Prattles

Ramblings of Anna Pratt, Twin Cities journalist

Archive for March 2009

Photo of the day

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Check out photographer Rich Ryan’s “photo of the day” blog (especially this past Thursday’s image).

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March 28, 2009 at 1:10 pm

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Central Corridor support hits a snag

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Here’s the intro and link to my story on a recent Central Corridor summit that aired last night on KFAI:

Members of the US House of Representatives recently allocated $20 million from their 2009 budget process to the Central Corridor, the 11-mile light rail link that will connect Minneapolis and St. Paul via Washington and University Avenues. Neighbors and community activists are concerned about the impacts of Central Corridor development on surrounding neighborhoods. KFAI’s Anna Pratt reports.

For more information about the Met Council’s ongoing visioning sessions, call the Public Comment Line at 651-602-1500 or visit its website at metrocouncil.org.

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March 25, 2009 at 1:48 pm

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Civil rights takes a budget beating part 2 and sidebar

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Here’s part two to my Spokesman-Recorder story about Minneapolis Mayor R.T. Rybak’s proposal to transfer complaints investigations to the state, along with a sidebar that includes information that arrived as the paper went to press (pasted below). Here’s part one.

Civil Rights takes a budget beating

Politicians, community stakeholders debate the future of complaint investigations

Conclusion of a two-part story

As we reported last week, Minneapolis Mayor R.T. Rybak has recently floated the idea of transferring the work of the City’s Civil Rights Complaints Investigations Unit to the State Human Rights Department, where he says there’s “some overlap,” as one way to deal with State cuts in Local Government Aid.

That would save the city $400,000 a year, according to City information. The Minneapolis Department of Civil Rights (MDCR) investigates allegations of discrimination against protected classes and complaints of police misconduct, as well as overseeing affirmative action goals on City-funded projects, among other things.

The State also does investigations. (Duluth and St. Paul also investigate claims, while the U.S. Department of Labor, Housing and Urban Development (HUD) and the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) focus on certain kinds of cases.)

Already, Rybak’s proposal has met with plenty of opposition, but some people argue that the Complaints Investigations Unit (CIU) isn’t up to par, contending that the state is more efficient. Others say it’s the other way around. Still others advocate for systemic changes in the City department, as opposed to shifting the 500-plus-caseload to the State, which is also facing serious cuts.

Interestingly, the CIU is the one arm of the department that generates revenue, according to an email from its coordinator, Ronald Brandon, which the MSR has obtained. CIU accomplishes that through a work-sharing agreement with the EEOC. While the mayor has emphasized the need to keep intact the areas of the department that help usher in jobs for minorities, the CIU investigates more job-related claims than anything else. It’s also worth noting that 92 percent of the claims last year came from African Americans and Somalis.

City Council Member Don Samuels said it’s unclear at this point what the implications of such a move might be, especially for those who don’t speak English or don’t have transportation. “We don’t know to what extent it would discourage access,” he said, adding that until that is understood, “I can’t support it… Sometimes what is financially prudent is outweighed by what is socially imperative.”

The MDCR has been cut year after year. Bearing in mind history’s lessons, “I think the Civil Rights Department needs a break,” said Samuels. “The department has become such a target.”

A tale of two taskforces

A taskforce made up of City and community representatives will assess whether the State could take on the City’s load, with recommendations to come before the city council by June 1, according to an amendment from City Council Member Elizabeth Glidden that was passed as a part of the 2009 budget.

Glidden, who is an employment attorney, said the department’s long history of leadership and funding challenges, coupled with performance issues, make it difficult to figure out how best to proceed. While she’s hearing from the public that Rybak’s proposal doesn’t send the right message, “I do think the [investigations unit] is not yet at an acceptable level of service,” she said.

None of the options are ideal. Before the mayor’s plan was laid out, “We should’ve had more conversations with the community more proactively, to talk about issues within the department and State cuts,” Glidden said.

