Civil Unrest

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

In the months that followed the election, however, the factional rift only widened further. According to Hooker, the next skirmish began with White's May 1 reassignment of Joanne Martinez, a department employee who acted as a liaison between the commission and White's office. Hooker says the unexplained change perplexed the commissioners; Martinez was a valuable resource for them, as well as a symbol of the department's support for the commission's efforts. Upon receiving news of her reassignment, Hooker sent a note to Martinez, which, he says, expressed his appreciation of her work as well as his surprise at the abruptness of the staffing change. "I wrote that I hoped the department and the director understand our mission may be hampered," he says. "I guess it touched a nerve with White."

Indeed, in response to Hooker's e-mail, White distributed a three-page memo to commissioners, which was also forwarded to the mayor's office. In it, he said Martinez had been reassigned because of budget constraints, and expressed concern that Hooker "would make such inflammatory statements with the sole purpose of fueling divisiveness." White also mentions recent praise he has received from the mayor's office for reducing staff "yet maintaining greater efficiency." "In the words of Rodney King," the letter concludes, "'can we all just get along.'"

Hooker was initially "shocked" by White's response. "I just don't get it," he says. "I'm at a loss. My problem with the whole thing is there's no communication. We're supposed to be on the same page." (White refuses to comment on the memo, the January election, or his relationship with the Civil Rights Commission.)

The spat over Martinez's reassignment wasn't the first time White's managerial decisions have engendered disharmony. In a March 1998 story, the Star Tribune reported that White had hired numerous family members--including his son and sister-in-law--to work in the civil rights department. Both Sayles Belton and White's boss Ann Eilbracht, director of Minneapolis's human resources department, declared that White did not violate the city's rules against nepotism--although the hiring of his son did prompt a verbal reprimand from the mayor for what she termed "poor judgment."

According to Elsa Batica, a former deputy director of the department who was fired by White in 1997, the director's judgment with regard to hiring during her tenure antagonized department staff, some of whom felt they were unfairly demoted in favor of White's relatives. "When an agency is charged with implementing rules and they're the first to violate them, that's hard to deal with," she says.

White's relationship with the commission, Batica contends, was also markedly different than that of his predecessor Emma Hixson. "She took care of the commissioners with good staffing and support," Batica says of Hixson. "White's thing was 'I don't want to deal with you.' He'd come in, make a report, then leave. Sometimes he'd leave in the middle of the meetings. The support just wasn't available." (Again, White declines comment, although in his memo to Hooker, he did assert that the staffing changes would "improve the workflow for the department and the commission.")

The end result, says Hooker, is a divided agency. "There's a lot of frustration because we want to do more," he says. "At the same time, there's increased pressure and vocal dissent from the director because we're trying to be more in the community."

Last week Hooker decided he'd had enough. In a May 30 memo forwarded to White, the commission, the mayor, and the city council, he tendered his resignation. "I am quite concerned about [White's] accusations and defensiveness," he wrote. "I am even more disturbed that someone felt the need to leak [White's memo] to a reporter at City Pages.This unprofessional attempt at character assassination smacks of politics at its dirtiest." In addition, he noted, another commissioner, Steven Lieske, resigned the following day, and two others stated that they would not seek reappointment.

The apparent failure of the civil rights apparatus to live up to its conciliatory rhetoric has frustrated some observers. "It's quite clear to me that they just have no idea what's going on," avers former commission chair and longtime civic activist Ron Edwards. "The rift reflected in White's letter and Hooker's comments on the department brings up all kinds of problems with respect to their mandate. There's just a lack of action and a lack of familiarity with the issues they should be addressing."

According to Tenth Ward city council member Lisa McDonald, the lack of a clear mandate has led city officials to consider dismantling the civil-rights program during the next city budget cycle, which begins next fall. The problem, McDonald suggests, may be less one of internecine quarreling than of irrelevance: She says the department's investigative function duplicates services already available from HUD and the EEOC (Equal Employment Opportunity Commission). Though she says that the department's oversight of contract compliance--making sure that companies that do business with the City of Minneapolis follow affirmative-action standards--remains important, McDonald also contends that complaints about housing and employment discrimination seem to wither within the department's bureaucracy.

"They never sustain these complaints," McDonald says. "When I've called over there to try and get information on housing complaints, I feel like I've gotten jacked around. If they can't tell me how many cases they've sustained, that tells me one of two things: Either we don't have a problem, or they're not doing their jobs."

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