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August 25, 2006

 

County Council formally rebuked County Executive Christopher Coons for his apparent reluctance to go outside the present workforce to fill one high-level position in the Department of Public Safety even as the Delaware Supreme Court was agreeing with him that he should be able to do so to fill another one.

A non-binding resolution adopted by an eight-to-one vote "respectfully urges the executive branch to follow the procedures outlined in the New Castle County Code" to obtain qualified candidates for assistant chief of emergency medical services.

During committee discussion of the measure, Councilman Penrose Hollins, its sponsor, referred to the resolution's operative provision as "telling him to obey the law."

Going back to the record of debate among framers of the state's 1897 constitution, the high court ruled unanimously that they intended for a provision requiring that anyone appointed to a position in county government be a county resident for at least a year before being appointed to apply only to gubernatorial appointments and that no subsequent legislative action extended the restriction to the counties' chief executives. That enables Coons to hire someone from another jurisdiction to be chief of police.

Hollins and Councilman Jea Street charged that there are racist overtones not only in  Coons's agreeing to seek candidates from the paramedics cadre before opening the job to other applicants but also in his allegedly usurping the code-defined authority of the county's chief human resources officer to decide whether an outside candidate search is required.

Hollins said his resolution was not intended to allocate the position to a black or Hispanic person but to assure that someone who is black or Hispanic has an equal opportunity to get it. To do otherwise, he said, would violate county government's racial and ethnic diversity policy and be a throwback to hiring practices which existed before the civil rights movement of the 1960s.

Coons did not respond to a Delaforum request for comment.

During floor debate at Council's plenary session on Aug. 22, Street implied that the situation could end up in federal court litigation. "And that would be so unnecessary," he said. But, he added, "folks in the department are saying there will never be a black paramedic."

Council president Paul Clark vehemently expressed resentment when Hollins, during a discussion of his resolution at a meeting of Council's executive committee the previous day, said that Coons, by his stance on the matter, was downgrading the authority of a "minority female."

Hollins, Street and Charlotte Crowell, the chief human resources officer, are black. Clark and the only paramedics who would be eligible by rank and length of service to apply to be assistant chief, are white. Street has contended that insufficient effort is being made to racially integrate that service.

Clark cast the only vote against Hollins's resolution. Hollins and Street were joined by William Bell, John Cartier, Timothy Sheldon, David Tackett, William Tansey and  Robert Weiner in supporting it. Joseph Reda, George Smiley and Karen Venezky abstained. Patty Powell was excused for personal reasons from attending the session.

What evidently prompted Hollins to initiate a seldom-used if not unprecedented action was a letter dated June 26 that Coons wrote to Michael Begatto, executive director of the municipal workers union, stating that the assistant chief's position would initially be posted internally. "If there is not an interested, qualified internal applicant for the assistant chief position, the county would have an obligation to our residents to seek well-trained, highly-qualified, experienced candidates for the position from outside of the current workforce," it said.

Delaforum was provided a copy of the letter by county communications director Christy Gleason.

In his resolution, Hollins cited a provision in the County Code which states that "when the chief human resources officer determines that there is an insufficient number of well-qualified eligibles (eligible candidates) within the service (county workforce)," outside candidates may be solicited.

During discussion and debate, it was brought out that the last time the assistant chief  position was advertised, three internal candidates applied. Normal practice is to provide a list of the five 'best' candidates as determined by testing and preliminary interviews, to department heads who then decide among them who gets the job.

Hollins said he understands the code to require that the internal and external searches be conducted simultaneously if Crowell determines in advance that it is not likely there will be a sufficient number of qualified internal candidates apply.

Union officials and others contend that not giving preference to internal candidates when filling higher-level positions violates the concept of a 'career ladder' by which a person can advance professionally.

Crowell told the executive committee that she believes in giving higher priority to hiring from within but also believes that when the number of internal candidates is limited "we have to go outside to broaden the pool."

The situation is further clouded by the fact that the existing assistant chief job description lists as a prerequisite for hiring that he or she have Delaware state certification. That would rule out anyone from out-of-state and, as a practical matter, outside of the county paramedics service. A proposed revision would allow a person otherwise qualified to be hired with the proviso that he or she obtain state certification within a year.

A resolution sponsored by Clark to approve the revised job description has been pending before Council. After the vote on Hollins's resolution, Clark announced that he would leave it tabled pending further discussion in an effort to come up with acceptable wording. Hollins objected on the grounds that beginning the process of filling the position has already been too long delayed.

The court ruling on the ability to hire a candidate from outside the county to be police chief was technically in response to a request by Governor Ruth Ann Minner for an interpretation of the constitutional provision. Because only the governor can make such a request, she did so at Coons's behest.

A national search was conducted to find a successor to David McAllister as chief. Scott McLaren has been filling that position on an acting basis since McAllister's resignation. It is not clear how many finalists there are for the job, how many are from within the department and how many from outside, or when an appointment is likely.

After the court opinion was made public on Aug. 24, Gleason issued a statement on behalf of Coons which said: "I am pleased that the court found that county governments should be able to recruit highly qualified persons who came to the county within the past year or reside outside of the county. Recruiting the best qualified people to serve in leadership positions in county government improves the quality of government services for all residents."

2006. All rights reserved.

 

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