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.)

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."

Indeed, White failed to respond to City Pages' request for the number of complaints his office has received in the last four years, and the number it has sustained. In addition, commission administrators say they don't know how many cases the panel has heard or how many complaints have been resolved. During the same period, department expenses have ballooned from $1.27 million to $1.67 million (more than $125,000 of which has gone toward travel expenses for department employees to various conferences). The apparent decline in efficiency, says Edwards, has led some in city hall to question whether Minneapolis should continue to fund a department that seems to be accomplishing less with more taxpayer money.

Eighth Ward city council member Brian Herron, a longtime advocate for civil-rights protections, disagrees with McDonald's assertion that the department's role duplicates that of other agencies. But, he says, eliminating the department's funding is a perennial topic of discussion in city budget negotiations. "It's talked about all the time. There's a feeling out there that the civil rights department is one we can cut. Whether there's the political will to do it, though, I don't know."

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