Four More Years in Minneapolis?

Race discrimination in the fire department has cost Minneapolis millions, infuriated the courts, and divided the force. Mayor Sharon Sayles Belton's response? Zilch.

The candidates for mayor of Minneapolis have worked hard to trivialize matters of race and racism in this city, engaging in games of "gotcha!" by dredging up rhetorical radio-show comments and obscure mayoral speeches, and bickering over the racial nuances of the tepid rumble in the parking lot outside of Lucille's Kitchen. Between yawns, potential voters seem mildly amused.

For an incumbent with something to hide, dumbing down racial matters is an understandable strategy. For challenger Barbara Carlson, however, it has been a missed opportunity to focus public attention on one of the most scandalous aspects of Sharon Sayles Belton's first term: the mayor's willingness to perpetuate institutional racism within the Minneapolis Fire Department.

Specifically, the mayor has reappointed and consistently supported MFD Chief Tom Dickinson, whose 14-year tenure has been beset by an ongoing failure to satisfy the terms of a federal court order to integrate his department. In the four years since Sayles Belton was elected, Minneapolis taxpayers have shelled out more than a million dollars in penalties and attorney's fees because of a racially biased promotion test Dickinson implemented. Hundreds of thousands of dollars more in judgments are likely from a slew of civil lawsuits stemming from the improper firing of seven minority fire cadets in 1996. New hiring has been effectively frozen since a federal judge declared the city in contempt of a 25-year-old court order to racially integrate the fire department; as a result the department is short-staffed and forced to rely on thousands of hours of expensive overtime pay until the matter is resolved.

Mike Wohnoutka

But rather than addressing these problems, the Sayles Belton administration has repeatedly ignored warnings from its own affirmative-action officer, and has discouraged remedial steps that could have helped put it in compliance with federal law. Attorneys and witnesses from City Hall have gone before judges demeaning the court orders by which they are bound.

The Sayles Belton administration has also stonewalled repeated attempts to determine how many white firefighters have unfairly taken advantage of affirmative-action preferences by claiming to be Native American. The American Indian Firefighter's Association claims that as many as 20 members of the MFD have no basis for their claims to be Native American. The city has refused to address or even acknowledge the problem.

The upshot of all this is a fire department in chaos, one seething with suspicion, racial resentment, and petty political vendettas. Mayor Sayles Belton declined City Pages' request for an interview on the subject. But in the past she has defended Dickinson by pointing to the rising number of minorities within the MFD. Sure enough, the percentage of firefighters who are not white males has risen steadily in recent years, to the point where the numbers are nearly in compliance with the terms of the court order. But those gains are the product of 25 years of legal coercion, and they have not been made without a fight that has reinforced a culture of intolerance and needlessly expended millions of dollars of taxpayers' money.

The mayor's decision to reappoint Chief Dickinson in 1994 came as a surprise to many of her supporters and most City Hall observers. Replacing top administrators is a time-honored practice that enables newly elected officials to put their own stamp on the office and distance themselves from any lingering ill will surrounding the departments beneath them. That's what Sayles Belton did when she removed Minneapolis Police Chief John Laux in favor of Bob Olson. To a politician who campaigned on themes of racial unity and responsible government, Dickinson would have seemed to be equally damaged goods.

Dickinson was reared in the bosom of the MFD's good-ol'-boy network. A Minneapolis resident since age 4 and a graduate of the North Side's Henry High School, he wanted to be a cop, but at 5 feet 8 inches was deemed too short for police work. He joined the MFD at age 25 and steadily worked his way up the bureaucratic ladder. In 1983, when the City Council decided to demote then-Chief Clarence Nimmerfroh for a series of petty offenses (such as overcharging the city for airline flights and using city equipment to fill his garden pond), Dickinson was one of three candidates the Council considered to take his place. It took eight rounds of voting until Dickinson prevailed; the tie-breaker came from then-Council member Kathy O'Brien, who switched her support over to him at the 11th hour. Today, O'Brien serves as Sayles Belton's chief of staff.

On the day he was named chief, Dickinson said that he was "pledged to recruit and hire minority and women firefighters." In any other department, that might have been a mere expression of good will. But in the MFD, previous resistance from the department's brass had already made it a legal obligation.

The Minneapolis Civil Rights Commission first began discussing racially integrating the MFD in 1967, but intransigence on the part of the fire department blocked most serious efforts. In 1971 Gerald Carter and six other black men denied employment sued; a year later, U.S. District Court Judge Earl Larson ordered the department to fill at least a third of its recruiting classes with people of color until 20 minority firefighters were hired. Seven years later, with just a few minorities hired and a recruitment class consisting of 33 whites and no people of color, the court stepped in once more. This time it imposed a more concrete affirmative-action plan and appointed a steering committee to make sure its orders were not ignored again.

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