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
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
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
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
“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.”