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City seeks end to U.S. oversight of Fire Department

For nearly four decades, U.S. District Judge John T. Curtin has monitored the progress of minority hiring in Buffalo’s Fire Department.

The city thinks it’s time to end his oversight role.

Even more important, perhaps, the federal agency that first accused the city of discrimination is also showing signs of supporting an end to the court’s intervention.

The city, in a recent motion, asked Curtin to end his historic role in overseeing the Fire Department, a role that dates from 1978, when he found the Fire Department’s hiring practices discriminated against minorities and women.

“This allows the court to close the case,” said Adam W. Perry, the city’s lawyer in the lawsuit. “This motion seeks to ultimately end the court’s supervision of the department.”

Perry said the city’s request is based, in part, on the U.S. Justice Department’s belief that the Fire Department is now using hiring procedures that are lawful.

The Justice Department sued the city in 1974 and, over the next four decades, played an active role in ensuring that Curtin’s integration orders were carried out.

Perry thinks the time is right for all the parties in the case to come together and end the suit.

“We anticipate that relief will be granted,” he said of the city’s motion.

In court papers seeking to end Curtin’s oversight role, the city asks for an end to a hiring order that remains at the core of the suit.

In that ruling, Curtin required the percentage of minorities and women hired by the Fire Department to be equal to the percentage of minorities and women who took the written test for firefighter.

The judge issued that order in 1989 after the city had “substantially complied” with court-ordered minority hiring. He also had suspended an earlier order to hire one minority for each nonminority recruit.

In asking the judge for further relief, the city pointed last month to its latest fire exam in 2013 and how the results compare favorably with previous exams.

In 2013, the top-ranked recruits included 73 blacks, 13 Hispanics and 30 women. That compares with 34 blacks, 10 Hispanics and 14 women among the same number of top-ranked candidates five years earlier.

Whether Curtin grants the city’s request may ultimately depend on whether the Justice Department opposes its efforts to end the case.

The judge also will want to hear from MOCHA, or Men of Color Helping All Society, a group of African-American firefighters that is still a party to the suit.

Lawyers at the Justice Department could not be reached to comment, and a civil rights group representing MOCHA declined to comment.

Before seeking an end to the court’s supervision, the city asked Curtin last month to temporarily suspend his 1989 order.

Curtin agreed and, in his order, pointed to a large number of vacancies in the Fire Department – the city says 111 of 750 jobs are unfilled – and the potential for those vacant jobs to impact public safety.

Fire officials also are concerned about the number of firefighters eligible for retirement this year. Because of a change in retiree benefits that hurts those who stay on past June 30, the city expects a large number of firefighters to retire.

Frank B. Mesiah, president of the Buffalo branch of the NAACP, said that his group has no legal standing in the suit but that he hopes the Fire Department remains aggressive in its efforts to recruit African-Americans, Hispanics and women.

“I think they should be filled,” Mesiah said of vacancies in the department. “I just hope the City of Buffalo has an aggressive recruitment program.”