Ramblings of Anna Pratt, Twin Cities journalist

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


Written by annapratt

March 25, 2009 at 1:43 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

One Response

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  1. […] taskforce is being organized to study the possibility of transferring the complaints investigations work to the state human rights department as a way to cope with budget cuts. By the time Jordan had scheduled this week’s meeting, […]

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