Four More Years in Minneapolis?

Mike Wohnoutka

The candidates for mayor of Minneapolis have worked hard to trivialize matters of race and racism in this city, engaging in games of "gotcha!" by dredging up rhetorical radio-show comments and obscure mayoral speeches, and bickering over the racial nuances of the tepid rumble in the parking lot outside of Lucille's Kitchen. Between yawns, potential voters seem mildly amused.

For an incumbent with something to hide, dumbing down racial matters is an understandable strategy. For challenger Barbara Carlson, however, it has been a missed opportunity to focus public attention on one of the most scandalous aspects of Sharon Sayles Belton's first term: the mayor's willingness to perpetuate institutional racism within the Minneapolis Fire Department.

Specifically, the mayor has reappointed and consistently supported MFD Chief Tom Dickinson, whose 14-year tenure has been beset by an ongoing failure to satisfy the terms of a federal court order to integrate his department. In the four years since Sayles Belton was elected, Minneapolis taxpayers have shelled out more than a million dollars in penalties and attorney's fees because of a racially biased promotion test Dickinson implemented. Hundreds of thousands of dollars more in judgments are likely from a slew of civil lawsuits stemming from the improper firing of seven minority fire cadets in 1996. New hiring has been effectively frozen since a federal judge declared the city in contempt of a 25-year-old court order to racially integrate the fire department; as a result the department is short-staffed and forced to rely on thousands of hours of expensive overtime pay until the matter is resolved.

But rather than addressing these problems, the Sayles Belton administration has repeatedly ignored warnings from its own affirmative-action officer, and has discouraged remedial steps that could have helped put it in compliance with federal law. Attorneys and witnesses from City Hall have gone before judges demeaning the court orders by which they are bound.

The Sayles Belton administration has also stonewalled repeated attempts to determine how many white firefighters have unfairly taken advantage of affirmative-action preferences by claiming to be Native American. The American Indian Firefighter's Association claims that as many as 20 members of the MFD have no basis for their claims to be Native American. The city has refused to address or even acknowledge the problem.

The upshot of all this is a fire department in chaos, one seething with suspicion, racial resentment, and petty political vendettas. Mayor Sayles Belton declined City Pages' request for an interview on the subject. But in the past she has defended Dickinson by pointing to the rising number of minorities within the MFD. Sure enough, the percentage of firefighters who are not white males has risen steadily in recent years, to the point where the numbers are nearly in compliance with the terms of the court order. But those gains are the product of 25 years of legal coercion, and they have not been made without a fight that has reinforced a culture of intolerance and needlessly expended millions of dollars of taxpayers' money.

The mayor's decision to reappoint Chief Dickinson in 1994 came as a surprise to many of her supporters and most City Hall observers. Replacing top administrators is a time-honored practice that enables newly elected officials to put their own stamp on the office and distance themselves from any lingering ill will surrounding the departments beneath them. That's what Sayles Belton did when she removed Minneapolis Police Chief John Laux in favor of Bob Olson. To a politician who campaigned on themes of racial unity and responsible government, Dickinson would have seemed to be equally damaged goods.

Dickinson was reared in the bosom of the MFD's good-ol'-boy network. A Minneapolis resident since age 4 and a graduate of the North Side's Henry High School, he wanted to be a cop, but at 5 feet 8 inches was deemed too short for police work. He joined the MFD at age 25 and steadily worked his way up the bureaucratic ladder. In 1983, when the City Council decided to demote then-Chief Clarence Nimmerfroh for a series of petty offenses (such as overcharging the city for airline flights and using city equipment to fill his garden pond), Dickinson was one of three candidates the Council considered to take his place. It took eight rounds of voting until Dickinson prevailed; the tie-breaker came from then-Council member Kathy O'Brien, who switched her support over to him at the 11th hour. Today, O'Brien serves as Sayles Belton's chief of staff.

