Dunbar Brooks remembers well a conversation with a former Baltimore County official more than 20 years ago about the scarcity of minorities in local government. The official asked which ethnic group was particularly lacking, and Brooks gave a two-word response:
A former president of the county NAACP and school board, Brooks, like others, has seen intermittent progress since that time as the county government seeks to shed its image of being closed to minorities and women. A decade ago, the county created its first council district in which minorites accounted for a majority of the population. And though some are pushing for another to be created this year as the number of African-American and Hispanic residents rises, insiders play down the prospect.
County Executive Kevin Kamenetz's high-profile minority appointments have been met with praise. However, data show that minorities remain scarce in most county agencies, leaving some question about whether past gains were built to last.
Officials maintain that minorities are appropriately represented in county government, at about 26 percent overall, roughly the percentage of the African-American population.
But a closer look at individual agencies reveals lopsided gaps between demographics and targets, according to a county Equal Employment Opportunity report. The county's available labor force was about 21 percent African-American and 2 percent Hispanic. Among 27 county agencies, only 11 met the target for black workers and four met the target for Hispanic employees.
For the most part, minority workers are clustered in a few agencies and do not hold the top jobs.
"With the county, it has been the 'good old boys' system where it was very hard for people to get jobs in high positions or midlevel jobs," said Patricia Cook Ferguson, president of the county NAACP.
Kamenetz said he has increased the representation of African-Americans among department heads from 24 percent to 31 percent, and on his personal staff from 7 percent to 17 percent. His outreach team, staffers who most frequently interact with community groups and residents, includes two African-Americans and one Hispanic.
Kamenetz's appointees include the first blacks to head the parks and recreation department, and serve as government relations director, assistant to the executive, deputy county attorney, deputy human resources director, and liquor board commissioner.
"We've made great strides in the county to better reflect a more proportionate representation of the population as a whole," Kamenetz said. "I want to ensure that we have a county government that has qualified employees who also can understand the needs of the entire county population."
Having known Kamenetz since his first run for the council about 17 years ago, Brooks believes the county executive will pick up where other leaders might have fallen short.
"He sat there long enough and saw it not happen in the way we wanted to happen," Brooks said. "We didn't think [the gains] were at a high enough level. They were not high-level, high-wage jobs."
Since the 1990s, Baltimore County's growth has been fueled primarily by African-Americans and Hispanics.
African-American residents now make up slightly more than a quarter of the total county population — approximately 210,000, up from 151,600 a decade ago. They will make up more than 30 percent of county residents by 2020, experts say.
Randallstown activist Ella White Campbell said the population shifts seemed to catch county hiring managers off guard.
"As the demographics changed, the employee demographics did not change," she said. "It's been a systemic problem."
The U.S. Justice Department filed a civil rights lawsuit against the county in 1978 that was settled two years later with a promise to hire more women and minorities. While the county kept its promise, there has been less progress in getting them into positions of power.
Councilman Kenneth N. Oliver, who represents the 4th District, encompassing the mostly black communities of Woodlawn and Randallstown, would like to see more minorities in middle-management government jobs.
"I think Human Resources should be looking at this," said Oliver, a two-term councilman and the only minority member. "I want to know why we don't have as many African Americans in management or public works."
Kamenetz said he has directed the police and fire chiefs to increase the number of minority hires and charged Adrienne Jones, deputy human resurces director, to review and revise internal promotion policies countywide. Many employees and union leaders have pointed to the promotion policies as a barrier to diversity.
Still, in the tight budget climate, Kamenetz acknowledges, "We're not in a hiring mode." He has cut more than 180 vacant county positions since December, bringing the number of government and public safety employees to their lowest totals in 25 years.
State Sen. Delores G. Kelley, a Baltimore County Democrat, expects improvement when the economy turns around.
"He did a lot of collapsing in order to save money," Kelley said. "As soon as money is better, we've got to look at ways to make that better."
When Tony Baysmore started working for Baltimore County eight years ago, he said that signaled to him that the county was moving toward more equitable representation. Having a more visible presence in the community has helped reinforce that sense, he said.
"I can tell you that in the Randallstown and Woodlawn corridor, they see that change and they hear it, and it resonates very well," said Baysmore, who works in constituent services for the county executive. "You can look at the quality of people who have been appointed and know that we're here for the long run."
Minority council districts
Meanwhile, minority residents are also looking at the political system as a means of changing the status quo.
Over the last decade, only the 4th District grew by more than 10,000 residents. It leads the county in voter turnout, income and education levels.
Some say the council shouldn't wait until 2020 to create another majority-minority district.
Tony Campbell, chairman of the Baltimore County Republican Central Committee, is pushing for the redistricting commission to act this year, saying the issue transcends partisanship.
"I'm not speaking for the party. I'm speaking for myself," Campbell said. "I know there are going to be folks who are not going to understand why, but public policy is about doing the right thing for everyone."
Ella White Campbell, who is not related to the Republican Party chairman, also believes it is time.
"The numbers are there and you can't get around it," she said. "I think people understand that it's coming and you can't stop it."
However, Leronia Josey, who waged an unsuccessful campaign against Oliver for the 4th District seat last fall, isn't optimistic.
"I'd like to see African-Americans be able to run and win in other than [in District] 4," she said. "We need to have a presence in the entire county. My heart tells me that it's not going to happen yet."
Oliver said it would be difficult to create another majority-minority district since most of the growth occurred in his own district, but he is not opposed to the idea.
Assuming that population trends continue, expect the council over the next decade to revise the 55-year-old county charter and expand the number of council seats, said political blogger Richard J. Cross III.
Creating another majority-minority district among the current seven could make others more Republican-friendly, an outcome that the Democrat-heavy council would seek to avoid, he said.
"It would be easier to create two [districts] on the western side of Baltimore County and you could draw the lines where you could still maintain a Democrat-friendly advantage," said Cross. "I think it's very much in Baltimore County's future to have another majority-minority district. I just don't think it will happen now."
Brooks, a demographer, suggested that the council use redistricting to create better balance among minority groups as it prepares for the next census.
From 1990 to 2000, the black population increased 40 percent, from 85,700 to about 120,000. In the past decade, the number grew about 38 percent. While their total numbers are still small, the Hispanic population increased 145 percent and the Asian-American population grew 67 percent.
In the meantime, Brooks said residents should keep an eye on the county workforce in seeking to increase their presence.
"On a day-to-day basis, how the county government interacts with citizens and who they see interacting with them is far more important than the short-lived redistricting process," Brooks said. "The whole issue of who's in county government and whether we are seeing changes over time is more important."
Baltimore County population growth (2000, 2010 Census)
Total: 754,292, 805,029
White: 561,132, 520,185
African-American: 151,600, 209,738
Hispanic: 13,774, 33,735
County workforce (2008 to 2010)
Total: 7,518, 7,909
African-American: 1,462, 1,637
Hispanic: 74, 81
Officials and Administrators
Total: 87, 158
Minority: 10, 20
Total: 1,522, 1,543
Minority: 278, 313