Turning the Tables

For 19 years, Larry Blackwell fought other people's discrimination battles. Now he's getting ready for his own.

The end was a long time coming for Larry Blackwell. For 12 years before being removed from his position as Minneapolis's affirmative-action director, Blackwell saw his department shuffled around the City Hall hierarchy, his power restricted, and, he says, his efforts to make the city comply with its own nondiscrimination policies stonewalled.

During that same 12-year period, payouts by the city (and ultimately, Minneapolis taxpayers) to employees claiming discrimination have skyrocketed--from $13,000 in 1986 to $1.3 million in 1995. Over the past year alone, the city has been buffeted by a record-setting number of settlements and judgments, including $840,000 to firefighter Brian Kohn in April 1997; $400,000 to police sergeant Alisa Clemons in October 1997; $1.8 million to two more police officers in November 1997; and $200,000 to six Fire Department cadets in March 1998.

Now Blackwell could become the latest recipient of such a payout. On May 5, just five days after City Coordinator Kathy O'Brien demoted Blackwell to an entry-level job in the Department of Civil Rights, his attorney, Lawrence Schaefer, sent O'Brien and other city officials a letter claiming the director had been illegally fired in retaliation for fighting discrimination at City Hall. "We have not heard back from the city about our letter," Schaefer says. "If the city stonewalls on this and doesn't want to engage in mediation, and we are able to verify the information Larry has told us is on file with the city, then there is close to a 100-percent chance we will sue."

Both O'Brien and city Human Resources Director Ann Eilbracht refused to comment for this report. But in a Star Tribune story the day after Blackwell was removed, O'Brien cited Blackwell's lack of leadership and a large backlog of unresolved cases in his office as factors in her decision.

According to Schaefer's letter, the only specific reason officials gave Blackwell for his removal was that his department took too long to process complaints. "This explanation makes little sense to Mr. Blackwell," Schaefer wrote, saying that problem was due mostly to Eilbracht's "inexplicable delay" in filling an investigator position on Blackwell's staff for more than a year. Schaefer and Blackwell are demanding that the city turn over e-mail records, which they say would show Blackwell repeatedly asked Eilbracht to fill the position.

As for O'Brien's lack-of-leadership claim, Schaefer contends, Blackwell will show that he was fired for doing his job too well. He says officials criticized Blackwell for reporting affirmative-action violations in the Minneapolis Police Department; for supporting a worker's disability discrimination complaint against Department of Civil Rights Director Kenneth White; and for testifying in federal court on behalf of six minority fire cadets who were dismissed last year. "According to Larry, the campaign to get his job really began after that testimony," says Schaefer.

But the tensions between Blackwell and other city officials go back further than that. In 1986, the City Council voted to take the monitoring of minority employment on city contracts away from Blackwell's jurisdiction, a move Blackwell claims stemmed from his aggressive enforcement efforts during construction of City Center. Three years ago, O'Brien sent Blackwell a memo saying he couldn't hold confidential meetings with City Council members or other officials without informing her. And in 1996, Eilbracht proposed cutting the affirmative-action staff and merging Blackwell's office with the city's labor-relations division; she eventually backed down in the face of public criticism.

The greatest source of enmity between Blackwell and city officials, however, has been his ongoing effort to get the Minneapolis Fire Department to comply with a 26-year-old federal court order to integrate its ranks. In 1994, Blackwell sent then-Fire Chief Tom Dickinson a memo pointing out that only one of six fire captains identified in department statistics as Native American could produce verification to that effect, and that some firefighters had identified themselves as both white and Native American on different city forms. Blackwell's plan to designate several of those firefighters as white was blocked by then-Human Relations Director Frank Reiter. Eventually, the city attorney's office ruled that firefighters hired before 1991 didn't have to verify their racial status and could, in effect, claim to be whatever they wanted to be. A complaint was filed with the Minnesota Department of Human Rights, which sided with the city.

In November 1996, six minority fire cadets filed a discrimination complaint after Dickinson dismissed them from the Fire Department, saying he had evidence of "gang infiltration"--a claim he later retracted. When Blackwell quickly concluded that the cadets should be reinstated, Dickinson heatedly objected, saying Blackwell's friendship with the mother of one of the cadets compromised his objectivity. In a remarkable move, the City Council turned the matter over to Eilbracht--herself a defendant in the cadets' complaint and thus hardly a disinterested party. Eilbracht hired consultants who eventually produced two reports: One concluded that the cadet-selection process was discriminatory. But the other--vetted by her office--sided with the city.

In July 1997, following Blackwell's testimony in the cadet case, U.S. District Judge Robert Renner found the Fire Department in contempt of its court order to integrate the force. Harshly criticizing the city's "willful ignorance" of the law, Renner ordered Minneapolis to pay all legal fees associated with the case, as well as the cadets' back salaries. A few months later, the city agreed to pay an additional $200,000 to settle a civil suit brought by the cadets.

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