Balto. Co. power is still a club for whites Minorities, women hold few high posts in county government


It was a typical gathering in the halls of Baltimore County government. Elected officials, aides and administrators huddled around a table, discussing the fine points of hiring architects and engineers.

Sixteen people, with one striking similarity.

All white men.

Baltimore County is rapidly diversifying, but the government continues to wheel forth as a bastion of white male decision-makers. Two recent hirings have brought the issue into sharp focus: The county executive, shunning a broad search, tapped white men to head the police and fire departments.

"Many people view this as a closed system, that many things get done from the inside," said Dunbar Brooks, president of the Dundalk/Sparrows Point chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and vice president of the county school board.

"The problem is, if you only pick people in the room with you, then you never get any change. And that's the whole issue."

There have been hints of change. The administration of County Executive C. A. Dutch Ruppersberger III appointed the first-ever female county attorney, as well as a black woman to head the Department of Health.

And, mirroring population changes, more blacks are on the payroll today than 18 years ago, when the county was sued by the U.S. Justice Department over allegations of discriminatory hiring. The county's minority population, less than 4 percent in 1970, is close to 20 percent today.

But when it comes to positions of power, the county remains largely a white man's world.

The disparity is clear as black and white:

Nearly 98 of every 100 county employees earning $55,000 a year and up are white. Most are white males, according to a 1995 county Equal Employment Opportunity report. The breakdown of top earners: 235 white males, 25 white females and six blacks.

At the Police Department, where a dearth of black officers two decades ago helped open the door for the federal lawsuit, the number of members of minority groups has increased substantially. Still, few have risen to the top. More than 97 of every 100 police supervisors and top brass -- from corporals to the chief -- are white.

Of the 15 county department heads, one is black: Dr. Michelle A. Leverett, director of the health department. Two white females also head departments, including County Attorney Virginia Barnhart, whose top deputy is a black female.

When the police and fire chief jobs opened this year, Ruppersberger bypassed a national search and dipped from the internal well. He selected Terrence Sheridan as police chief and Paul Reincke as fire chief, both white males he's worked with over the years.

No one questions the experience and expertise of Sheridan and Reincke. But to some, how they were picked symbolizes business, Baltimore County style.

In both cases, Brooks says, a national search would have benefited the county by bringing more prospects through the front door.

"Open up the tent," he said. "That's called opportunity, which is all people ask for. Go out and recruit vigorously.

"Get the top candidates in -- black, white or other. And then make your decision. That is fair."

Ruppersberger said he is committed to diversifying the work force, from the ground level up.

"Where we have failed is in the entry level," he said. "We have to give more minorities opportunities in the entry level. And after the entry level, everyone has a fair chance."

Ruppersberger notes that he launched searches before -- when he hired the previous fire chief, Allen A. Thomason, and when he selected Leverett.

Former fire chief

This time, he said, he didn't need to look outside the county. Reincke, the former fire chief, was called out of retirement. Sheridan, a veteran of the Maryland State Police, recently served as executive assistant for student safety in Baltimore County schools.

"When it comes to department heads, I'm going to pick the best person ," Ruppersberger said. "If I know I have the best person right there, I'm not going to expose the process to any politics. I want stability, and I want somebody I'm going to trust. And, I'm going to make a decision."

In each case, Ruppersberger's choice whisked through the County Council.

"I'm not going to tell him how to run his job," said County Councilman T. Bryan McIntire, who quickly adds: "Except to say he's made some outstanding appointments. Men that I respect. Guys that really get the job done."

Del. Emmett Burns, a black elected official representing the northwest county and parts of the city, gives Ruppersberger high marks overall as county executive.

"However," Burns adds, "it would be well if more African-Americans were at the top echelons."

For Baltimore County, the number of top-level blacks has remained low in the face of a minority population boom.

While the county's white population has been dipping slightly, the black population has grown steadily, from 19,555 in 1970 to 85,451 in 1990.

The growth should continue.

Blacks and other nonwhites, just over 3.5 percent of the county's population in 1970, are expected to reach 21.3 percent by 2000, the Maryland Office of Planning says.

Questions hovering around minority hiring are not new.

In 1978, when the U.S. Justice Department filed a civil rights lawsuit, the police force had 10 black officers out of 1,200. Nonwhites made up 3 percent of the overall work force.

Lawsuit settled

The suit was settled in 1980, with the county promising to hire more women and nonwhites. By then, the minority work force had climbed to 4.6 percent.

Now, the county's work force, excluding schools, is 12.7 percent black, just about in line with the black population.

Still, blacks hold few positions of power.

The Police Department provides a case study.

The department has come a long way from 1978. Today, in a force of 1,204 street officers, 137 are black.

But of 331 supervisors and brass, nine are black.

Considering where the department was two decades ago, police officials say it's not surprising so few have risen to the top.

"It takes time to work your way up the chain of command," said police spokesman Bill Toohey. "And we have historically not had a lot of black officers."

To lure more nonwhites, the department is launching an aggressive campaign -- including ads on local radio stations, brochures distributed through black churches, and posters in all city and county high schools.

"We want to make our department as diverse as possible," Toohey said. "We want our message to be heard as wide as possible."

At the Fire Department, an association of black firefighters had cause to celebrate last month: For the second time since the department was established in 1882, a black was promoted to lieutenant.

Meanwhile, Leverett, who took over as health director last year, describes her experience as "great."

"There are qualified minority applicants for every position in this county," she said. "They do exist. Any organization wishing to diversify its ranks needs to expand its pool from where it should recruit."

The county says it is committed to making further inroads.

"Certainly the county has a terrible history. The county has had a poor reputation in the past in dealing with racial matters," said County Council Chairman Kevin Kamenetz, one of seven white males on the elected board. "I don't think that's the case today."

Kamenetz, whose 2nd District is 40 percent black, points to his own staff as proof. Of his four council aides, two are African-American.

Plea repeated

"I like the idea of having differing viewpoints on my staff," the Democrat said. "That better helps me represent all parts of my district. The county's employees should certainly reflect the demographics of the county."

Brooks, of the NAACP, agrees. He recalls a conversation six years ago with then-County Executive Dennis F. Rasmussen. It was the anniversary of the Brown vs. Board of Education Supreme Court ruling, the landmark school integration case.

Waving stacks of computer printouts showing minorities' lowly standing in the county, Brooks issued a plea then. It's one he repeats today.

"I told him Baltimore County government is a white male bastion. You've got to do something about this."

Pub Date: 8/05/96

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