Separately, the Civil Rights Commission, which is the oversight body for the department, is going to do its own analysis of the issue. The commissioners divided into related subgroups during their March 16 meeting.

“I expect our results will be wildly different from the mayor’s,” said Commissioner and Vice Chair Anita Urvina-Davis. “I’m concerned about the State. Many complaints don’t get past [filing] the initial complaint.”

Eliminating backlog?

Michael K. Browne, who formerly led the department and who was an independent consultant to MDCR before that, states in a 2005 report on the Complaints Investigations Unit that it has serious deficiencies.

The report shows that too much time goes by between the filing of a complaint and investigation. Analyses are superficial and don’t follow procedure, while productivity goals are nonexistent.

Jordan argued that the Browne report was useful, but not sufficient. Instead, a new triage process and mediation program that he says was developed out of a business process improvement program (BPIP) helps the CIU. It lays out a process by which complaints are dismissed, mediated or investigated.

Those complaints that are deemed frivolous, having no merit, jurisdiction outside of the city or surpassing their timeliness will be docketed and dismissed, according to a write-up of the process.

One of the main things Jordan said emerged from the new process was that a single person was put in charge of intake and collecting relevant pieces of information. In the old days, investigators had to juggle intake with investigations. Now, Jordan said, “They have all of that in hand while they decide what to do with it.”

He said the new process might help resolve issues in less than the usual two years. It makes a difference in terms of how many cases reach the investigation stage.Nearly 70 percent of cases are dismissed, which falls in line with national statistics, Jordan said.

However, according to some former employees, that was a change brought about in 2005 by Jayne Khalifa, the deputy city coordinator who led the MDCR before Browne. According to an unnamed source, when Jordan came in he redistributed the intake duties back to investigators who still rotate related duties.

Ironically, it was the investigators who left en masse shortly after Jordan came in who put together the BPIP, according to the unnamed source, adding that it simply reproduced the Browne report.

Jordan says he’s implemented a new case management system that is more accessible and allows for more thorough work than the old one. Furthermore, staffers are “pretty good at what they do…, have a lot of skills,” and speak multiple languages, although the investigators still have not hit the goal of individually completing five investigations a month.

According to information contained in an email from CIU Coordinator Brandon, the unit closed 270 cases in 2008, which is double the year before. “By September, it’ll have a file inventory that is ‘fresh’…investigations will be resolved within a 20 month window and by December 2009 all investigations will be resolved, on average, within an 18 month window,” according to Brandon’s email.
However, with the eight investigators, including contractors plus the CIU coordinator, the unit has more manpower than the five plus the CIU coordinator it had previously.

Karl Johnson, a complainant who brought forward allegations of discrimination by an undisclosed party, says the department isn’t serving the needs of the people. Nothing happened with his case for a year before he learned that the investigator who was handling it no longer worked for the department. The case was then turned back to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), where it was originally filed, only to start the process all over again.

Johnson said that taxpayers should be asking for hard evidence that the department is doing its job. “How many cases have they investigated and found evidence that there was probable cause to believe that there was discrimination? How many cases were settled with an equitable resolution (based on statements of those who filed the complaint)?” he posed as criteria.

“The people, the citizens with no financial wherewithal, have MDCR. If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. If it don’t work, get rid of it. That’s the bottom line,” said Johnson.

Additional perspectives

By comparison, the Minnesota Department of Human Rights has 463 open cases in its inventory, while 871 charges were filed last year, according to information from department spokesperson Jeff Holman. The department is “required to investigate charges of discrimination and make determinations on those charges within one year, a standard we consistently meet,” said Holman via email. “We do not have a ‘backlog.’”

In St. Paul, City officials have taken an alternate route by restructuring its human rights department, even in the face of challenges similar to those of Minneapolis. St. Paul mayoral spokesman Bob Hume said via email, “We’re happy that we have a consolidated department that has strengthened our Human Right capacity in the city while streamlining contracting services and increasing accountability. Though our efforts are still taking shape, we’re confident that it will be a model for cities in the future.”

