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Ramblings of Anna Pratt, Twin Cities journalist

New complaint against city by outgoing head of Minneapolis Civil Rights Commission

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New complaint against city by outgoing head of Minneapolis Civil Rights Commission
BY ANNA PRATT, MINNESOTA SPOKESMAN-RECORDER
September 30, 2009
In a rare move by the city, Kenneth Brown, who helmed the commission that provides oversight to the Minneapolis Department of Civil Rights (MDCR), was recently turned down for another term. So was fellow commissioner Allen Kathir.

Reappointment is almost always a given, leading some people to speculate that Brown, a seven-year commissioner, may have been voted off because he is “brash and direct.” Kathir’s case, they say, is less clear-cut.

Brown, who believes he was discriminated against for being black and having a disability, said he intends to take legal action against the city. It looks bad that two minority commissioners are leaving while three white people are being brought on, he said, adding that the vast majority of discrimination complaints come from African Americans.

“By not reappointing the chair, the Mayor is telling all commissioners not to question his authority or wishes,” Brown said. “It is clear that the leadership of this city does not want citizens to hold them accountable to the laws that govern everyone else.”

Kathir, who is of Southeast Asian descent and is currently running for City Council in Ward 3 against Diane Hofstede, said his service on the commission was a good way to calm tensions in his community between residents and police. The ward needs to be involved in these kinds of issues, he said, to help them work hand in hand to “bring about safety,” he said.

“I can’t see a logical reason for [not being reappointed],” Kathir said, adding that discussion needs to be more transparent and “out in the open.” It raises questions about the reappointment process, considering that some commissioners have been around for well over a decade.

Politics at work?

In Brown’s view, the scenario is reminiscent of the time, in 2006, when black attorney Larry Blackwell was given the boot following an unflattering report he did on the city (reported in a CityPages story.)

Brown said it’s possible he’s being retaliated against for his recent filing of a separate discrimination claim with the state human rights department, alleging that the city denied him a lawn mowing and re-cutting subcontract on the basis of a disability.

Brown has been outspoken about the civil rights department’s internal dysfunction along with other city problems. During his last commission meeting on Monday September 21, Brown requested that a discrimination charge be filed against various city officials who failed to respond to a number of concerns, including the high volume of civil rights complaints against the city, stalled “probable cause” cases, and millions of dollars in payouts for settlements against the police. He also said a disparity study, which would provide valuable workforce information and a citywide affirmative action plan are way overdue.

Assistant City Attorney Frank Reed recommended against the commission filing a charge. “Failure to respond isn’t discrimination,” he said. “[Filing a charge] isn’t a joke.”

Brown disagreed, citing the city’s civil rights ordinance (section 139.60), which states that officials are required to promptly respond to reasonable requests and their failure to do so “shall be deemed an act of discrimination.”

The commission didn’t act on Brown’s request, but did approve a motion to discuss protections for whistleblowers at a Standards and Procedures committee meeting, which Brown said, “shouldn’t be necessary. The board is supposed to be independent and not bow to political winds.”

The process

When commissioners at the Monday meeting asked department head Michael Jordan about his influence on the recent turn of events, he held back, saying, “My conversation with the Mayor was my conversation with the Mayor.”

Jeremy Hanson, a spokesperson for Mayor R.T. Rybak, later responded over the phone, “Basically, the Mayor had a pool of strong candidates and the Mayor chose to appoint those who he thought were the strongest. ”

Commissioners have three-year appointments for a reason, he said, adding, “The Mayor feels strongly about using it as an opportunity to get new people involved in city government. He was very pleased there were such high-quality candidates.”

City Council member Cam Gordon (Ward 2), who is leading a diversity audit of 50-plus city boards, said that Kathir was merely overlooked: “When we were reviewing names we thought Allen and Ken were mayoral candidates,” he said. “If we’d realized that Allen was an appointment of ours, I think he would’ve been reappointed. He’s enthusiastic, energetic and dedicated. I would’ve advocated for him.”

Attorney Mike Miller, who served on the commission through July, acknowledged that some commissioners butted heads with Brown at times. Miller didn’t agree with Brown 100 percent of the time, but he was satisfied with him as a leader.  “I’m sure that a few commissioners didn’t like the way [Brown] operated and didn’t want to deal with it directly,” he said, adding, “The loss will be felt and I’m not sure that’s not intentional.”

Commissioner Michelle Monteiro praised Brown and Kathir as hardworking civil rights advocates. “It’s outrageous that [Brown] was removed despite our confidence in him. We feel as though he and [Kathir] upset the Mayor and [civil rights director] Michael Jordan.”

Cutting an already slashed budget

Another commissioner, Brittany Lewis, said it falls in line with the legacy of the body, which has been characterized by “a lot of negative energy and leadership is not what we want it to be,” she said. “Our role is very political. We deal with race, class and gender discrimination issues, which some people have trouble talking about … It’s too bad [Brown and Kathir] are being denied access.”

It’s hard to separate these events from the drama that the civil rights department is known for. Only months ago, Brown and Kathir lobbied against the Mayor’s proposal earlier this year to eliminate the department’s Complaints Investigations Unit (CIU), a division of the department that has been fraught with problems, including everything from a huge backlog of cases to the high turnover of investigators. The proposal, which would transfer the CIU’s caseload to the state, was met with plenty of community resistance from the outset, though some people complained it would be better off at the state.

While the unit will stay put at least one more year, according to city officials, Rybak recommended that $164,000 be trimmed from the $2.517 million department. To achieve that, civil rights director Michael Jordan recently proposed slashing operating expenses and one full-time position ($71,000) for a savings of $93,000, on top of reductions to contractual services, computer system support and contract investigator time, according to City Council member Gary Schiff (Ward 9).

The civil rights department isn’t the only one being picked on. Each department is being downsized by at least five percent in 2010, according to city information. The figures will be finalized in early December, according to city information.

Louisa Hext, treasurer of the civil rights commission, said that although she’s relieved that CIU won’t be shifted to the state, she’s worried about what the future holds. “I’m pretty nervous about the depth of additional cuts … a loss of personnel is highly disappointing, particularly given the incredible positive progress of the department as a whole and in particular the employee investigators of the Minneapolis CIU.”

Anna Pratt (email annaprattjournalist@gmail.com) is a freelance journalist living and working in Minneapolis.

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Written by annapratt

September 30, 2009 at 11:23 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

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