Allegheny County urged to hire more black employees


By Andrew McGill Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
Clarification: This story has been changed to clarify Executive Rich Fitzgerald's plans to help minority candidates for civil service jobs.

When Steelers owner Dan Rooney instituted the "Rooney Rule," he did more than open opportunities in the NFL: He sparked a new conversation on hiring black executives in boardrooms, city chambers and beyond, putting a popular name behind affirmative action.

Now, Pittsburgh's black leaders want Allegheny County to take Mr. Rooney's rule a step further, asking county Executive Rich Fitzgerald to make interviewing black candidates a priority in all government hires and contract awards.

"We're saying from entry level to top leadership," said Tim Stevens, chairman of the Black Political Empowerment Project, in a meeting with the county executive. "We want a bigger piece. We don't want to just affect some black folks who have degrees."

The Rooney Rule requires NFL franchises to interview at least one minority candidate when hiring for a senior staff position. It's credited with leveling the playing field, as it were, for minority head coaches and increasing minority participation in team management.

Mr. Fitzgerald, speaking Monday in the Hill District before Mr. Stevens and a dozen community leaders, said he has done his best to follow the rule himself. Two of his most recent executive hires -- public defender director Elliot C. Howsie and Allegheny County Jail warden Orlando Harper -- are black.

But he likely won't be able to follow through with the rank and file. Much of the county's workforce is unionized, with new hires largely vetted through civil service lists and trade unions, not the county human resources department.

That arrangement means Mr. Fitzgerald can only hope that cooperating with the county's organized labor will yield a more diverse workforce.

"When they send us employees to work our parks, for instance, we're really encouraging them to have a diverse representation," Mr. Fitzgerald said.

Progress has been made on supporting black businesses. According to his figures, about 20 percent of the county's public works contracts and 14 percent of its general purchasing agreements are held by minority contractors. An additional $127 million in Department of Human Services contracts goes to minority-run facilities and charities.

On the whole, minorities make up 17 percent of the workforce under Mr. Fitzgerald's control.

There are still holes to fill. County administrators are struggling to find minority candidates to join the county police department, which Mr. Fitzgerald estimated is 95 percent white.

The executive said his office would keep a list of potential civil service job candidates and work with Community College of Allegheny County to develop a class to prepare them for the civil service exam.

But as things stand, that was about all he could promise. And test preparation, the audience acknowledged, is only a small step toward solving the larger issue.

"If we send you 20 smart black people, two get hired," said the Rev. Maureen F. Cross Bolden of St. James AME Church. "It's a numbers game."