Minneapolis City Council committee business tends to be fairly rote: Issues are tabled, motions passed, comments commented upon. But for Kenneth White, executive director of the Department of Civil Rights, the stakes of this January 25 meeting of the Health and Human Services Committee are higher than normal. White has been summoned to justify the existence of his unit, which investigates employment and housing discrimination complaints and monitors compliance with affirmative-action guidelines among contractors that do business with the city.
In defense of his department and its $2 million operating budget, White cites an increase in the number of cases his investigators handle, and he boasts of improvements in the time it takes to resolve discrimination complaints. He also addresses a major concern voiced by city officials--that no data on the type and number of complaints the department handles has been available since 1995--by assuring them that an annual report will be forthcoming within a matter of weeks. "I'm confident that once you receive our annual report, it will answer all your questions," he tells the four council members who are present.
Afterward, outside the committee chamber, White doesn't present the image of a man besieged; only a slight slump in his wide shoulders hints at the pressure he's under. Questions about the department's relevance, he contends, are perennial. "I've been in this field for 25 years, and the same issues have always been on the table. Every year at budget time the question is raised: 'Do we need a civil-rights department?' We're constantly asked to justify our existence."
White's position has been particularly embattled this past year, however. An August cover story in City Pages outlined a rift between White's department and the Minneapolis Commission on Civil Rights--the citizens' panel that adjudicates discrimination complaints referred by White's investigators--that had resulted in the resignation of a number of commissioners. Moreover, the story noted, turnover and restructuring in the department had left its investigative unit in disarray. (See "The Complaint Department," August 16, 2000.) The department was also the subject of a recent city investigation.
"There have been a lot of rumors floating around," confirms Eighth Ward council member and Health and Human Services Committee chair Brian Herron. "We need to be clear on what's rumor and what's fact. We need to separate those things out. If director White has done something wrong, we need to know about it. If he hasn't, we need to know that, too."
Herron won't elaborate on the gist of those rumors, but some city-hall denizens believe the recent scrutiny bodes ill for White himself, as well as for a bureaucracy that many Minneapolis officials are already inclined to consider expendable.
Kenneth White has weathered controversy before. In 1998, four years after being appointed to the $94,000-per-year executive post by his longtime friend Mayor Sharon Sayles Belton, he was criticized for hiring family members, including his sister-in-law and his son. Though neither instance violated the city's rules against nepotism, the latter prompted a verbal reprimand from the mayor. And according to some current and former department employees, White's staffing decisions remain a source of tension. White dismissed his deputy director Fenton Hyacinthe (who is the live-in partner of White's sister) in November and has yet to pick a permanent replacement. And in the past two years the department has experienced 100 percent turnover in its investigative unit.
White contends that although his new investigative staff is less experienced, the processing of discrimination complaints hasn't suffered. "We've got a system in place," he says. "One person leaving doesn't affect what we do that much."
White also says that budgetary pressures necessitated some staff restructuring. But at the same time, the department's travel expenditures ballooned. Records show that in the first nine months of last year, White's office spent more than $48,000 on trips. During that period department employees spent a total of 101 travel days away from the office (White himself accounted for 20 of those days).
White, who has journeyed as far as New Zealand on department business (that trip, for a human-rights conference in September 1998, cost $3,900), defends the expenditures. "I've always been a strong proponent of training and development," he says. "That entails getting people to training. For us to do our job, we have to be skilled. I want my staff to be the best in the country."
But according to a citywide audit, White's staff wasted a significant portion of its travel budget by canceling airline reservations. Records indicate that during the first quarter of 2000, civil-rights department employees canceled $7,673 worth of tickets. In a review of those scuttled trips, city auditor Bob Bjorklund determined that the department was second only to the (much larger) police department in number of tickets canceled. Bjorklund also found that White's department was booking its airline tickets through a company that's not a designated city vendor. White explains that the firm, St. Paul's Capiz Travel, is a small, minority-owned business, so his patronage was in line with the department's mission. But because the city has no contract with Capiz, the cost of canceled tickets is unrecoverable. "This type of situation allows for the potential misuse of airline tickets," Bjorklund wrote in his audit.