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.

Two years earlier White had been publicly chastised by the mayor for employing family members. Now, before commissioners cast their votes for new officers, a subcommittee warned that it would be "inappropriate" for Reid to chair the body, "because of the appearance of either a conflict of interest or collusion between family." In the end, Anita Urvina Selin was the only nominee for chair. Hooker was chosen as vice chair.

White's deputy, Fenton Hyacinthe, was present at the meeting, and afterward he penned an angry letter to the commissioners, criticizing the way Reid's candidacy was handled and deeming the subcommittee's opinion "a total ambush." Petty politics, Hyacinthe charged, were overshadowing important issues such as "educating the public, working on speeding up the hearing process, and preparing annual reports to the director of civil rights, the mayor, and the city council, just to name a few."

Hyacinthe is the domestic partner of one of White's (and Reid's) sisters.

A member of White's support staff, Joanne Martinez, had been attending commission meetings to take notes. Another department staffer had been acting as a liaison for the two agencies. Following the election White instructed Martinez to stop going to commission meetings. The unexplained change perplexed the commissioners, Hooker says; Martinez was a valuable resource for them, as well as a symbol of the department's support for the commission's efforts. (Though the two entities are technically independent of one another--the department investigates civil-rights complaints, the commission decides their fate--the department controls the commission's funding and support staff.)

In late April Hooker sent Martinez an e-mail lamenting her reassignment, which many commissioners interpreted as hostile. "Unfortunately," he wrote, "trust is getting to be a tenuous word to use regarding the department." The e-mail found its way to White, who responded with a three-page memo explaining that Martinez's reassignment was a workload-related decision and denouncing Hooker's letter as a string of "inflammatory statements" aimed at being divisive. "[I] question your ability to be objective and serve as a commissioner," the executive director wrote.

Hooker quit in May. "In his memo, Mr. White states that his commitment to civil rights is genuine," he wrote in a resignation letter addressed to his fellow commissioners, White, and the mayor and city council. "Of that I do not doubt. I also believe that there are 21 men and women whose commitment is equally genuine. They work full-time jobs, care for their families and then devote whatever spare time they may have to serve the city as commissioners. They receive no fame, no ornate office, and no city pay other than a $35 fee per meeting...."

After announcing his decision, Hooker received an e-mail from the mayor. "I would hope that I have the opportunity to talk to you before accepting your resignation," Sayles Belton wrote, adding that someone from her office would contact him to set up an appointment. A month went by before he heard anything. A meeting was finally set for July 26, but the mayor's staff canceled at the last minute and has yet to reschedule. (Sayles Belton says that her ever-changing schedule prevented her from following through on the meeting.)

The day after Hooker resigned, another commissioner, attorney Steven Lieske, also stepped down. Lieske says he had recently joined a large law firm and figured he couldn't spare the time. But in his letter of resignation he wrote that he too was "saddened and angered by the politics and poor relations between the commission and the department."

Since Hooker and Lieske departed, another four commissioners have announced that they too will be leaving.

White maintains that there is no communication problem in his agency. "We have always indicated to the commission, 'If there's anything you need, let us know,'" he says. "I don't remember anything that the commission has needed that we have not provided."

On July l7, when the volunteers convened for their monthly meeting, hand-wringing was the order of the day. Members pondered whether the commission should continue to exist, and whether, at the very least, it should retain a consultant to study possible reforms. The idea of employing independent hearing examiners was also raised. Commissioner Apur Patel lamented the recent turnover. "In all this turmoil, we've lost a lot of people," he said. "I don't think we know where we're going with this body. We need to first cauterize the bleeding."

When Patel's fellow commissioner Lisa Albrecht suggested an all-day retreat, another colleague opined that the agency's members ought to consider calling for public input instead. In the end nothing was decided. Albrecht offered a motion that the commission "sponsor an event to help us reconfigure ourselves." The matter was directed to the commission's executive committee, which is to come up with a recommendation and present it at the commission's August 21 meeting.

Late in the July meeting, Albrecht turned to Larry Warren, a lawyer in the Minneapolis City Attorney's Office who keeps tabs on civil rights activities. Irritated, Albrecht asked Warren about a request the commission had gotten from his office in the wake of the Plasma Alliance case: The attorneys wanted to know how frequently the commission's rulings are overturned. She feared the request was "politically motivated," Albrecht complained.

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