Minneapolis attorney Andrew Muller, who specializes in employment law, was skeptical of Rybak’s proposal. Muller, who has experience working with the State, Minneapolis and St. Paul civil rights divisions, said via email that a unit’s efficacy often rides on how much funding it has. “In Minneapolis, I was impressed with Michael [K.] Browne… St. Paul has a good department, and the state does a nice job as well.”

Nimco Ahmed, a Somali and an aide to City Council Member Robert Lilligren, said that getting rid of the unit would adversely affect the Somali community. Early on, when Somali immigrants first arrived in Minneapolis, there were problems with employers, stemming from needing to take breaks to pray (five times daily), as required by their faith.

“Civil rights played a key role there,” said Ahmed. “A new group of immigrants that has their own struggle don’t know the laws. They don’t know their rights, and so they depend on a program like the Civil Rights [Department].”

Additionally, many of the immigrants can’t afford attorneys. In response to criticism that the department unit doesn’t function as well as it should, Ahmed said, “How can it function when every year it gets cut?”

Civil Rights Dept. work environment ‘toxic’, disorganized, biased

The following information arrived just as we were going to press,
provided by sources close to the situation on the condition
that their names be withheld:

Some say the Minneapolis Department of Civil Rights’ internal issues are so great that the unit should either be restructured or shifted to the State.
According to an undisclosed source, investigators have been pushed to plow through cases hastily in order to eliminate the backlog. The emphasis has been on getting things done rather than making sure they’re functioning properly.

Training has been limited, while the unit lacks coordination and organization. Investigations are inconsistent, sometimes biased, and lack depth. According to our sources, the department does a poor job of record-keeping and having written policies and procedures.

At one point, when the unit had lost touch with some complainants who were tangled in the backlog, the investigators were pushed to determine “no probable cause” instead of just dismissing the cases. When a case is dismissed, a complainant can still bring the matter to court; but when they’re given a “no probable cause” finding, that diminishes the case’s credibility. (A “probable cause” finding helps a complainant’s case move forward.)

As for the business process improvement program (BPIP — see main story), that has long been a fuzzy topic internally without there being a clear understanding of what it is or means. While it’s been touted that this is the first crop of investigators who are all attorneys, most are just out of law school and don’t have much experience doing investigations.

The work environment is described as “toxic” with little staff retention. Some sources say that among the community of people who work in this area, they know to steer clear of the Minneapolis Civil Rights Department. —By Anna Pratt

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March 25, 2009 at 1:43 pm

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Civil rights takes a budget beating

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I wrote about the possibility of Minneapolis’ civil rights investigations unit being shifted to the state human rights department. Go here to read it or scroll down. Part two comes out next Wednesday.

Last week, the Minneapolis City Council directed staff to organize a taskforce made up of City officials and community stakeholders to study Mayor R.T. Rybak’s recent proposal to shift the work of the City’s civil rights complaints investigations arm to the State Human Rights Department.

The Minneapolis Department of Civil Rights has three branches that assess discrimination claims against protected classes and civilian complaints of police misconduct, enforce affirmative action goals for City projects, and oversee Multicultural Services and the American Indian Advocate offices, according to its website. The State counterpart also investigates claims (usually non-Minneapolis-related).

The mayor, who is a Democrat, has echoed Republican Governor Tim Pawlenty’s claim that there’s “some overlap” between what the City and State do in terms of complaints investigations — a departure from what he previously called a “duplication of services,” which he now says isn’t the right way to put it.
Earlier this year, Pawlenty challenged cities to tackle Local Government Aid (LGA) cuts by reducing civil rights expenses.

While Rybak says a transfer would save the City $180,000, critics claim it would mean losing a vital service for Minneapolis residents while the State would gain a backlog of something like 500 cases. Still others say that the nine-employee City unit isn’t up to par, with too little done too late on complainants’ claims.

