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.

Other commissioners had to point out that the statistics were public information, and that anybody was entitled to them, no questions asked.

 

City Council member Lisa McDonald had wanted those statistics. Her husband, an attorney, had shown her the appeals court's decision in the Plasma Alliance case. She had already been planning to ask some tough questions about the city's civil-rights apparatus this fall, as the city council discusses next year's budget (she is also known to be considering a mayoral run against Sayles Belton). She also sought out and met with Hooker after his resignation.

Earlier, McDonald had asked White's staff for basic information about housing-discrimination cases and was surprised she got no answers. "I'm basically told that 'our computer system can't tell you that,'" she gripes. "It makes me very concerned. All they can tell me is how many complaints they've handled. But they can't tell me how many complaints they've sustained." Without that data, says McDonald, it's impossible to know whether the bureaucracy is working hard on vital tasks, or merely duplicating work already being done by state and federal agencies.

For years critics have dogged the department with the duplication-of-services argument: Why should Minneapolis taxpayers fund a cumbersome bureaucracy that performs essentially the same function as existing state and federal agencies? The simple answer, according to people who work in other, similar agencies, is that none of the government offices is adequately funded or staffed. For example, White's office is under contract to investigate cases that its federal counterpart, the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, can't get to.

"It's sort of similar to saying we don't need Minneapolis police officers because the federal government has the FBI and the state has the State Patrol," explains Steven Cooper, the former head of the Minnesota Department of Human Rights. "Practically speaking, these agencies don't overlap each other, because they all have work-sharing agreements."

In fact, Cooper argues, it's doubly crucial that Minneapolis have its own discrimination police. "For a [diverse] city like Minneapolis, the real rubber meets the road on discrimination issues," he says. "You need more enforcement there, not less enforcement. The concept that these things can be well taken care of from far away is very naive. The state office is very small for the mission it carries." (The department is also responsible for making sure that a certain number of city contracts go to businesses owned by women and minorities. In recent years White's staff has taken over these "contract-compliance" duties from other city agencies, increasing the department's budget.)

In a June 13 memo to the mayor and the city council, White wrote that an "in-depth look at the Department's operations and report on any overlaps or duplications of service" would be available "within a few weeks." As this story went to press, the document hadn't been completed. White says it will be ready "in a few weeks."

McDonald isn't holding her breath. "I'll believe it when I see it," she says. Even if the numbers show that the agency's function is crucial, she says, she intends to question why it has undergone so little scrutiny in the past. (While many city agencies report to the city council, White answers to the council's five-member executive committee, which includes the mayor and council president Jackie Cherryhomes.) "They should have to report to everybody," argues McDonald. "It seems like this department gets treated like a sacred cow."

White isn't worried. He says the anticipated grilling is business as usual. "If individual council members have issues of concern, it's expected that the department head will respond to their concerns or questions," he says. "That's what happens at budget time."

"I've been doing this for 25 years," he adds. "I'm not here to make friends, I'm here to do my job."

Mayor Sayles Belton says she will support White if city budget debates turn to civil rights. "On an annual basis, we review Mr. White's work plan and his progress and performance," says the mayor. "Every indication that I have is that Mr. White is performing his duties satisfactorily." Nor does she buy the argument that Minneapolis is wasting its money funding discrimination investigations: "I don't believe that we ought to be sending these cases to the state, where they have to compete with even more cases."

Sayles Belton concedes that she and White have talked about the problems between his department and the commission. "There has been an age-old tension, periodically rearing its head," she acknowledges. "And I'd really like for it to end. One of the things that I talked to Mr. White about was the need to ensure that there are good relationships between the department and the commission."

Certainly, the mayor was quick to react last month when White was pulled over by Minneapolis police. The morning after the incident, she summoned Chief Robert Olson to her office and demanded an explanation. She and the chief later conceded that the incident had racial overtones, but denied it was an example of racial profiling. "At first blush, [White] wasn't wrong to perceive that he was pulled over because he was black," Olson told the Star Tribune. "I think this is an opportunity to really sit back and look at yourself and your operation and how you do things. Good things can spring from this."

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