Civil rights takes a budget beating
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 firstname.lastname@example.org.