Dancing as Fast as She Can

Is the director of the Minneapolis Civil Rights department really doing anything?

Absurdity is an underrated symptom of failure. Take, for instance, a recent meeting convened by Vanne Owens Hayes, the director of the Minneapolis Department of Civil Rights.

Roughly two dozen folks gathered November 7 in city hall, most of them city staffers, along with a few members of the Police Officers Federation of Minneapolis, the union that represents the city's rank-and-file cops. The meeting was held to address widely criticized shortcomings in the civil rights director's plan to redesign the Civilian Review Authority, the board that scrutinizes complaints against the Minneapolis Police Department. There were just three citizens from a task force chosen last spring to overhaul the CRA present.

Owens Hayes, for her part, brought a special guest that evening: Violet Arnold, an independent facilitator, who conducted the meeting.

Vanne Owens Hayes's tenure as civil rights director hasn't been all smiles
Vanne Owens Hayes's tenure as civil rights director hasn't been all smiles

Arnold mainly deflected heat from Owens Hayes, sidestepping several questions and refusing to answer others, all the while asking those in attendance to avoid confrontation. Owens Hayes had offered a redesign of the civilian review process--a measure several believe is desperately needed to improve relations between the city's cops and minority communities--to a city council joint-committee hearing the week before; it was widely decried as inadequate.

Facilitator Arnold (whose direction of the meeting was termed "new-agey" and "childish" by some attendees) soon lost control of the meeting. At one point, Ron Edwards, a longtime civil rights activist and member of the redesign task force, tried to voice several concerns about the future CRA. Arnold twice interrupted Edwards. She eventually came up behind him, placed a hand on his shoulder, and cupped his mouth.

"Sister, you better get your hands off me," he barked in return. Amid the ensuing outburst, Arnold abruptly ended the meeting.


The ridiculous nature of the meeting underscores a bigger problem: The city's Department of Civil Rights is flailing under Vanne Owens Hayes. Former Mayor Sharon Sayles Belton appointed Owens Hayes interim director of the department in March 2001 when predecessor Kenneth White was dismissed, mainly for failing to act on a sexual harassment complaint within the department. (Owens Hayes had been deputy director.) In June, Mayor R.T. Rybak reappointed Owens Hayes to the post until January 2004, at a salary of more than $95,000, and the council approved it unanimously.

Her résumé includes an early-'90s stint with the Minnesota Ethical Practices Board, a body that monitors such things as contributions and gifts from lobbyists to public officials. She also served as the assistant dean at the University of Minnesota Law School. According to the St. Paul Pioneer Press, her sister, now deceased, once served as education director for the National Urban League, and one of her nephews was a member of the Black Panther Party.

Owens Hayes has repeatedly admitted that she is overwhelmed with the many problems facing the department and the CRA. And she has complained of staffing shortages. (The department is set to get $2.5 million of the city's 2003 budget, with $325,000 marked for the CRA.) Still, she has been reluctant to discuss these problems openly. Initially, Owens Hayes did not return several phone calls for this story. Then she gave only one brief interview, which she cut short, and again went back into hiding from repeated follow-up requests.

One thing is clear: Ever since Mayor R.T. Rybak pressed for the long-troubled CRA to be folded into the civil rights department earlier this year, Owens Hayes has been at the center of city hall controversy.

Following the most tense summer for police/minority relations in recent memory, Owens Hayes has hedged on whether her department is even reviewing complaints against the police through the CRA; by all outward appearances the review board is not functioning. In fact, it was disclosed recently that the board has had three of its seven positions vacant for much of the year--meaning that it hasn't even possessed the capacity to properly review complaints. (Owens Hayes has maintained that the board "has not ceased operations," that it is "handling cases, but there have been no hearings.") Further, Owens Hayes has incorrectly claimed that at least two discrimination complaints--unrelated to the police or the CRA--against the city had been withdrawn. And she has acquired a reputation for being defensive, disorganized, and prone to disappearing altogether. Reports of lost complaints, and of ensuing legal threats against the city, have floated around city hall for months.

The CRA redesign, launched in March, has been punctuated by missed deadlines and contentious debates. Civilian review boards in other cities have been increasingly visible and successful in recent years, while Minneapolis has been plagued by a process that has served as little more than window dressing since its inception in 1991. Many believe that Owens Hayes's lack of leadership to date will only prompt bigger budget cuts and further weaken the civil rights department and the CRA. (During budget crunches, some note, the first cuts are always unpopular social programs--especially ones that can be fingered as "inefficient.") Many have started to wonder why Owens Hayes is dragging her feet.

Either way, the director's fumbling over the review board's restructuring is emblematic of her 20-month tenure. "I don't know what her agenda is, whether she's completely overwhelmed. I don't know," says Michelle Gross, founder of Communities United Against Police Brutality and an exasperated member of the CRA redesign task force. "I'm getting the feeling that the city council is embarrassed as hell to have to keep her."

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