Community members debate the future civil rights dept.
My most recent story in the Spokesman-Recorder (below):
Community members debate the future civil rights dept
by Anna Pratt
Originally posted 6/1/2009
Critics say shift from Minneapolis to the State will create a bogged-down system
During a May 21 community meeting at the Urban League in North Minneapolis, a local theater troupe acted out a scenario showing one woman’s struggle to get help with a civil rights complaint. The actors portrayed a system that is too bogged down to adequately address anyone’s needs. Even though the group, called Pedagogy and Theatre of the Oppressed, wasn’t the focus of the meeting, it brought up the issue that was on the minds of attendees.
Earlier this year, Mayor R.T. Rybak proposed transferring the work of the eight-person Complaints Investigations Unit (CIU) to the State human rights department, citing a savings of $400,000 annually, starting in 2010. On top of that, another $180,000 would need to be trimmed from the civil rights department’s 2009 budget.
Rybak characterized the CIU as a “duplication of services” because both the City and State investigate allegations of discrimination. Later the mayor said that it should be phrased another way, since the departments handle separate cases. (They have different processes for evaluating claims, as well.)
Over the past several months, some community members have lobbied for the CIU to stay where it is. They say it provides crucial services, especially to minorities, immigrants and low-income residents. Moving the function elsewhere might hinder its accessibility, especially for non-English speakers or those who don’t have reliable transportation. Right now, complainants usually bring their allegations to the agency that is located in the city where an incident took place.
Further, they say the move sends the message that civil rights aren’t a priority in Minneapolis. Others argue that the CIU, which takes an average of two years to close a case, fails to live up to expectations. Considering an historic backlog of cases, they say it would be better off in the hands of the State.
Unlike its Minneapolis counterpart, the Minnesota Department of Human Rights doesn’t have a backlog. It’s required to close cases within the course of one year. However, it also is strapped for cash.
Even so, department spokesperson Jeff Holman said in March via email, “With respect to your question about our department’s ability to absorb the City of Minneapolis’ investigative functions, the Minnesota Department of Human Rights is dedicated to investigating charges of illegal discrimination in the state…
We will handle any additional cases if the City of Minneapolis ultimately decided to eliminate Department of Civil Rights’ investigative role.”
Exploring the options
Right now, the public is being asked to weigh in at various community-input sessions about whether the City should keep CIU intact or go with an alternate solution (dates are to be announced). Among the other options, the department could be reduced across the board, or another division could be relegated to the State, for instance.
Separately, the City has convened a taskforce to look into the issue. Community activist Kenneth Brown, chair and a taskforce member of the civil rights commission, an oversight body to the department, expressed frustration at Thursday’s meeting, which was organized independently from the City.
Even though the City and State divisions were established by the same federal legislation in the 1960s, “It’s not a duplication of services,” he said.
On top of that, he said City officials haven’t followed through on related responsibilities. As a recent example, “The mayor said he was going to control community engagement, but it has been dropped on the commission,” which he said is challenging, considering the time frame. The original deadline for input was early June.
Louisa Hext, who is also a civil rights commissioner, chimed in. “My frustration is as a layperson and volunteer who believes in justice. This isn’t about money… People aren’t stepping up to the plate,” she said. To preserve the unit, “We need to continue to mobilize.”
Over the years, she’s seen more and more cases come to resolution, she said, adding, “I’ve seen the department do an exceptional job of catching up, with better investigations.”
In defense of MDCR
When someone asked how many cases in Minneapolis get resolved and how many are thrown out, presenter Taneeza Islam, an investigator with MDCR, answered that she didn’t have those stats at her fingertips.
Islam, who said that her being at the May 21 meeting was “borderline a conflict of interest,” touted that the CIU’s investigators, all of whom are attorneys and minorities, have made significant progress in whittling away the backlog of cases. However, MSR previously reported that some sources who are close to the action claimed that investigators have been pressured to finish cases too quickly, with little quality control. (See MSR’s previous two-part story, “Civil Rights takes a budget beating.”)
Said Islam, “The department has chosen not to publicize the positive things that have been done.” She added that it’s “been doing a lot of great things for the community,” referencing a recent settlement in an undisclosed case for $130,000 while another complainant recently returned to his or her former position.
To keep the unit going, Islam suggested that community members broaden their efforts. On a national level, civil rights departments are being downsized. As such, “You might consider making it a national movement… That could be another strategy,” she said.
Another department employee, Johnny Burns, who leads the Contracts and Compliance Unit (CCU), echoed that people tend to remember negative things, such as his unit’s past problems enforcing affirmative action requirements. He said that the department has taken steps to resolve that, with penalties invoked for companies that don’t meet standards.
“When strides are made, the public doesn’t know about it,” Burns said. He also defended his unit, saying, “If most complaints are already in employment, if our unit isn’t there, complaints will go up.”
The Urban League’s Cheryl Morgan Spencer said that she and many others want CIU to remain local. Looking at the roomful of less than a dozen attendees, she remarked, “I’m disappointed that there’s such a small group here, but I hope everyone will speak up. We need to look at creative ways to raise revenue to keep the unit intact.”
Later, she added that this isn’t exclusively a minority issue. “This issue is really large. It gets clouded with issues of race… We must build ground-level momentum.”
Roger Banks, a researcher from the Council on Black Minnesotans, made the point that the department’s history couldn’t be ignored on this topic. The department’s budget has been cut to the quick. Its 2009 budget is $2.5 million, down from $2.8 million in 2008, according to City information. From 2003-04, its budget was reduced by 40 percent. In Banks’ view, the department, which the City created in 1967, “was set up to fail, to undermine civil rights progress.”
Another attendee, Rose Brewer, raised the question, “How can you stay committed to a department that’s not working?”
Vivian Jenkins Nelsen, co-president of the League of Women Voters of Minnesota, commented that it’s a sad state of affairs. “This hits home for me… I understand what it can look like if resources are not committed. We could be going back there,” she said. “This is a quality-of-life issue. What other cities of the same size don’t have civil rights departments? What will it mean if [the unit’s work] goes to [the State]?”
Anna Pratt welcomes reader responses to firstname.lastname@example.org.