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Affirmative action system overhauled

Romney move is defended and criticized

Governor Mitt Romney has eliminated the state Office of Affirmative Action and retooled the framework that forces state agencies to comply with hiring goals for racial minorities, physically disabled people, and veterans.

The 20-year-old guidelines, created under then-governor Michael S. Dukakis, required all 80-plus executive agencies to have civil rights officers in charge of monitoring the hiring of minorities, women, people with disabilities, and others. The monitoring included detailed numeric reports of hiring practices.

Romney replaced that system with what he called a revitalized program he says will continue to pursue the same goals, including detailed hiring reports and a new office to oversee diversity and outreach. His spokeswoman said nearly a quarter of Romney's hires have been minorities since he took office in January.

Critics, many of them Democrats, complain that Romney's changes strip minorities of guarantees of equal access to state government jobs. Boston City Councilor Chuck Turner charged that Romney's new system takes out language specifically promoting diversity and replaces it with vague promises.

"This has robbed state government of any ability to systematically achieve diversity and equal opportunity, during times of layoffs, and in hiring and promotions," said Turner, who proposed a resolution yesterday asking Romney to change the policies back. "What it does is to strip away the process that had been in place essentially since governor [Francis W.] Sargent."

Romney's press secretary, Shawn Feddeman, accused the councilors of engaging in "partisan politics." She said they seem to be misunderstanding the impact of the new executive order: Rather than weakening diversity initiatives, she said, Romney is trying to strengthen them by launching a streamlined and aggressive effort to attract more minorities to government jobs."We are working hard to improve state government and change the face of state government," Feddeman said. "We think we have a better system that will encourage more minorities to apply for jobs in state government, and make state government an entity that will be more diverse and will better reflect the Commonwealth."

Romney made the changes in a little-noticed move more than two months ago, but they surfaced yesterday at City Hall, where Turner and councilors Charles Yancey and Felix Arroyo demanded that Romney's new policy be immediately revoked. Turner said it would be discussed at a public hearing to which Romney will be invited.

Feddeman said many aspects of the executive orders were outdated and were not being followed even before Romney eliminated them. In general, affirmative action has been under fire and has been watered down in federal courts since the 1980s.

Romney signed his executive order, which simultaneously repealed seven orders by previous governors, on June 17 -- Bunker Hill Day, a Suffolk County holiday when state and city offices were closed. Romney's order received little attention at the time, but black and Hispanic leaders say its full impact became clear over the ensuing weeks, in conversations among political activists and elected officials. "In a very quiet and [seemingly] innocuous act, Governor Romney undid through that executive order about 25 years of work," said state Senator Dianne Wilkerson, a Roxbury Democrat and the only black member of the state Senate. "It's much, much more far-reaching than has been acknowledged by the administration. Symbolically, it could be a death blow to affirmative action. The scary thing is that there's never been a conversation about it."

Romney's executive order eliminates the state's Office of Affirmative Action, putting its functions in a newly created Office of Diversity and Equal Opportunity. He said in a statement released in June that the move was aimed at broadening the mission of the state's outreach efforts.

Among other changes, the new office is charged with developing partnerships with public and private organizations to share "best practices" for promoting diversity, and launching an outreach effort that includes advertisements in neighborhood newspapers read by large numbers of minorities.

Feddeman said the governor is committed to a diverse state work force, adding that 24 percent of the people Romney has hired for executive branch jobs since taking office in January have been black, Hispanic, Asian, or Native American. She said that percentage is higher than in all of state government, but said she did not know that number.

The governor's spokeswoman said the Allston-Brighton Tab newspaper recently found that minorities made up 17 percent of Boston City Council staff. "People in glass houses shouldn't throw stones," Feddeman said last night.

Romney's executive order, which covers hiring in the state agencies under control of the governor, restates the basic principles of diversity, equal opportunity, and federal requirements governing affirmative action. It requires all Cabinet secretaries to come up with diversity plans and to comply with federal and state laws regarding equal access to employment opportunities.

But Turner said Romney gutted the previously existing affirmative action initiatives, and replaced them with a vague set of guidelines that could be flouted by state managers with no consequences. The new guidelines, he said, lack teeth.

Under the old executive orders, if the state's director of affirmative action found an agency manager to be "not in compliance" with hiring and promotion goals, he or she could impose "a hiring freeze on any or all positions of the agency." Romney's order outlines no repercussions for state managers who don't comply with affirmative action rules, Turner said.

"There are no consequences if they don't comply, and no guidelines to follow," Turner said. "So right now, there are no principles in place to use in terms of implementing it."

Dukakis's 1983 order said the state should "employ all reasonable measures to eliminate the effects of any past or present discriminatory employment practice." It said that each executive office had to establish "goals and timetables" for compliance.

Another point of contention regards the role of the Massachusetts Commission Against Discrimination, which previously was guaranteed to play a role in every complaint of unfair hiring practices as a third-party mediator and investigator. Romney's executive order does not mention the MCAD, and the councilors said they fear that means the agency will be cut out in the future.

Feddeman said the state's human resources director, Ruth Bramson, is receiving regular, detailed reports on the hiring and promotion practices in all state agencies. The governor will continue to make sure that all agencies treat minority applicants fairly, and aggressively seek such applicants to look for jobs.

Emotions ran high at yesterday's City Council meeting, with Yancey invoking the memory of Martin Luther King Jr.

"Tomorrow is the 40th anniversary of the Great March on Washington. Sadly, many of those disparities we fought against still exist today," he said. "This step taken by Governor Romney is a step in the wrong direction."

Horace Small, executive director of the Union and Minority Neighborhoods in Roxbury, said he is building a coalition to oppose Romney's executive order, in part by encouraging other towns and cities to pass similar resolutions.

"As soon as this is discovered, Mitt will trot out all the happy black people he can get his hands on," Small said in a telephone interview yesterday. "We know that game. We have to prepare ourselves so we can counter everything he does. We're going to fight this one. This is not one that we're going to lose."

Globe correspondent Sasha Talcott contributed to this report.

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