As economic woes intensify, civil rights complaints typically increase, according to some legal experts, while the State Human Rights Department hasn’t seen any additional funds in years. On top of that, a 1996 report on the State department, the most recent evaluation of its kind, shows that it’s understaffed and under-funded.

However, State Human Rights spokesperson Jeff Holman said that he couldn’t comment on whether the proposal is realistic or not. “Each year, we review hundreds of complaints filed by Minnesotans regarding their rights under the state’s Human Rights Act. We will handle any additional cases if the City of Minneapolis ultimately decides to eliminate the Department of Civil Rights’ investigative role,” he said via email.

“[The State department] doesn’t take a perspective on policy. Currently, the vast majority of cities don’t do investigations and enforcement,” Holman said.
It’ll be up to the City-community taskforce to get to the bottom of it by doing an “examination of the State Department of Human Rights’ capability to handle all or part of the complaint investigations unit, and the service impacts to all business lines of a potential cut of $300,000 (cumulative from 2009 and 2010) to the Department’s budget,” according to the city council’s amendment that was approved Thursday, March 12, as part of the mayor’s 2009 budget. Recommendations will be brought back to the council by June 1.

The least amount of damage?

Rybak explained his rationale for the move: “This is not something that I ideally want to do. We’ve made significant progress in the complaints area. The reason for doing this is the massive cuts from the State. Every department will see a significant reduction.”

The idea is to find what has “the least impact on our citizens,” Rybak said. “I felt that this was one part of the critical work that is being done by another agency… All three functions of the department are important. Two of them we do alone. We could cut all three equally, but I’m concerned whether that would make each ineffective.”

Rybak says he’s open to other alternatives: “If we determine that the State cuts are so severe that we can’t guarantee justice, we won’t do it, but we have to do something.”

According to the mayor’s 2009 supplemental budget, the reduction would make the Department of Civil Rights less visible in general. Civil Rights employees would no longer show up for a number of diverse events, such as the annual Juneteenth celebration, it states. Advertising in ethnic newspapers would also go down, while partnerships with community or other government agencies would be curtailed.

“There will be a qualitative impact, as community groups and other organizations experience a diminished level of participation, involvement, and perhaps perceived support and interest from the Department… Impacts may result in reduced confidence on the part of the community and/or organization leaders with whom we have ‘partnered’ in the past. In the long term, they may well result in quantitatively negative outcomes,” according to the budget report.

Despite criticism that he’s trying to eliminate the department altogether, the mayor claims his commitment to civil rights remains strong. “I’m proposing what would be the least damaging,” Rybak says.

Michael Jordan, who leads the Department of Civil Rights, said at the March 5 Ways and Means Committee meeting that he’ll carry out the mayor’s direction. “My goal is that we obtain the 2009 budget cuts without sacrificing the current workforce.”

He said he lobbied for a different strategy, though he didn’t say exactly what. He would “get in lockstep and prepare to implement the mayor’s direction… I didn’t come to dismantle the department,” he said.

At the same meeting, City Council Member Robert Lilligren referenced an email correspondence from the mayor on the subject that describes the city as a “beacon of justice.” “That probably is not a fact,” Lilligren said of the description. “Though it’s robust, there’s a huge and growing gap. That’s why we’re seeing the community response today.”

Others weigh in

Already, many people are registering their complaints about the proposal. On February 27, a coalition of diverse organizations raised concerns about losing the department that had its beginning during the 1960s Civil Rights Movement and is one of the few such departments boasting subpoena power.

City Council Member Ralph Remington said the proposal is a bad idea. “While I understand that the mayor is struggling to find creative ways to deal with the financial burden, we’d be better positioned if we championed a restructuring of the Park Board,” he said, adding, “So much support for the Park Board is mired in traditionalism and nostalgia.”

“The time has come to stop looking at civil rights as a Black issue,” Remington said. “It’s a human issue.”

Local employment attorney Lateesa Ward said she believes the State is too bogged down to take on the unit. Additionally, “It takes away choices. It suggests the City has no enforcement of its own [related] ordinances.”

