Board of Aldermen proposal raises questions of discrimination

A proposal to limit New Haven firefighting jobs to Elm City residents may violate a federal law.

At a public hearing Tuesday night, the New Haven Board of Aldermen debated whether implementing the policy would place the city in violation of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. City attorney Victor Bolden and Hartford-based lawyer Steven Ecker presented potential issues that the change might cause by excluding applications from surrounding towns. Several aldermen at the hearing said they were unwilling to dismiss the proposal, which would promote jobs for New Haven residents, on the grounds of a potential lawsuit because they did not see enough evidence of discrimination.

Title VII prohibits discrimination in employment, and Bolden and Ecker said a policy prohibiting non-New Haven residents from applying to the New Haven Fire Department might decrease the proportion of eligible white applicants since many white firefighers currently in the department live outside the Elm City.

Another proposal before the board would reserve half of the applications they accept for New Haven residents.

Ward 3 Alderwoman Jacqueline James-Evans said she did not understand why the city would want to stop at a 50-50 split instead of going all the way with a 100 percent policy.

“I don’t think I owe anybody outside of New Haven anything,” she said. “I think the first priority is the people in this city. Affording somebody in West Haven an opportunity is truly irrelevant to me.”

In 1997, Hartford instituted a similar policy of limiting firefighter jobs to only Hartford residents and has faced one lawsuit, in 1998, since the law went into effect. The case was eventually dismissed because there was not enough evidence to support a violation of Title VII.

Ward 2 Alderman Greg Smith said he viewed Hartford’s case as a promising example for New Haven.

But according to Ecker, legal precedent is not clear enough to conclusively determine that the policy would not spark legal trouble for the city. He added that there is no standardized way to determine the makeup of potential labor markets, so it is difficult to accurately predict the effects of implementing the proposal. The board should not assume that the New Haven policy will not be problematic solely because of Hartford’s experience, Bolden and Ecker cautioned.

“Ultimately, from a lawyer’s perspective, the issue is not whether you can get someone to give you an opinion that this is kosher, legitimate and fine,” Ecker said. “It’s supposed to get someone who gives you the opinion that there is no reasonable argument the other side can come up with. Otherwise, you’re asking for a lawsuit.”

But aldermen were skeptical of Bolden and Ecker’s analysis. Ward 25 Alderman Greg Dildine said allegations of racial discrimination are baseless because the policy addresses eligibility based only upon geographic borders and not race.

Two other aldermen argued that any action the board takes faces potential lawsuits, and this possibility should not be grounds to reject a policy.

“Doesn’t anything we do open us up to a lawsuit?” asked Ward 30 Alderman Darnell Goldson. “After all this mumbo jumbo, all this report says is that we could get sued.”

According to Ecker, the precedent set by the Supreme Court states that statistical analysis comparing the hiring pool with and without these policies would have to indicate more than two standard deviations from the norm to constitute a violation of Title VII.

No such study has been conducted with data from the fire department, and according to Ward 10 Alderman Justin Elicker FES ’10 SOM ’10, such a study would likely be prohibitively expensive.

The agenda for Tuesday’s meeting initially included the agreement between Yale and the city under which portions of of Wall and High streets remain closed to vehicular traffic, but this discussion will actually take place on Nov. 29.

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