The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) filed a federal lawsuit against the North Hudson Regional Fire & Rescue in federal court in Newark last week.
The suit claims that the NHRFR has not hired a single black firefighter since the Regional was formed in 1999 by combining fire departments from North Bergen, Union City, Weehawken, Guttenberg, and West New York.
The suit concludes that the NHRFR's residency requirement, limiting applicants to those five municipalities, is discriminatory.
The five municipalities have a total of 195,000 residents, according to the suit, but fewer than 5 percent of those residents are African-American.
Want residency eliminated
The NAACP is joining four individuals named as plaintiffs in the suit: Katrina Hall, Keith Reeves, Lamara Wapples and Al-Tarik White.
"North Hudson Regional Fire & Rescue's residency preference should be eliminated because of its discriminatory impact on African-Americans," interim NAACP general counsel Angela Ciccolo said in a press release. "The NAACP joined this lawsuit to ensure that all qualified candidates regardless of race and ethnicity have an equal opportunity to join North Hudson Regional Fire & Rescue."
The lawsuit states that the NHRFR implements its discriminatory policies by:
"Refusing to recruit and hire African Americans on a non-discriminatory basis; classifying candidates for employment in a discriminatory manner according to place of municipal residence and granting an absolute preference to residents of its service area over all qualified non-residents; engaging in recruitment through a network of friends and relatives of current employees and other residents of the five municipality area; failing or refusing to adopt objective, valid and non-discriminatory hiring procedures that do not disproportionately exclude African Americans from employment without evidence of job relatedness and business need; and failing or refusing to take appropriate action to correct the effects of past discriminatory practices."
According to the suit, the four plaintiffs mentioned passed the New Jersey State Firefighter's exam and applied for entry-level positions with the NHRFR. But because of the residency laws, they claim that other qualified potential firefighters from predominately black communities such as Jersey City, Newark, East Orange, Orange and Irvington are denied the opportunities to be hired.
The lawsuit states that the lone black firefighter on the NHRFR was hired by the old North Bergen Fire Department before the merger in 1999.
However, unnamed officials stated that there are currently three African-Americans among the 310 members of the regional.
The suit also seeks an injunction barring the NHRFR from discriminating against black candidates on the basis of race, and directing it to implement a vigorous recruitment program designed to attract qualified minorities in proportion to the labor market.
Attorney David Ben-Asher of Montclair, who is representing some of the plaintiffs, did not return calls by press time.
Famed attorney David Rose of Washington, D.C., who specializes in handling racial discrimination cases, is also listed as a representative for the plaintiffs.
Representatives from the NHRFR did not want to comment yet.
"The North Hudson Regional has not yet received the lawsuit, so we cannot comment on its merits," said NHRFR spokesman Craig Schmalz of the Secaucus-based public relations firm Vision Media. "However, the regional has been anticipating this litigation, as the law firm handling it has filed similar lawsuits against other New Jersey municipalities. With that said, the hiring of regional firefighters is governed by the New Jersey Department of Personnel, which provide the NHRFR with qualified candidates. We are in complete compliance with the rules and regulations set forth by this state agency."
The township of North Bergen was challenged once before by the NAACP, when it sued the township in 1996 over residency laws to hire new police officers. A hiring injunction was put into place until a decision was made. Three years later, a federal judge ruled that the laws did have an effect on hiring African-American officers. As a result of a settlement to the suit, North Bergen agreed to hire officers off the standing lists from towns with strong African-American communities like Jersey City, East Orange and Paterson.
One black officer accepted the offer, only to remain on the job for three months and leave North Bergen for the Port Authority police.
In addition, a lawsuit was filed against the NHRFR a few years ago for failing to promote Hispanic members as officers. That suit has since been dismissed. Jim Hague can be reached via e-mail at either OGSMAR@aol.com or firstname.lastname@example.org