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.
In addition, documents pertaining to particular trips reflect apparent irregularities. In April, for instance, White traveled to Atlanta, Georgia, to review a housing development along with his executive assistant Marian Scott and then-deputy director Hyacinthe. White says the trip, which cost more than $3,600, was requested by the city. The only problem: Scott wasn't a department employee at the time. "It was two or three days before she was officially hired," White explains. "There were delays beyond our control from the human-resources department, but I knew I was going to hire her. It didn't seem like a big problem."
A trip last summer also raises eyebrows. In mid-July White and Scott traveled to Nashville for a conference on race relations at Fisk University. Both took five working days off and submitted a total of $2,791 in expenses. But according to the department's phone records, a cellular telephone issued to White left Nashville on the first day of the conference and spent the rest of the week in Cape Girardeau, Missouri--more than 200 miles away. Additionally, while White's expense report for the trip was fully itemized and included receipts from Nashville hotels and restaurants, Scott's contained no receipts. (Both reports were approved by the city's then-finance director John Moir.)
White says he and Scott both attended the Fisk conference. He declines to comment on his phone's apparent migration. "It's not important," he maintains. "It's been discussed and resolved. It's a non-issue." (Marian Scott did not respond to a phone message requesting comment for this story.)
Current and former staffers from the department contend that questions of impropriety have not been entirely laid to rest. They say that attorneys from a private law firm began questioning them in November about an apparent interpersonal dispute within the unit. One source, who asked not to be named in print, says the basis of the inquiry was unclear but the line of questioning had less to do with department policy than with personal relationships between staffers. "They were asking me: Did this person have an affair with this person? There was more to it than innuendo. They were asking: Were things going bad in the department? Who was responsible?
"Based on my experience handling cases," the source goes on, "the questions led me to believe that it was an internal investigation that the city had farmed out."
Minneapolis City Attorney Jay Heffern confirms that the city "retained outside counsel to conduct an investigation into complaints involving the Minneapolis civil-rights department." No disciplinary action was taken as a result of the investigation, Heffern says; state law prohibits him from discussing specifics.
White is aware that attorneys have spoken to his staffers and says that to the best of his knowledge, the matter has been resolved. "Rumors circulated about different things," says White. "I don't buy into it and I don't feed into it. To be honest with you, it was one of those he-said, she-said things. You can't figure out where it originated."
While employees have filed 20 grievances against him during his tenure, White adds, he has never been found in the wrong. "All these allegations--when the findings are published, it will show that nothing was substantiated.
"You can't control what people think is going on," he concludes. "Right now there's nothing out there. A couple of rumors got started and people ran with it."
Nevertheless, those rumors have made the rounds at city hall, in the form of gossip and anonymous letters. And city officials are once again focused on the civil-rights department and its future. As a footnote to the city's 2001 budget, which was approved by the city council in December, 11th Ward council member Doré Mead successfully proposed a Civil Rights Task Force to report on the department throughout the year. The idea, Mead explains, is to reexamine the way in which the city handles civil-rights issues. "I think it's time we sit back and take a fresh look at the way we deal with civil rights in this city," she says. "We need to look at whether we have the right people doing the right things, or whether we can do it better. We need to look at new approaches."
Mead's colleague Brian Herron supports the task force and believes it should help stem debate about the department's relevance. "Every year someone is asking whether the civil-rights department is one we need," Herron notes. "I want to put that to rest once and for all. There's no sense in having a civil-rights department if it's not doing what it's supposed to be doing. I'm not ready to get rid of it, but we need to find ways to help it function more efficiently and more effectively."
White has come to consider criticism par for the course. "This comes with the territory," he says. "People are going to be critical because they don't understand what you do. And we don't have time to be patting ourselves on the back; we have to get in there and do our job."
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