On the day he was named chief, Dickinson said that he was "pledged to recruit and hire minority and women firefighters." In any other department, that might have been a mere expression of good will. But in the MFD, previous resistance from the department's brass had already made it a legal obligation.  

The Minneapolis Civil Rights Commission first began discussing racially integrating the MFD in 1967, but intransigence on the part of the fire department blocked most serious efforts. In 1971 Gerald Carter and six other black men denied employment sued; a year later, U.S. District Court Judge Earl Larson ordered the department to fill at least a third of its recruiting classes with people of color until 20 minority firefighters were hired. Seven years later, with just a few minorities hired and a recruitment class consisting of 33 whites and no people of color, the court stepped in once more. This time it imposed a more concrete affirmative-action plan and appointed a steering committee to make sure its orders were not ignored again.

But the trouble continued. In 1983, the year Dickinson was hired as chief, Native American groups stepped up their allegations that many of the MFD's new "minority" recruits were actually whites misidentifying their racial affiliation. In response, the city created an ordinance laying out specific terms for racial verification among MFD employees. In 1989, discrepancies between the performance of white and minority firefighter applicants on the physical stress tests brought allegations that the Stairmaster machines had been tampered with. The steering committee demanded a retest, and most of the recruits who had failed the first time passed.

Also in 1989, the city agreed to pay minority firefighter applicants $50,000 after an oral interview procedure that disproportionately eliminated minority applicants was declared invalid. And in 1991, six African American firefighters sued over a prejudicial test for the promotion to captain. The suit was pending at the time Sayles Belton took office.

Despite this track record, the change in administrations created a sense of optimism among those who wanted the MFD reformed. One of the hopeful was 25-year veteran Mike Beaulieu, president of the American Indian Firefighter's Association and a member of the court-appointed steering committee. Within Sayles Belton's first six months in office, Beaulieu gave then-mayoral aide Martin Adams a list of more than a dozen firefighters, including six captains, and asked for the city's assistance in getting their racial status verified. The mayor's office responded in trademark fashion. "For more than a year, Sayles Belton had this guy tell us he was going to help us," Beaulieu says. "Finally he quit and moved to Chicago."

Beaulieu had better luck with city affirmative-action director Larry Blackwell, whose watchdog role in the fire-department affair has earned him few friends around City Hall. In April 1994, Blackwell informed Dickinson that only one of the seven fire captains and investigators listed as "American Indian" in the city's computer printouts had provided the proper verification, and that two of the captains had changed their racial designation to "white" after being asked to verify their minority status. But when Blackwell sought to have even these two captains listed as white on the city's computer, he was told to wait for a legal opinion from the city attorney's office.

That opinion came eight weeks later from an assistant city attorney named Joe LaBat. It contained a remarkable revelation: Though the city had passed its ordinance about verifying firefighters' racial status in 1985, the city's civil service commission had inexplicably waited six years before putting it into practice. Thus, LaBat said, the law could not be used as a way to verify the status of any firefighter hired before 1991. Even for post-'91 hires, LaBat told members of the City Council Executive Committee that he found the ordinance "too restrictive," adding that he could envision cases where someone might change his or her racial status as "a matter of personal preference."

This line of reasoning reached its ridiculous conclusion during a civil service commission hearing held on the racial status of MFD Captain Roger Champagne in August 1994. Having claimed to be Native American during his 1984 application to join the MFD, Champagne exploited affirmative-action guidelines and was hired despite receiving a low score in his entrance exam. When pressed to verify his racial status in 1988, however, he asked the affirmative-action department to change his status to white. Six years later, despite occupying a job that had been specifically earmarked for a Native American, he was quoted in a Star Tribune article as defending anti-affirmative-action resentment among white firefighters. The story referred to him as a white fire captain.

At the civil service commission hearing, Champagne's sole justification for his claim was that his mother told him his grandfather was Native American. There were no birth certificates or tribal enrollment papers offered, just some anecdotal accounts from his mother, two sisters, and a boyhood friend corroborating his version of events. Yet, the commission unanimously concluded Champagne "had reason to believe he was Native American and no willful misrepresentation of his race status on his application for Firefighter is found."  

