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After 38 years, Jefferson County (Ala.) files motion to end consent decree over unfair hiring

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By Barnett Wright
The Birmingham Times

Jefferson County on Tuesday filed a motion to terminate a 38-year-old consent decree over its discriminatory hiring practices against Blacks and women.

If accepted by a federal court judge, the request will end one of the longest running consent decree cases in the country.

In the 35-page Motion for Termination, County Attorney Theodore A. Lawson II wrote that the county “has not just conformed to the letter of the law in the Consent Decree, but also institutionalized processes and procedures to ensure that the County does not return to the vestiges of the past.”

The joint filing was also signed off by plaintiffs in the case that included the Martin-Bryant parties, who represented a class of African Americans, and the U.S. Department of Justice.

“This is indeed a great day for Jefferson County,” Lawson said. “As a member of the African American community I take deep pride in reaching this milestone. I’ve witnessed the county turn a page in its history where hiring practices that were once inconsistent, arbitrary, biased and adversely impacted African Americans and women, have now been rectified.”

County Manager and CEO Tony Petelos said it’s hard to put into words how far the county has come since the consent decree was entered on Dec. 29, 1982 and involved tens of millions in legal fees, five years with a court appointed receivership and two years with a monitor.

“We could not have done it without the support of the commissioners, both present and past, and of course with the leadership from Theo Lawson and his office,” Petelos said. “We have assembled a great team and it would be great to get out from under this cloud.”

The case actually began in January, 1974 when the Ensley Branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) sued the City of Birmingham and the Personnel Board of Jefferson County alleging those defendants had engaged in discriminatory practices against Blacks.

While the other defendants in the case – the City of Birmingham, the Jefferson County Personnel Board, the Jefferson County Sheriff’s Office — have since been released from under federal supervision, Jefferson County has remained the lone defendant.

“That changes today,” Lawson wrote to the court. “The county then and the county now present a stark contrast with regard to its compliance with the Consent Decree and the law . . .  the county has completely transformed its recruiting, selection and reporting processes.”

Commission President Jimmie Stephens said the filing signals a commitment made by county officials to address a number of challenges over the past decade that have included emerging from a historic bankruptcy filing and more recently the COVID-19 health emergency.

“It’s like someone has taken a weight off our back,” said Stephens, after the motion was filed. “When we first took office [in 2010] . . . that commission was committed to seeing that (consent decree terminated) and that set the tone for the subsequent commission to continue the progress and the work that had been done . . . This commission was committed to seeing a meaningful and successful conclusion to what was a millstone around Jefferson County.”

Commissioner Sheila Tyson said she was elated to see the number of minorities now serving the county in leadership positions. “Especially women,” she said, pointing out that the county’s Chief Finance Officer; Human Resources Director; Public Information Officer; Director of the Roads and Transportation Department and Deputy Director of Cooper Green Mercy Health Services are all females.

“The county has proved that we are ready to come from out under the consent decree,” Tyson said. “I am happy to be a part of . . .a county willing to put women in leading positions.”

Commissioner Lashunda Scales said, “I am hopeful this exit from a historic consent decree by Jefferson County will transfer to meaningful policy reform that is tangible and accessible to all.”

The motion was filed at 4:39 p.m. on Sept. 1, 2020 and signed by Lawson, the first African American to serve as Jefferson County Attorney in the county’s 200-year history.