2004|By Reginald Fields | Reginald Fields,SUN STAFF

Baltimore fire Chief William J. Goodwin Jr. pledged yesterday that the department would "never again" hire an all-white recruiting class.

Responding to an article in The Sun disclosing recruiting troubles that led to a class with no minorities for the first time since the department integrated 50 years ago, Goodwin promised to use affirmative action more aggressively in hiring future firefighters.

"This means a class will never again be racially exclusive," Goodwin said in an interview at his office at fire headquarters. "I view this as a way for me to at least make sure future classes are not unbalanced."

Goodwin made his comments after he and Elliott L. Wheelan, the executive director of the city's Department of Human Resources, were sharply criticized by the mayor for not ensuring that minorities were included in the class. Although Baltimore is two-thirds African-American, only 25 percent of the city's 1,700 firefighters are racial minorities.

The fire chief also announced yesterday that the department intends to increase the number of times an entrance exam is offered, from once every 18 months or longer to monthly or perhaps every two weeks. That means the hiring process for the department could be shortened from two years to a matter of weeks.

Earlier yesterday, Goodwin and Wheelan were summoned by Mayor Martin O'Malley for meetings, during which O'Malley reprimanded both men.

The mayor said in an interview that he was "outraged" and "not happy" with their handling of the issue. He added that, while he knew the Fire Department was struggling to attract minorities, he did not know about the racial makeup of the class hired until reading the newspaper article.

"There is no excuse for my human resources director and my fire chief to not have seen this coming and to not have gotten out ahead of this so that there was not a problem," O'Malley said.

O'Malley said he ordered Goodwin and Wheelan to propose to him by noon today a revamped system for testing new applicants. The human resources department is in charge of selecting and administering the entrance exam.

The mayor was noncommittal when asked if Goodwin's and Wheelan's jobs were safe.

"All of our jobs are in jeopardy if we don't live up to expectations," O'Malley said.

Reactions to the Fire Department's planned changes for its hiring practices were mixed.

Kweisi Mfume, president of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, said he opposed the department's decision to exercise an affirmative action plan as a first step.

"I think it would be more prudent at this point and more legally defensible if the Fire Department utilizes the tools they already have," Mfume said. He said the department is capable of attracting more test takers and thereby netting a larger pool of candidates, both white and minority.

"You have to let people rise and fall on their own merit, and the only way you can get that done is by expanding the list of candidates," Mfume said.

Mfume spoke after releasing a sharply worded statement that threatened legal action if the city agency does not quickly address its hiring procedures.

"The bottom line in all of this is that this is a matter that is wholly preventable, but it requires vision and sensitivity to an age-old problem of race and a modicum of common sense," the statement said.

Stephan G. Fugate, the firefighters union president, defended the department, saying it has been "reaching down" on the list of those who passed the entrance test to hire minorities.

"In this case, they just literally exhausted all the candidates," he said. Fugate said he would favor testing on a more regular basis to keep a fresh list of candidates.

The trouble for the Fire Department arose in November 2002 when the entrance test was last offered and a smaller than usual group took the test. In all, 836 took the test and 434 passed -- making for one of the department's smallest pool of candidates in recent years.

From that list, the Fire Department hired 40 people last year -- including 10 minorities. But when they turned to the list again this year in need of 30 more people, Goodwin said, no minorities were available.

"Two years ago, we knew we were in big trouble," Goodwin said, during a news conference yesterday afternoon. "It was my responsibility to fix the problem, and it didn't get fixed."

The mayor suggested that Goodwin and Wheelan should have offered the entrance test again to select the current class, rather than settling for a depleted group of candidates. Goodwin said he is bound by the city charter to offer the exam only once every 18 months.

The mayor said he was unaware of any such stipulation and added that the city Police Department offers applicants entrance tests almost daily.

After training began in late February, the Fire Department added six graduates of the Walbrook Uniform Services Academy fire training program to join the 30 in its academy.

But they cannot be offered jobs until they take and pass the entrance test.

While the mayor and Goodwin said the Walbrook members are a legitimate part of the fire academy class, others worried that circumventing the hiring process for them might backfire.

"Walbrook is to be commended," Mfume said. "But the Fire Department runs the risk of potential legal action if it is not careful."

Fugate, the union president, said "To somehow add color to the class, if you will, in this way violates hiring practices as we know it."

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