City officials believe that the wording of the verification ordinance may not stand up in court. Yet, even if that were true, according to the city charter, any employee "who shall knowingly make any false answer or statement" as a means of getting a job "shall forfeit" that job.

"I've raised the issue about the Native American firefighters several times only to be told there is nothing we can do legally," says City Council member Brian Herron. "I disagree. We are dealing with a moral obligation of fairness here; if we sat down with the Native American community we could probably come up with a more satisfactory solution. But we don't do that; we'd rather be cloaked behind legality."

That's because if, as Beaulieu claims, there are as many as 20 Roger Champagnes among the MFD's ranks, there is no political will on the part of either the mayor or the chief to ferret them out. All that would do is weaken claims that Dickinson is racially integrating the department, while putting even more pressure on a minority-recruitment process that has already failed miserably and expensively. "The mayor screwed us," Beaulieu says simply. "She has enabled the chief and others in the department to be better racists. But when you call them on it, they say, 'What do you mean we're racist? We've got a black mayor, don't we?'"

As checkered as the first 12 years of Dickinson's tenure were, they can't compare with the tumultuous events that have buffeted the chief and the MFD over the past 12 months. Ironically, most of them revolve around a fire cadet program specifically created by the chief and his top assistant to increase minority recruitment. City officials have long argued that the court order actually hampers their integration efforts. They perceived the cadet program as a pilot, whose success would eventually release Dickinson from some of the order's strictures--particularly oversight from the steering committee.

Instead, the program blew up in the chief's face. Last November 5, as he was giving a deposition to the court explaining why no women were hired out of the first cadet class and why some cadets were being retested, the chief revealed that he believed gang members were infiltrating the MFD as cadets. Three weeks later he fired eight cadets, all but one of them minorities, explaining that they had failed a psychological test he had ordered in addition to the department's regular screening. This test was never validated by the steering committee under the court order, and it would later be revealed that Dickinson had actually discussed his gang fears with at least one of the psychologists involved. The chief also arranged for criminal background checks on the cadets (another violation of the court order), and relayed that information to psychologists. The use of criminal histories is generally discouraged in circumstances like this because they often include arrests that never result in convictions, leading to distorted rumors. That is exactly what occurred to some of the cadets, who endured whisper campaigns about rape, arson, and gang membership without a single conviction to support these claims.

Five of those cadets, plus another from the first cadet class also fired due to a psychological exam, filed a complaint with Blackwell. He quickly concluded that there was cause to have the six cadets reinstated. But Dickinson heatedly refused to let the affirmative-action director investigate the matter; he also questioned Blackwell's objectivity, claiming he had grown too close to the mother of one of the cadets. But the City Council was sufficiently nervous about Dickinson's actions to put the fired cadets on paid leave, especially after attorneys monitoring the court order pointed out the potential violations involved. During the same Council meeting, the chief apologized for the gang remark, claiming it stemmed from an erroneous rumor that one cadet had been wearing gang colors and symbols during training.

Instead of the "biased" Blackwell, the City Council turned its investigation into the cadet firings over to Human Resources director Ann Eilbracht, who as a defendant in the cadets' complaint was hardly a disinterested party. Blackwell says Eilbracht viewed the purpose of the probe as "damage control."

On that score, she deserves a raise: The two outside investigators hired by Eilbracht delivered their report two days after the chief's performance review before the Council in March. At that meeting, Dickinson was being lambasted by the NAACP and other community groups for firing the cadets. Eilbracht calmed the Council with assurances that the report would find no discrimination in the chief's actions. Yet 48 hours after the Council had given the chief a satisfactory review, the report instead found "prima facie evidence that the [cadet] selection process may be operating in a discriminatory manner." It was later revealed that for a while there were actually two reports: the damning original, and a more supportive version that had passed through Eilbracht's office. Sayles Belton obviously preferred the latter: A city news leaflet reported that Eilbracht's investigators "found no evidence of discriminatory treatment," and quoted the mayor's description of the report as "fair and independent."  

