Case Closed

Attorney Rick Macpherson fears that without oversight, Minneapolis will backslide on hiring minority and women firefighters
Craig Lassig

On Wednesday, November 15 the longest-running lawsuit against the City of Minneapolis came to a quiet and seemingly congenial end. The marathon class-action suit, charging the Minneapolis Fire Department with discriminatory hiring practices, has for decades been a source of chagrin for city officials. When it was filed in 1970, a federal judge, Earl Larson, issued a consent decree ordering the department to integrate its all-white force. Nine years later, when little progress had been made, the court appointed a ten-person advisory committee to keep tabs on department hiring. On Wednesday, after years of civil litigation, numerous contempt-of-court rulings against the city, and millions of dollars in fines and fees, another federal judge, Paul Magnuson, signed off on a settlement. The court's supervision of the fire department will officially end in January.

"A great deal of needed change has now been woven into the fabric of the department's culture," said Mayor Sharon Sayles Belton, who was on hand to laud the agreement. "[The lawsuit] has accomplished its goals, and now it is time to move on."

While most observers concur that the lawsuit, Carter v. Gallagher, has indeed brought change to the fire department, not everyone sees the wisdom in ending court supervision. Indeed, in contrast to the mayor's confidence, the feeling among those who have long been involved in the case is anything but optimistic.

"From the mayor's statement, it was clear that she was overjoyed," says Rick Macpherson, the Legal Aid attorney who has represented the plaintiff firefighters for six years. "I find that to be a disturbing position, especially for an African-American mayor to take. It indicates that she doesn't understand the role the court or the advisory committee played in this. It's quite disappointing."

Ron Edwards, former chair of the Minneapolis Civil Rights Commission and head of the court-mandated advisory committee, also contends that the settlement is premature. Because of the department's alleged failure to hire women of color and Native American firefighters (the subject of numerous City Pages stories, most recently "Smoke Screen," November 10, 1999), minority recruiting should remain under the committee's watchful eye, Edwards argues. "I cannot agree in good conscience with the mayor on this," he says.

Though the committee rejected last week's settlement--a fact that didn't rate mention in a November 16 Star Tribune story about the case--Edwards contends that there was little he or anyone else could do to stop it. "We heard last summer that a deal was being cut," he says, "and that nothing we said would make any difference."

Macpherson also contends that the settlement has been a fait accompli for months. Macpherson agrees with the mayor that the case transformed the fire department from an all-white force to one in which 26 percent of uniformed employees are minorities, women, or members of other "protected classes." But, he adds, an end to the advisory committee's oversight could lead to backsliding. "This is simply the best deal we could get under the circumstances. We didn't want the case to end, and we didn't want the committee's role to end.

"My view is that while there've been major changes in the department, there's a possibility that if nobody's watching, the city won't continue with those."

The 30-year-old suit was sparked by a personality test given to potential new firefighters which, the court found, discriminated against African-American recruits. Though the fire department has since amended its hiring policy, critics charge that they have only done so with constant prodding and under the threat of fines. The department's costly failure to comply with the court's decree is widely regarded as one of the reasons for the dismissal of former chief Tom Dickinson (see "Snuffed Out" in the January 14, 1998 City Pages). Indeed, though neither Macpherson nor city attorneys have a clear notion of the suit's total tab, a single 1997 ruling against the city cost Minneapolis taxpayers more than $200,000.

Both Macpherson and Edwards agree that the case took a turn when Robert Renner, the federal judge who had taken over supervision of the case from Judge Larson, went into semiretirement for health reasons. According to Edwards, Renner was inclined to keep the suit open in order to ensure the city's continued compliance with the court's decree. When Renner left the case, Magnuson, the Chief Judge of the U.S. District Court, took it over.

From the start, Macpherson says, it was clear that Magnuson intended to broker a conclusion to the costly and embarrassing suit. "Last summer the judge [Magnuson] gave us word that he intended to end the court supervision," the attorney says. "Clearly, he thought the case had gone on long enough."

Indeed, Magnuson said as much in a November 15 order terminating the court's jurisdiction--and assessing another $20,000 in legal fees to the city. "There have been substantial changes in the factual circumstances concerning the composition of the Minneapolis Fire Department," he wrote. "The defendants believe they have substantially complied with the original mandate of this court--the successful integration of the Minneapolis Fire Department."

Burt Osborne, the assistant city attorney representing Minneapolis in the case, agrees that Magnuson pushed to end the court's role. And, he continues, given the city's determination to end the case through either settlement or dismissal, last week's result was inevitable. "The judge made it very clear that he was concerned about the age of this case," he says. Osborne contends, however, that the plaintiffs' attorneys were not pressured into a hasty settlement by the city or the court. "Legal Aid represented their clients well and zealously," he asserts. "They had an active part in the settlement--just as much a part as the city and the judge."

Unlike Macpherson, Osborne also concurs with the position of the mayor and city council president Jackie Cherryhomes--that the hiring-policy changes wrought by the consent decree are now so imbedded in the culture of the MFD that there is no longer a need for court supervision. "We definitely don't need the steering committee directing the city's hiring practices anymore," he says. "My opinion is that the city can run its own affairs without the direction of the committee or the federal courts."

Edwards, needless to say, remains unconvinced. "Without us there to detect and expose things," he says, "it'll be back to business as usual."

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