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Thursday, Sept. 1, 2005 11:08 pm

Turning up the heat

City’s recruiting practices spark new legal actions

Concern about the city of Springfield’s hiring practices for first responders has sparked a trio of new legal actions.

Last week, Ward 2 Ald. Frank McNeil asked the U.S. Department of Justice to launch a formal investigation into hiring and promotional practices in the police and fire departments.

This week, three top-ranked firefighter applicants rejected by the Civil Service Commission in July and August filed lawsuits against commission members in state court. Two of those applicants, Michael Vespa and Dustin Vicari, had received conditional offers of employment on Aug. 11, only to receive notices of rejection on Aug. 17.

Also, at press time, David Rose — the Washington, D.C attorney who helped negotiate the 2000 consent decree in which city officials pledged to increase minority hiring on police and fire departments — said he will file a motion asking the federal court to enforce the existing decree.

The police and fire departments have lagged in minority representation for decades. While the city of Springfield is approximately 13 percent black, African-Americans make up only 4 percent of the police department’s 272-officer force, and less than 2 percent of the 197 firefighters at SFD. The 2000 consent decree — the result of a lawsuit filed by the Springfield branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People — was meant to help remedy that situation.

However, recent recruiting efforts have failed to improve demographic disparities, especially at the fire department, which certifies new firefighter candidates only once every two years. In July, the Civil Service Commission cut Michael Newman, the only African-American ranked in the top band of applicants, from the eligibility list, citing unspecified problems with his background check.

Newman, who had passed background checks to earn jobs with the Department of Corrections and Wells-Fargo Bank, as well as top-secret clearance with the U.S. Navy, asked the commission to tell him what he had done that precluded him from being a firefighter. After initially refusing to release the information, city officials weeks ago said Newman could have the information, but that he must first sign a waiver.

On Aug. 24, city officials met with Rose, who was in town to meet with Newman and a few other rejected applicants. In that meeting, Rose says, Corporation Counsel Jenifer Johnson told him the waiver would require an applicant to simply promise not to sue the city for releasing the information. When Rose asked if applicants would be required to waive claims under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, Johnson said no.

But the next morning, when someone faxed Rose the final draft, he saw that the waiver indeed demands exactly such a release.

“It’s very strange to meet with somebody and have the person tell you what the document means, and then receive a copy and it doesn’t say what she said it means,” Rose says. Johnson was unavailable for comment.

The waiver’s all-encompassing demands have motivated Rose to ask the court for help. “It’s pretty clearly contrary to the purposes of the  consent decree,” he says. “I have an obligation to the court and to my clients to try to enforce the decree, and this is about as patent a non-compliance as I can imagine.”

The waiver specifies that neither the applicant nor the applicant’s “affiliates, legal representatives, estates, successors, assigns, heirs, administrators, personal representatives [or] executors” can sue or file any sort of complaint against the city, its current or former employees, elected officials or civil service commission members. Furthermore, if a court rules that the waiver is ineffective and sides with the applicant, the applicant “agrees not to accept any monetary damages or other relief. . . . ”

Newman interprets the sweeping language as a lack of confidence among city officials.

“Personally, myself, if I was legit in my actions, I wouldn’t be worried about all that happening,” he says. “It seems very cowardly on their part.”

The waiver is less specific on the matter of what information the city will disclose, promising only to “release the area(s) where negative information was obtained. . . . ”

“Basically, they’re telling me they’ll tell me what they want me to know, after which I can do nothing,” Newman says.

Ald. McNeil didn’t wait for the waiver to be drafted before he asked the Department of Justice to investigate. In a two-page letter dated Aug. 24, McNeil summarized Springfield’s history of racial strife, focusing on Newman’s rejection, the ongoing federal lawsuits filed by city employees claiming racial discrimination, and the settlement the city paid former police officer Renatta Frazier and her attorney to dismiss her lawsuit claiming a racially hostile work environment.

McNeil sent the letter “more or less out of frustration” with the pattern of events.

“Clearly there’s something wrong. I think it’s going to take some bold steps to resolve the issues that we have in Springfield. And the approach we’re taking to some degree is piecemeal, and it seems that when we get one piece fixed, another piece breaks. So I’d rather see us do a major overhaul rather than a piecemeal renovation,” he says.

So far, he has received no response to his letter. Meanwhile, Newman remains mystified about why he was disqualified. Bill Clutter, an investigator hired by Newman’s attorney, Jon Gray Noll, questions how the city’s background investigators prioritized information.

“We received Newman’s Department of Corrections personnel file, and we were the only ones who requested a copy of it,” Clutter says. “If this were truly a thorough background investigation, you would’ve thought they would have interviewed people he listed as references. None of those people had been interviewed by anyone from the city of Springfield. It begs the question why they can pick and choose information to determine suitability.”

Noll also represents Vespa and Vicari, two white applicants dismissed after passing the background check.

“It seems to be somewhat arbitrary and capricious, the way they’re moving people from band one,” Clutter says.

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