Will Mpls still investigate civil rights?
Here’s my latest story in the Spokesman (below).
Will Mpls still investigate civil rights complaints?
by Anna Pratt
Originally posted 7/15/2009
The future of this City function remains uncertain
As a result of huge cutbacks to Local Government Aid to cities statewide, the City of Minneapolis is grappling with a $21 million shortfall for 2010. Every department will be affected, but some people say the Minneapolis Department of Civil Rights (MDCR) is being hit especially hard.
Earlier this year, Mayor R.T. Rybak proposed transferring the department’s Complaint Investigations Unit’s (CIU’s) work to the Minnesota Department of Human Rights, which also investigates discrimination complaints. Since then, there have been some related community forums and demonstrations, while the City has formed a taskforce to study the issue.
Many people are advocating for the CIU to stay put because they say it plays an important role, particularly for minorities, immigrants, and low-income residents. Moving its work to St. Paul could become a barrier for people who don’t have reliable transportation. However, others argue that the unit, which has a 500-plus backlog of cases and takes an average of two years to close a case, would be better off with the State.
This week, the City’s taskforce — which has been rife with problems, including community members being kicked out of a meeting that was supposed to be “open” and differences in opinion about its vision — is wrapping up its work. The final report will be submitted to the city council’s Health, Energy and Environment Committee later this month; the consensus seems to be that the unit should remain with the City, according to its draft recommendations.
Bill Davis, president and CEO of Community Action of Minneapolis, chairs the taskforce. He said that although he’s trying to stay neutral, as someone who formerly served on the department’s commission and previously worked for the State Human Rights Department, “I know the importance of having the unit at the local level.”
The State’s financial picture is even bleaker than the City’s, Davis said. “How it will ramp up to take it [the CIU’s work] on is the crux of the issue. There’s been no monetary commitment from the governor to add more resources… The quality of investigations could suffer as a result.”
Cut deep, or across the board?
Although the CIU may need to be downsized, across-the-board budget reductions would be better than severing any of the civil rights department’s units, the taskforce’s in-progress report states. “There was almost universal concern,” it reads, “that the MDHR would not be able to accommodate the increased workload that would result if they were to absorb the complaints currently filed with and investigated by the CIU.”
Not everyone feels across-the-board cuts are the answer. Kenneth Brown, who serves on the committee and also chairs the Minneapolis Civil Rights Commission, said it would make the department ineffective.
Already, the public is up in arms about how long it takes the department to investigate complaints, Brown said. He has offered up another suggestion: The department’s Civilian Review Authority, which deals with allegations of police misconduct, could be relocated to human resources. That option, however, isn’t currently on the table.
As to whether MDHR is prepared to take on Minneapolis complaints, Communications Director Jeff Holman would only say that the State department “will handle any additional cases if the City of Minneapolis ultimately decided to eliminate the Department of Civil Rights’ investigative role.”
MDHR, which received 871 charges of discrimination in 2008, has whittled away more than half of them. “In addition to having no backlog and consistently investigating charges within the one-year required by the state Human Rights Act, MDHR has been highly successful in obtaining monetary relief for charging parties, as well as changes in policy to prevent future discrimination, when we find there is probable cause to believe the Act has been violated,” Holman said via email recently.
Minnesota Senator Ron Latz (DFL-District 44) said that while he didn’t want to weigh in on whether the City’s cases should go to the State, as an employment law attorney and as a member of the senate’s public safety budget committee, his experience with MDHR has been positive.
“The department does a commendable job in handling and investigating charges of discrimination,” said Latz, “especially given the limited resources that are provided them. If the State did absorb Minneapolis cases, I’m confident it would be able to serve all complainants and respondents responsibly.”
Undoing the Minnesota Miracle?
Another taskforce member, Chuck Samuelson, who heads the Minnesota chapter of the ACLU, said none of the options are ideal. “I think people need to put blame where blame belongs, on the governor.”
He also disagrees with across-the-board cuts, believing they should be deep in one area. For some reason, he said, police and fire departments are “sacrosanct.” As a result of State cuts, “The people who are bearing the burden are those who use government services,” he said. “The governor has undone the Minnesota Miracle.”
Political analyst David Schultz, who teaches at Hamline University in St. Paul, expanded on that point. The Minnesota Miracle, he said, has been a partnership between the State, businesses and residents. From the ’70s through the last decade, “The State did a good job investing heavily in basic infrastructure for education and public projects as a way to improve business and the quality of life,” he said.
That investment set this state apart from the rest. By refusing to raise taxes over the past eight years, “Pawlenty has been living off the past, or past investments. Now there’s no more slack. We’re not trimming superfluous stuff, but core functions.”
The result, Schultz added, is that “Certain things aren’t going to get done. While there are some things that the marketplace might be able to do, it’s not going to pick up civil rights. It’s a government function.”
More objections to a CIU transfer
City Council Member Robert Lilligren said his position is that the unit needs to stay in the City. “In Minneapolis, there’s a persistent gap between White people and people of color in terms of income, education and health… One possible cause is racism and discrimination. We need to have a way to complain and express allegations,” he said.
The civil rights department is small and easy to marginalize. “It’s under-resourced, under-accountable and as a result it under-performs… The fact that we’ve long allowed this to under-perform is a symptom of the problem we’re trying to address by having a civil rights department,” Lilligren said.
Lolla Mohammed Nur, an organizer of a July 6 demonstration at city hall who is also a University of Minnesota student, agreed. She has been petitioning on campus in support of the department staying intact, with 500 signatures collected so far.
“We want to raise the issue. We know what’s going on, and we care,” said Nur.
“We think the budget shouldn’t be cut. It should be more than one percent of the City’s budget.”
Peter Nickitas, a local employment law attorney who was a passerby at the protest, said, “I hope the office stays viable and maintains staff at its current levels… Its federal and State counterparts also face severe budget challenges and backlogs.”
The way Nickitas sees it, “We need to have a system to eliminate discrimination, which a City ordinance prohibits. This office represents one of the most important ones in the City.”
Anna Pratt welcomes reader responses to firstname.lastname@example.org.