Civil Unrest

A spat in Minneapolis's Civil Rights department re-ignites a feud

In late April Minneapolis politicos including Mayor Sharon Sayles Belton and city council president Jackie Cherryhomes converged on the convention center to nibble on hors d'oeuvres and pat themselves on the back. The bash, which was hosted by Kenneth White, executive director of Minneapolis's Department of Civil Rights, was billed as a "community celebration" of the city's efforts to award contracts for the convention center expansion to "small and underutilized businesses."

There was apparently good reason to celebrate; the department--which is responsible for ensuring that companies doing business with the city follow Minneapolis affirmative-action guidelines, as well as investigating discrimination complaints against landlords and employers--had done its job. According to figures cited at the meeting, a whopping 45 percent of contracts for the expansion--worth roughly $56.2 million--had indeed gone to companies owned by women or minorities.

Behind the scenes, however, things were not so congenial. For months, discord had been brewing between White and the Civil Rights Commission, the quasi-judicial citizen panel appointed by the mayor and city council to oversee the city's civil-rights apparatus and resolve discrimination complaints processed by White's office. The rift between White and the commission is only the latest in a series of internal troubles that have plagued the city's civil-rights program since White took over in 1994. And, according to at least one city council member, some of the same officials feted at the April convention center celebration are now privately questioning the 33-year-old department's relevance.

The department and the commission are supposed to enjoy a symbiotic relationship akin to that between prosecutors and the court system: Department officials investigate complaints from individuals who feel they have been the victims of discrimination. If the department agrees that someone has been treated unfairly by an employer or landlord, its staff passes on its findings to the commission, where three commission members--one of whom must be an attorney--review the facts and, if appropriate, mediate a settlement. Department staff are supposed to be advocates for victims. Meanwhile, although the commission relies on the department for information and financial support, it is, ideally, impartial.

But lately the two bodies have been acting more like adversaries than allies. The current friction began with a January meeting at which commission members were scheduled to elect new leaders. Word spread that one of the candidates for chair was Brenda Reid, a 1996 city council appointee to the commission and White's sister. Only hours before the election, the commission's Standards and Procedures Committee voted to bar relatives of civil rights department employees from holding the commission's chair, effectively scuttling Reid's candidacy. According to commissioner Alan Hooker, who was on the committee that set the policy, the decision was aimed at avoiding the appearance of impropriety.

"Being brother and sister could be a potential conflict of interest," he says. The commission is officially independent of the department, but because it mediates complaints referred by White's office, he adds, "people could say that they didn't get a fair shake, 'you just agreed with your brother.'" (Although commissioners work on a volunteer basis, they are paid a small stipend for each complaint they hear.)

The decision to bar Reid from the election drew immediate criticism from Fenton Hyacinthe, deputy director of the civil rights department and the domestic partner of another of White's sisters. "For me, it was never about Ms. Reid," he says. "I don't care who the chair is. But it should have been done in a more respectful manner, so that Ms. Reid could have bowed out gracefully." Hyacinthe, who attended the meeting as a representative of White's office, says he "voiced his objection" to the way in which the election was handled.

According to Hooker, though, Hyacinthe's reaction did nothing to ease the tension. "He implied that there was some behind-the-scenes collusion," says Hooker. "I said, 'I hope you're not accusing us of backroom dealing.' He said, 'Let's call a spade a spade,' and left the meeting abruptly." (Reid declined to comment for this story.)

The contentious January election, Hooker continues, also opened a rift between Reid's opponents and those commissioners who felt she had been treated unfairly. "I will state what some of my fellow commissioners have noted," he says, "that this has opened up a racial division that was already there." In the wake of the election, Hooker claims, African-American members of the commission, many of whom supported Reid, began a de facto boycott of commission meetings. "They felt there was something unjust about what had happened," he says.

Anita Urvina Selin, the commissioner ultimately elected as chair at the January meeting, disagrees that the commission split along racial lines. "There was a possibility of it going in that direction, but Fenton Hyacinthe, director White, and myself, as chair, are working to make sure it doesn't go that way." Though she also describes the meeting as "tense," she opines that it was merely a byproduct of a closely contested election, and that the issue is now settled. (The day after City Pages began looking into this story, Selin sent a note to her colleagues requesting that all media calls be referred to her without comment.)

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