Dancing as Fast as She Can

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

Paul Zerby is one council member who has encountered no small amount of frustration in dealing with the CRA restructuring. "I can't believe [Owens Hayes] would be deliberately trying to undermine it," sighs Zerby, representative for the Second Ward. "I just keep trying to move it forward."

While Zerby and other council members are reluctant to knock Owens Hayes in print, they've had no choice but to take her to task and call her out in council meetings. On September 13, the entire city council grudgingly granted Owens Hayes another 60 days to integrate the CRA into the civil rights department--this after half a year of meetings had been devoted to the project, and a redesign plan had been recommended by city coordinator John Moir.

That plan, finalized in July, was considered by many even then to be a step backward for the long-criticized CRA. (See "Don't Ask, Don't Tell," October 2, 2002.) Among the many issues unresolved by that plan was the level of evidence required to sustain a complaint against police (a change from the CRA's longstanding "clear and convincing" to a lower bar of "preponderance" of evidence was recommended). The plan also faced an overarching legal issue, concerning whether changes in city ordinances and the Minnesota Government Data Practices Act would be required to open complaint hearings and employment records of police officers.

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


While all this was happening--or not happening--tensions between minority communities and Minneapolis police continued to escalate. After multiple incidents in which police shot minorities, residents of the north-side Jordan neighborhood took to the streets one night in August. Then a federal mediator visited Minneapolis and offered her services in cooling neighborhood tensions.

Finally, on October 30, with the expiration of her deadline extension looming, Owens Hayes unveiled her redesign plan before a joint meeting of the council's Health and Human Services and Public Safety and Regulatory Services committees. Before the civil rights director could even speak, James Michels, an attorney representing the police federation, distributed a letter saying the plan "fails to articulate the desired outcome for a complaint made against an officer."

Michelle Gross distributed her own missive, lamenting that the plan was "significantly flawed" and failed to take into account many proposals from this summer's task force: subpoena power, the creation of an "independent" ombudsman, an appeals process. In short, the plan's main success was in uniting two disparate factions against it.

Several council members voiced open disappointment and confusion over Owens Hayes's presentation. Zerby, a veteran of the state Attorney General's Office, picked the plan apart point by point, siding alternately with Michels and Gross. Eighth Ward rep Robert Lilligren, the other council member overseeing the CRA redesign, asked what had happened to the subpoena power provision, noting that it was an integral part of the redesign in July. Other council members puzzled over vague language and the general lack of progress.

Owens Hayes defended the plan by claiming she had followed council directives to the letter. Owens Hayes and city coordinator John Moir took turns at the podium rebuffing the committees' objections.

"Basically you've lost a half a year on this," Zerby said. "This is just unacceptable. Let's just get a system up and running again. Let's get back to even ground."

"By reverting to the old CRA, with just a few changes, we'd be better off," Lilligren added.

Natalie Johnson Lee, representative for the Fifth Ward and the council's only black member, offered the civil rights director a stern lecture. "I thought 60 days was too long for the community, but it wasn't too long for you and now you need more," she said. "It's frustrating to have to go through this again. Being appropriate is not working for me. We need to get the work done now, because you're going to be out of time."

In the end, the two council committees gave Owens Hayes a directive to use an "open appointment process" to get the CRA board vacancies filled, and report back in two weeks with any problems. They then instructed her to hold a "study session" with "community involvement" about the issues raised at the meeting over the course of the next month.

Owens Hayes offered a flustered parting shot: "I do not enjoy someone telling me that. I can't do this all in 60 days, because there are a hundred things I have to do in 60 days and I've done them. I pride myself in doing things right and doing them professionally."

Owens Hayes has maintained that the details of CRA redesign are really up to the city council, a position echoed by council president Paul Ostrow. But privately some city leaders will say that Owens Hayes has done her part to delay and mire the process. And many grouse that the weak leadership of the civil rights department is starting to make the council look bad.

Michelle Gross puts a finer point on it. "She doesn't take recommendations; she doesn't listen to her own bosses," she says. "She should be next on the chopping block. It's time for her to go."

"We're doing our best under shitty situations," claims Lilligren, calling the current CRA plan "unsatisfactory," but not singling out Owens Hayes. "There are many of us who are interested in a redesigned and restructured civil rights department. We need to define what the Department of Civil Rights--and what the CRA--is."

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