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Council Candidate Disavows Discrimination Lawsuit


Written by Maria Gaura

La Vida Local

SANTA CRUZ (October 2010) - Ron Pomerantz is a retired firefighter whose political niche in the race for Santa Cruz City Council is that of a liberal environmentalist who opposes development, supports social services and backs employee unions.  
But 15 years ago, Pomerantz made headlines of a different kind as one of 22 white firefighters, and one latino, who filed a sensational reverse-discrimination lawsuit against the city of San Jose. In the lawsuit, the 23 plaintiffs alleged that then-San Jose Fire Chief Raymond Brooks had leaked the contents of a promotions exam to five black firefighters, thus discriminating against white firefighters who made up a sizeable majority of the test-takers, and of the department as a whole.
Today, Pomerantz disavows the lawsuit as racist, and claims that he never willingly participated in it, and never gave anyone permission to name him as a plaintiff in the first place. “I was never a part of that lawsuit,” Pomerantz said. “I was pushed hard to join this lawsuit saying that the test was unfair. I thought it smelled funny, and I signed documents saying I did not want to be a part of it. I did not want any part of a potential discrimination suit. That was what happened with me.”
However, the legal record only partially supports Pomerantz’ version of events. Pomerantz was listed as a plaintiff on the original complaint, and his name was included among the roster of plaintiffs throughout most of the six-month litigation and trial. Court documents show that Pomerantz was dismissed from the case, but a document that might pinpoint the date of his request for dismissal is missing from the court file.
And the two attorneys who represented the 23 fire captains in the lawsuit denied that Pomerantz had been included in the lawsuit against his will.
“We had to have consent from every one of the plaintiffs,” said attorney Larry Peterson. “We would not have included (Pomerantz) in the suit without a signed consent form in our files. You need consent to name somebody in a civil action like this. It wasn’t a class action.”
The firefighters’ lawsuit was covered extensively in the San Francisco Bay Area media, and was one of the most contentious events in the San Jose Fire Department’s decades-long struggle to integrate its ranks.
San Jose hired its first African American firefighter in 1971. By 1999, almost three decades later, 45 of the department’s 681 firefighters were African American.
The allegations in the lawsuit included claims that Chief Brooks had obtained an advance copy of a civil service exam for Battalion chief, and shared the purloined test with other black firefighters during a professional conference in Florida. The suit further alleged that Brooks had stacked the exam’s judging panel with four black examiners (out of a total of nine) with the intention that those examiners would favor the five African American candidates.
The primary evidence for these claims was the fact that all five of the black candidates who took the test passed, while just ten of 36 white candidates succeeded. In addition, the placement of four black examiners on the panel was seen as improper because “the boards were not representative of the racial breakdown of the community,” according to plaintiffs.
The lawsuit also touched on public employee pensions – which have become an issue in this year’s elections. For some of the plaintiffs who had failed the test, “it was their last chance to get promoted in order to retire as Battalion Chief, with commensurately higher retirement benefits,” the complaint noted.
Pomerantz’s pension of more than $124,000 per year has raised some eyebrows in this race, but had he retired as a Battalion Chief, his pension would have started out at approximately $130,000 per year, according to retired San Jose Fire Captain Russell Hayden. “And that’s with a guaranteed three percent per year raise, compounded,” which applies to both types of pension, Hayden said.
The reverse-discrimination lawsuit was eventually dismissed as lacking merit. Investigation showed that the test was written after the Florida conference took place, and was in any case re-written by an independent expert the night before it was administered. In addition, a review of the test scores revealed that the examiners, regardless of race, had all given similar scores to test takers.
But the judge’s decision did little to calm racial strife within the department.
Several of the plaintiff firefighters formed a group called the European-American Brotherhood, and later attempted to form an official employee’s organization called the European-American Firefighters Association. There is no evidence that Pomerantz was ever associated with either one of these groups. Shortly thereafter, the city of San Jose stopped recognizing official employee associations.
Pomerantz emphasizes that he was never a member of either organization, and said he denounced the groups as racist at the time they were formed.
Things got worse. Nine months after the case was dismissed, one of the lead plaintiffs was charged with murder after gunning down a black man in the parking lot of a Milpitas shopping mall – a case that drew national headlines. Fire Captain Robert Gremminger, also a Santa Cruz County resident, was eventually sentenced to nine years in prison for the killing.
After the shooting, Gremminger reportedly told investigators that he carried a loaded, unlicensed handgun in his car because he feared his African American colleagues. Many of the department's black firefighters were infuriated at the groundswell of support for Gremminger within the department, during his trial.
Chief Brooks was fired, and more than a year later, when the legal issues had finally been resolved, only one of the black firefighters who initially passed the Battalion Chief's test was promoted to Battalion Chief.
Pomerantz said those years were a rough time for morale within the San Jose Fire Department. “It was a hard time in the department. In the fire service you have to have trust in everybody, in your coworkers. I’m so glad we were able to put it behind us.”
Though he is proud of his firefighting career, and has mentioned it extensively in his campaign materials, Pomerantz considers the reverse-discrimination lawsuit irrelevant to his campaign for Santa Cruz City Council.
“It was 15 years ago, and I haven’t thought about it in years,” Pomerantz said. “I don’t see any bearing (on the campaign) whatsoever. It was my professional life, not that I separate my personal, professional and political lives, they are all tied together. But this took pace in San Jose - that was my fire world. No one else has brought this up during this campaign.”