By Ron Leir
When Kearny Firefighter Martina Smith was hired in 2009, she became the department’s only female and one of only two African-Americans represented among the current 98 departmental employees.
The town’s Police Department, with 114 members, has four African-Americans.
Seventeen years ago, Kearny and the NAACP were parties to a federal consent order approved by U.S. District Court that sought to improve the recruitment of minorities among both the uniformed and civilian ranks. No hiring quotas were specified. Approximately 4% of Kearny’s population is African-American, according to the 2000 U.S. Census.
Before the consent order, job applicants had to be Kearny residents to be eligible for employment opportunities.
Under the consent order, candidates for positions within the Police and Fire Departments and for non-uniformed jobs were required to be residents of Hudson or Essex counties.
But Mayor Alberto Santos said that the effort to achieve diversity by drawing a bigger pool of job applicants backfired.
“The majority of those people hired in the Police and Fire Departments after the residency requirements were revised were non-Kearny residents and non-African Americans,” he said. “Diversity was not achieved.”
Santos said that it turned out that “significant numbers” of people from towns such as Bayonne in Hudson County and Roseland and Verona in suburban Essex County were achieving high scores on state Civil Service competitive exams and landing at or near the top of appointment lists for Kearny police and firefighter positions.
“We feel Kearny residents should have a chance to be hired,” the mayor said.
So town officials approached David Rose, the NAACP’s Washington-based attorney, and asked if the organization would be open to tweaking the terms of the consent order to give “residential preference for Kearny and Newark residents” on the hiring of police officers, firefighters and non-uniformed employees in competitive and non-competitive titles.
Under this scenario, Civil Service would be asked to draw a list of job candidates limited to Kearny and Newark residents.
Failing to draw sufficient numbers of applicants from such a list, Kearny would then ask Civil Service to revise the list to include a second tier of candidates who are residents of Hudson and Essex counties; then, a third tier of candidates who live in New Jersey; and a fourth tier of people living outside New Jersey.
“We welcomed it,” said Rose. “It gives the town a little more latitude to treat equally people from Newark. It’s a fresh idea and it might improve what’s going on in Kearny. It’s innovative and worth a try. We do think that because there are a lot more African-Americans in Newark, that the applicant pool will be more heavily black and will increase the chance of more blacks being hired.”
On Aug. 15, U.S. District Court Judge Katherine S. Hayden, sitting in Newark, gave her blessing to the proposed changes in the consent order and on Oct. 11 the Kearny Town Council voted unanimously, with one member absent, to implement the changes.
“I look at it as an opportunity to get more minorities in Kearny,” said Kearny Fire Chief Steve Dyl.
Job applications are available at all town firehouses, as well as schools, the Public Library and Town Hall, he said.
Martina Smith, meanwhile, appears to have settled in very well in her job at the Davis Ave. firehouse.
The Jersey City resident and St. Anthony’s High School Class of 1996 alumna enlisted in the Navy in February 1998 for a four-year tour and re-upped for a second.
“I did it for the education opportunity,” Smith said. Using the G.I. Bill, and on the advice of a family member, she took fire science courses at New Jersey City University, earning a B.A. in 2009.
“Two years prior,” she said, “I had applied for a job with the Jersey City Fire Department.”
Asked about her career choice, Smith said: “I’ve never been an office-type person.”
To her surprise, Smith ended up on the Kearny Fire Department appointment list as well and was tendered a job offer and, after successfully completing two months training in the fire academy and one month in EMT school, she began working.
Smith did a year’s service at Engine 3 at Fire Headquarters and is now assigned to Squad 2 on Davis Ave. where, when she takes her turn as firehouse cook, she likes to grill chicken and veggies for her Bravest crew.
So far, Smith has responded to a fire at the Arlington Bridge, a few car fires but, as yet, no buildings. “We train for it, though, so I’m ready when it happens,” she said.