Not His Forte?

Jana Freiband

It seemed as if Rocco Forte was doing all the right things at his swearing-in ceremony at City Hall last week. Pledging to resolve the disputes over minority hiring that have kept Minneapolis under a federal court order for the past 26 years, the city's new fire chief unveiled the Minneapolis Fire Department's most diverse management team ever--a group of 14 top officials that included three African Americans, an Asian American, and an American Indian.

But some of the people charged with overseeing the MFD's integration efforts greeted the appointments with anger and skepticism. They said Forte has a long way to go toward overcoming the legacy of his old boss, 14-year chief Tom Dickinson--and that one of his top appointments came as a slap in the face to integration advocates.

As one of his three deputy chiefs, Forte named James Rodger, a former fire captain who Forte claims is listed on city records as being American Indian. But back in April 1994, the city's then-affirmative action director, Larry Blackwell, informed the MFD that six of seven fire captains and investigators hired under the department's integration plan as American Indian had not provided proper verification such as a tribal membership number. What's more, Blackwell noted, two had also listed their racial status as white on some city forms after being hired--including James Rodger. (Earlier this year, Blackwell was demoted from his affirmative action position and declined an offer of another city job at much lower pay. He contends that his raising of the American Indian verification issue contributed to his demotion and is contemplating a lawsuit against the city.)

Legally, Rodger's status is a moot point: The city's attorneys have ruled that civil-service guidelines prevent them from enforcing any verification procedure for employees hired before 1991. But American Indian Firefighters' Association president Mike Beaulieu says it is galling to have Forte back up his stated desire for diversity by hiring someone whom American Indian members of the force don't consider one of their own. Beaulieu is also a member of the Firefighters Advisory Steering Committee, the court-appointed body that monitors the MFD's progress on minority hiring. He verbally clashed with Forte over the promotion of Rodger at a committee meeting the week before the chief's swearing-in.

"I am greatly troubled by what Chief Forte has done," says committee chair Ron Edwards. "The committee understands the game that is being played. Because the city never addressed the issue of Native American certification, they can allow [the promotion of Rodger] to happen and still be secure in the matter, especially since Mr. Blackwell is no longer around as a watchdog. I believe that my Native American colleagues on this committee have the right of inquiry into this."

Rodger is not the only prominent member of Forte's management team whose appointment may prove controversial. At his swearing-in ceremony, Forte also announced that Rosita Fields, an African American woman, would be the MFD's new recruiting officer. But Fields's new job doesn't technically exist yet; money for her position must be approved by the City Council, and that won't happen until November at the earliest. Edwards, who claims that Mayor Sharon Sayles Belton assured committee members that a recruiter would be on board by 1997, says Forte's filling of an as-yet-unfunded position is an effort to maximize the appearance, but not the substance, of diversity within the MFD.

One reason Forte's appointments are being closely watched is the MFD's disastrous performance in minority hiring during the period in which he was Dickinson's assistant chief. In the last year alone, city taxpayers have shelled out more than $1 million to settle discrimination suits against the Fire Department. Also last year, a federal district court judge ruled that the city had used improper psychological tests in a fire-cadet program Forte had helped create; six former cadets received more than $200,000 in a legal settlement. To this day, Beaulieu says, the department is paying hundreds of thousands of dollars in overtime while city officials, the steering committee, and a Legal Aid attorney negotiate the terms of a new minority hiring process.

Because of that history, Forte was considered by some to be a long shot to replace his mentor, Dickinson, as chief. As City Council member Steve Minn puts it: "It is hard to become commander in chief when you didn't disagree with the previous commander in chief on some questionable matters. You come in with a lot of baggage. I think the department needs a clean slate." Yet last month Minn voted to approve the mayor's nomination of Forte, as did every one of his colleagues except 12th Ward Council member Sandy Colvin Roy.

The new chief had a powerful patron in Sayles Belton, whose efforts on his behalf took on added urgency when two of the three finalists for the job turned out to be allies of the firefighters' union, a longtime nemesis of the mayor. But Forte also received lobbying assistance from an unexpected source--African American firefighters Rick Campbell and Alex Jackson, both of whom received money to settle a civil rights complaint against the MFD when Dickinson was chief.

City Council member Brian Herron, a staunch critic of Dickinson who once signed a letter calling for the former chief's ouster, acknowledges that Campbell and Jackson met with him to talk about Forte. Herron says he was aware that both men were applying to become part of Forte's new management team, Campbell as assistant chief and Jackson as engineering officer. Herron says he "wasn't an original supporter" of Forte, but that he was swayed "by all the people I talked to and in my reflections on my past dealings with the man. Even his detractors felt like they could work with him. And I told Rocco, 'There is no quid pro quo. It is not my place to tell you who should be assistant chief.'" Last week Forte named Campbell the city's fire marshal. He did not promote Jackson.

Forte concurs, "I didn't make any promises on numbers of [minority] people hired or on certain people to hire. I didn't make any commitments other than to have a diversified, highly qualified workforce, and I think the appointments help do that."

As for Forte's appointment of James Rodger, Herron--who as recently as last October claimed the city "had a moral obligation of fairness" to aggressively pursue the issue of American Indian verification--says he won't challenge the chief's move. "These are his appointments to make and I think he deserves that chance," Herron says. "He is not the same as Dickinson. In working with Rocco, I saw him agonize over things he had to carry out for the chief."

Forte, meanwhile, is quick to say, "I respect Chief Dickinson and I have always supported Chief Dickinson." And it bears noting that on his first day as chief 15 years ago, Dickinson, too, said he was "pledged to recruit and hire minority and women firefighters."

Beaulieu, for one, doubts the new chief will deliver where his predecessor failed. "Rocco had a very unimpressive record," he says. "There was millions of dollars in lawsuits and there are more lawsuits pending. The cadet program is a complete flop--we are about 125 people short and still doing overtime because of that. And he has gone and hired a Hollywood Indian as a deputy. Can't we do any better than that?"

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