The Complaint Department

Fifty years ago Minneapolis launched a program to stamp out discrimination. Now many of the dream's supporters doubt the city's civil-rights agencies are equal to the task.

The case, however, was far from being resolved. Typically, when the civil rights department finds probable cause in a case, it attempts to mediate a settlement. If that fails, the agency refers the matter to the Minneapolis Commission on Civil Rights--a separate entity that works in tandem with the department--for a hearing. The case is then heard by a panel of three of the commission's 21 volunteer members, one of whom must be an attorney. Decisions made by the commissioners are legally binding. Like judges, the panel can order the payment of monetary damages. And as with a district court, its decisions can be appealed to the state's appellate court.

In Bailey's case, though, the NRP had already asked Hennepin County District Court to dismiss the matter. NRP attorneys pointed to a 1996 Minnesota Supreme Court decision regarding a case that had been decided by the Minnesota Department of Human Rights, White's state counterparts. According to state law, if a case hasn't been resolved within 31 months, it must be dismissed. The NRP's lawyers argued that the same law should apply in Bailey's case.

Last month Hennepin County District Court Judge David Duffy ruled against the NRP. The 31-month cutoff, he asserted, applied only to the state anti-discrimination agency; Minneapolis's civil-rights ordinance, he noted, does not cap the length of investigations. But Duffy did pause to marvel at the department's penchant for protracted investigation. "It took the department four years to make a probable cause determination," he wrote in his decision. "Mr. Bailey was employed with [the NRP] for less than one year."

Bailey's attorney, David Sullivan, says the delay is likely to cause problems for his client. For one thing, Sullivan says, Bailey is having a hard time tracking down witnesses. Just as daunting, he adds, is the fact that "everything is not as fresh in everyone's minds. One thing I think we have heard to some degree from the NRP and Mr. Miller is that he doesn't remember these things.

"And with this time frame," Sullivan concludes, "'I don't remember' seems like a pretty legitimate response."

 

Ask Kenneth White about Robert Bailey and he shakes his head. "I see so many cases, it's very difficult for me to talk about a single case," he says. Criticism doesn't seem to faze White. In conversation, he comes off as highly self-assured and often sounds terse. If he doesn't want to talk about something, he quickly brushes the subject aside.

But if the Bailey case took more than four years, White insists, it's an aberration. The department he took over in April 1994 from former executive director Emma Hixson was troubled, the 48-year-old executive director concedes, but he has reformed it. "It was in bad shape for various reasons, so the city council and the mayor felt that there was a need for a change in leadership," he says of his appointment to the $94,000-a-year post. (Early on, White had worked as an investigator in the department and for a Ramsey County nonprofit. Most recently he worked for 15 years in the University of Minnesota's Office of Equal Opportunity and Affirmative Action.) "A change in leadership brings a change in style," he goes on. "A change in style brings a change in personnel. I was concerned about the lack of commitment by some staff members to civil rights."

When White was brought in to replace Hixson, he says, the department was taking an average of 24 to 30 months to complete an investigation. According to department figures, today 96 percent of all cases are less than a year old. Last year White established a goal of resolving every case within 180 days. New cases are going more quickly, but overall that aim hasn't been met, a fact he attributes to inexperience: None of his investigators has been employed longer than two years.

During the ten years before White took over, the department fielded 300 complaints annually and resolved 281 cases per year. As of 1991 two percent of the department's cases were taking more than two years to close. By the following year, five percent of all cases were taking more than two years to close. In 1993 that figure topped 11 percent.

In 1995, after White's first full year on the job, 263 complaints were filed. Only 188 cases were closed, and more than 11 percent of those had taken more than two years to resolve. Two years later, in 1997, the department was receiving just as many complaints, but closing far fewer--a mere 62 cases. According to department figures, there are still two cases from 1998 unresolved, and one from 1997.

In 1999 only 75 complaints were lodged with the civil rights department. White says several factors may have played a role: The office was focusing on closing cases; much of the investigations staff was new; and the department's visibility in the community wasn't high enough.

White maintains that the situation is improving. Indeed, through early July this year 140 complaints had been filed. But beyond that, it's difficult to assess the department's performance. The last year the agency published an annual report was 1995. (White does, he says, plan to produce an annual report this year.) In order to keep up with the pace of civil-rights complaints, White is requiring his investigators to close six cases per month. But they're currently averaging only four cases a month, a shortfall also attributed to "substantial turnover."

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