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Five black men plan to sue commissioners over panel choice

Black men vow suit over exclusion from districting unit

Friday, November 13, 1998

By Mark Belko, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

The appointment of a black woman as the fifth member of the panel that created the new Allegheny County council districts is coming under attack by a group of black men who claim they were unconstitutionally excluded from consideration.

The five are planning to file a class-action lawsuit today in which they charge the county commissioners discriminated against them and other black men in appointing a black woman for the fifth and final seat on the five-member apportionment commission.

The attorney for the men, Jan Swensen, said his clients are seeking to have the apportionment completed Oct. 23 to create the 13 council districts for the new home rule government that will take effect in 2000 rendered null and void and another panel appointed.

Swensen and Mazi A. Ndubisi Ucheomumu, the lead plaintiff in the expected lawsuit, said the decision to consider only black women for the last spot on the panel violated state and federal laws barring discrimination on the basis of race or sex.

The lawsuit may not be the only one to be filed over the apportionment. Former state House Speaker K. Leroy Irvis also has vowed a court challenge of the map produced by the apportionment panel, claiming its one black-majority district continued a historic pattern of minority underrepresentation in America.

Jeannie Riles-Pratt, a black woman, was named as the fifth member of the panel in September following a lengthy dispute over appointments to it.

Commissioner Larry Dunn blocked the appointment of four white men, two Republicans and two Democrats, to the panel for 48 days because there were no blacks or females among them.

The four were nominated by state legislative leaders but had to be unanimously approved by the three commissioners.

In an effort to break the impasse, the four nominees said they would consider only black women for the fifth spot. Under the law they nominated a fifth member subject to the approval of the commissioners.

Dunn finally acquiesced to the appointment of the four legislative nominees after they asked each of the commissioners to submit a list of recommended candidates for the fifth spot.

All of the candidates recommended by the commissioners were black women. Three of them turned out to be acceptable to all three commissioners, including Riles-Pratt.

Swensen said the lawsuit will name the commissioners as defendants, and not apportionment commission members, because they were the ones who approved the appointments.

Ucheomumu, a businessman, maintained the decision to consider only black women for the fifth spot was "symptomatic of national institutionalized racist practices designed to put down black men."

"That is complete discrimination. This has been done to black men all over the country," he said.

He said an appointment to a panel like the apportionment commission has the potential to give "legitimacy" to the person appointed and improve his or her earning power.

In response to the expected lawsuit, Tim Joyce, an administrative assistant to Commissioner Mike Dawida, said Dawida had recommended two black men to state legislative leaders who made the initial nominations.

In a statement, Dunn said he never demanded appointment of a black woman.

"Although I was not satisfied that the commission was representative of the people of Allegheny County, I believed Jeannie Pratt to be well qualified and agreed to her selection as the fifth member of the commission," he added.

A spokesman for Commissioner Bob Cranmer declined comment.

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