Minneapolis civil rights unit still in limbo
My recent story about the Minneapolis civil rights department, which is currently in the Minnesota Spokesman-Recorder:
Minneapolis civil rights unit still in limbo
BY ANNA PRATT, MINNESOTA SPOKESMAN-RECORDER
January 20, 2010
Last month, the Minneapolis City Council narrowly defeated a proposal to temporarily shift to the state the Complaints Investigations Unit (CIU) of the Minneapolis Department of Civil Rights (MDCR). While the vote preserves the unit for now, some people worry that it could still be displaced in the future.
City Council Member Betsy Hodges brought forward the proposal as an amendment to the 2010 budget. It was similar to an idea that Mayor R.T. Rybak had floated months before, which also would have transferred CIU to the Minnesota Department of Human Rights.
Governor Tim Pawlenty had recommended this tactic to cities that needed to balance state cuts in Local Government Aid.
An argument for transferring the unit was that it would be better to trim in one area of the MDCR as opposed to spreading out the pain. (Every city department is working out ways to stretch shrinking budgets.) As a part of the deal, the state would inherit a huge backlog of cases that has long plagued the city.
Following passionate community debate in various public meetings, protests at City Hall and more, the city convened a taskforce to study the issue further. Taskforce members concluded that the unit should stay put because it provides a valuable service, particularly to disenfranchised people, including new immigrants, for whom relocating CIU could present hardship.
Additionally, the Civil Rights Commission, an advisory body to the MDCR, did a separate study and lobbied to keep the unit.
Congressman Keith Ellison said in a phone interview that getting rid of CIU would be counterproductive. “I think it’s extremely important that we have a strong, viable civil rights department in this city,” he said.
The Minnesota Department of Human Rights has been cut to bare bones, Ellison noted, adding that it barely has enough resources to close cases. “Farming out [CIU] is no solution. If we farmed it out, would we close our [unit] and rely solely on the State? That would mean less civil rights protection for everyone. It would do damage to justice in this city and the idea that people have a fair shot.”
Further, Ellison believes that the department needs to “be removed from the vicissitudes of the political cycle,” meaning that the director position, which is appointed by the mayor, should have more independence and have a longer term.
To strengthen the department, “It’s important that the department pick people who are committed to making sure it works and that rights are protected,” Ellison said. “The department needs to play a role in engaging the community. I would gladly play a role, but I can only do that if I know it needed me to.”
Back to the drawing board
In early 2009, some city officials touted that the CIU was ideally situated with eight investigators, which included some temporary contract employees. Now, CIU is operating with only three full-time investigators. Two investigators who left their jobs last year weren’t replaced, according to a source close to the action, while several contractors’ terms came to an end at the beginning of the year.
(Interestingly, an unnamed source has informed us that several previous city employees from the unit have moved on to the state Department of Human Rights.)
Further, CIU staffers have been singled out to fill in at the front desk as administrative assistants, which MDCR investigator Taneeza Islam mentioned during a December 7 public hearing.
Under Council Member Hodges’ amendment, the CIU would have lost four full-time investigators by February of this year, a provisional setup that would have lasted for two years. The city department would have entered into an agreement with the Minnesota Department of Human Rights to supply 1.5 full-time employees, which the city would have paid for.
Additional CIU dollars would have gone to the City Coordinator’s Office to research innovations and best practices and embark on a “wide and deep” community engagement process to determine the unit’s future. In the meantime, the city would have established benchmarks for eliminating the backlog by the end of 2011.
Hodges’ proposal differed from the mayor’s in that two investigators would have been retained. “It isn’t a budget cut,” she said, explaining that it would have been just a temporary solution. She said she sought to get the best results possible with the available resources.
“I’m not criticizing the employees. It’s the structure that led to the problem,” Hodges said. “The intent was to strengthen the department and to get rid of the backlog.”
What has happened in this debate, she said, is that “People are in the position of being in defense of indefensible results.” Since the proposal didn’t pass, “We’re back to the drawing board,” she said.
City Council Member Sandy Colvin-Roy thought Hodges’ proposal was a good idea. “It’s not permanent. I think a lot of people didn’t understand that,” she said. “People were concerned the state wouldn’t be responsive.”
In her view, the proposal would have helped spur change in the unit. “I thought it was a creative way to get out of this spot that we’re in. It seems every year we’re spinning our wheels. It was very different. We keep doing the same thing and it’s not working,” she said.
At this point, said Colvin-Roy, “We need to get clarity about what we want from the civil rights department. We seem to be lacking a consensus on that.”
Former City Council Member Paul Ostrow, whose term recently ended, seconded that: “Where have the howls of protest been over the last decade when people’s needs have not been met? I have heard speech after speech about how the backlog will go away.”
The city’s performance pales in comparison to the state’s, he commented. “Let’s look at how we deliver justice… Institutional racism is that we would accept these results.”
Civil Rights Director Michael Jordan declined to comment on Hodges’ proposal. Jordan, who is one of several department heads who are up for reappointment by the mayor later this month according to information from the city, said that he’s still trying to figure out where additional cuts in the department should be made.
Two positions have to be eliminated, he said. The department’s 2010 budget is $2.394 million, which represents a 12.1 percent decrease from 2009, according to Latonia Green, who works in finance for the city. The department was cut $257,000, including two full-time positions, she explained.
As to how the unit will resolve the backlog, Jordan didn’t get into specifics: “The backlog has been around for two decades. We’re constantly trying to figure out ways to eliminate the backlog,” he said.
“It’s an issue of how many cases come in and how many investigators there are to handle them. The more investigators we have, the more we can do. It’s harder to get the job done with fewer resources,” said Jordan.
Support for CIU
At the public hearing, a number of community members testified against Hodges’ amendment, saying that it sends the wrong message about the city’s commitment to civil rights. Roger Banks, a research analyst for the Council on Black Minnesotans (a State of Minnesota agency), said that Blacks are “being written off as a matter of expediency.”
“With the economic problems, things have worsened,” he said. “It’s interesting that the effort that is being called for is happening at a time when we know the complaints are increasing.”
Lauren Maker, an MDCR employee, complained that the Minnesota Department of Human Rights dismisses too many cases. For too long, the state department has had inadequate funding and staffing. “If you believe [civil rights] is important, that it’s important for people to have redress, then you should give us a director who can do the job,” Maker said.
When it comes to the idea of shifting the work to the state, Council Member Don Samuels remarked, “The [community’s] trust isn’t there… As a representative of the interests of the community, it’s hard for me to support it even though I understand the intent and goodwill behind it.”
City leaders who sit on the Results Minneapolis review panel, a group that analyzes city operations, meet with department heads to track their performance in key service areas. In Samuels’ time with Results Minneapolis, the CIU’s backlog has come up.
“There’s some impatience with the backlog, which is anachronistic in its intensity,” he said. “There’s been some progress, but people are so burned by the failure to improve that they didn’t want to hear it.”
Even though he believes the unit needs to be given the chance to clear up the backlog, Samuels acknowledged that he hesitates to refer people to the department. “I don’t know if their complaint might languish for a couple years,” he said.
Michelle Monteiro, a four-year civil rights commissioner, said it would be a shame to lose the unit, which was created to ensure that civil rights were enforced in the city. Unfortunately, the department has been severely cut year after year, hindering its capacity to achieve. As it is, it seems the unit is still under attack.
“I think the CIU could still be shifted. I think a lot of people on the council would like to see it relocated to the State,” Monteiro said.
While it’s tough to gauge how secure the CIU is, it’s obvious that there are many people who are willing to work with the City to make sure that it stays close to home.