But another Minneapolis-based employment attorney, Jim Kaster, disagrees. He said that his experience with the City’s civil rights department has been negative. He believes the State process is more efficient.

Kaster cited one instance in which it took a year to get a regular “right to sue” letter from the City department. “We have an obligation to clients. [In cases such as this one], the department is doing a disservice to people,” he said. “I never got the impression that the civil rights investigators were actively involved in an investigation. I’m wondering what they do. If [the unit] is not going to do a good job, then it shouldn’t be around,” he said.

Looking at the State

State Representative Michael Paymar, who serves on the legislative committee for public safety and finance, remarked, “Do I think it’s a good idea to send a bunch of cases to the State when it’s facing cuts? That seems problematic… Do we want to get back to where the State takes months and months to get back to people? That’s not in the best interest of people who feel they’ve been discriminated against.

“I understand it’s a difficult dilemma,” Paymar said. “By cutting LGA, [the State] is shifting the burden to the City. [Under Rybak’s proposal], the City is shifting it back to the State while the citizens suffer.” The effect is “more
and more cases and less and less money.”

Stephen Cooper, a former State commissioner of human rights, said, “This shows a disturbing lack of commitment of the City. The State is always there. This is taking away an option that people previously had and adding nothing.

“[Right now] it’s a presence in the City,” said Cooper. Taking it away, the “whole agenda becomes diminished and shrunk. I wonder if the mayor would say, ‘Let’s get rid of some cops because we have the highway patrol? Or the health department, because OSHA can do it?”

“Everything the City does one could argue could be done by another level of government,” said Cooper. The cost of running Civil Rights is modest, yet it continues to be on the chopping block at the City and State year after year.
”This is saying that it’s not important to have a presence…”
It’s times like these, Cooper noted, when “the disenfranchised are punished most. If you don’t have things in place to make sure they won’t carry the brunt, they will.”

Next week: more about Minneapolis’ civil rights complaint investigation unit and what moving that function to the State would mean to city residents.
Anna Pratt welcomes reader responses to annaprattjournalist@gmail.com.

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March 18, 2009 at 3:39 pm

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Wearing green by building a sustainability strategy

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Here’s a story I did for a sustainability special section in Finance and Commerce about some companies’ strides to be greener.

It starts: A growing number of companies are incorporating sustainability strategies in individual office spaces

URS Architects, which is located in downtown Minneapolis’ Fifth Street Towers, wants its office to reflect its values for sustainability, inside and out.

The group chose this location in part because of the building’s emphasis on being environmentally sound, according to architect Peter Styx. URS is in the process of applying for certification through Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED), which sets benchmarks for commercial interiors in the areas of green building construction, design and operation.

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March 12, 2009 at 6:34 pm

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JACC update: Judge denies temporary restraining order to rogue board

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This just in: Today, a Hennepin County judge denied a group’s application for a temporary restraining order (TRO) against the newly-elected officers of Minneapolis’ Jordan Area Community Council (JACC) and some city officials.

JACC has been the center of a power struggle in the Jordan neighborhood, with a “rogue board” comprised of previous JACC officers and at least one former JACC employee claiming to be the organization’s bona fide leaders. That has led to litigation, including the rogue board’s TRO request. For a rundown of recent events, see my story posted here and my earlier posts.

More details on the judge’s decision later tonight.

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March 11, 2009 at 5:04 pm

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Doing more with less

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Here’s a story I did for Minnesota Lawyer on what in-house legal departments are doing to contain costs.

It starts:

In-house legal departments are learning to run leaner.

To stay afloat in tough economic times, many in-house legal departments are under pressure to “do more with less,” as one local legal expert puts it.

Seventy-five percent of corporate law departments across the country are seeing considerable cutbacks this year, according to a December 2008 study from Altman Weil, an international legal consultant.

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March 9, 2009 at 6:59 pm

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