Less than a month later, in mid-April, Dickinson's reputation absorbed another blow, this one a blast from the past. Having watched six African American firefighters settle their lawsuit over the unvalidated 1991 captain's test in exchange for promotions to captain and more than $500,000, Hispanic firefighter Brian Kohn sued on the same grounds. Once again, city attorneys misjudged their position by claiming that the test had only been shown to be biased against African Americans, not Hispanics, and that the 25-year-old court order was thus irrelevant. Judge Harry Crump disagreed to the tune of more than $840,000, imposing the maximum compensatory damages for back pay, emotional harm, and damage to reputation. "Obviously the judge is trying to send a message to the city that its fire department has an ongoing problem with discrimination," says Kohn's attorney, Sonja Peterson.

In case Dickinson and Sayles Belton didn't get the message, U.S. District Court Judge Robert Renner drove it home three months later when he found the city in contempt of the court order over the psychological testing and criminal background checks of the fire cadets. Renner ordered the city to throw out the unvalidated tests, continue paying the cadets until they are adequately retested, and absorb all legal costs associated with the case.

In especially harsh legal terms, Judge Renner took issue with the city's willful ignorance of the law: "Despite the clear, unambiguous requirements of the consent decree regarding the use of arrest and conviction histories, witness after witness appearing for the City seemed unaware of its terms." Indeed, attorneys for the city had argued in his court that the order was "long-ignored" and "outmoded." One of their expert witnesses acknowledged he hadn't even read the document.

The contempt ruling adds to Dickinson's and the city's tally of expensive violations of the court order. And there may be more to come: While waiting (with pay) for their next test, the six cadets have hired Jeffrey Anderson, a St. Paul lawyer nationally renowned for securing multimillion judgments for his clients, to challenge the MFD in a civil trial. More than likely, the cost of the eventual settlements will be a tad larger than the dollars siphoned away by former Chief Nimmerfroh to fly first-class and fill his garden pond.

But Nimmerfroh never had a mayor as tolerant as Sayles Belton has been of Dickinson. A week after Renner's ruling, three City Council members--Brian Herron, Jim Niland, and Dore Mead--sent a letter to Sayles Belton urging her to demand the chief's resignation. "We expect department heads to solve problems, not create them," they wrote. The mayor's communications director Amy Phenix said Sayles Belton believes that the letter "is not responsible leadership. It's not the way to govern our city." To this day, the mayor has never publicly reprimanded the chief for anything about his job performance.

Nowadays the mayor must seem like the only ally left for Tom Dickinson (who did not return City Pages' phone calls in connection with this story). Within the MFD, even the white male rank and file have begun to turn against him, and it appears that upper-echelon administrators are headed the same way. On September 15, battalion chief (the third-ranked position in the MFD hierarchy) J.W. Hanley wrote a long, critical open letter to Dickinson. Near the end, it says, "This letter probably seems cynical and a mean personal attack. I would rather it be considered a resolution for all of us to not sit silent, particularly those who know better and are in a position to affect policy... You have failed 'Leadership 101,' caused unnecessary stress and created the mother of all hostile work environments. It feels as though you have pushed the department's self-destruct button. If I didn't laugh I'd have to cry..."

Over at the Fire Fighters Association of Minneapolis No. 82, union president Frank Boerboon describes a chief who has micromanaged his department into a cynical stupor. He and other union officials in the room cite examples of times when firefighters have been written up for wearing an unofficial baseball cap while off-duty but in uniform on their way home; and when firefighters rushed in for emergency duty and were shown on the local news saving lives, only to be told by Dickinson that they were out of uniform at the time. Boerboon also describes a vindictive chief, who has pulled manpower away from places where prominent union officials work. He says that "morale is the lowest it's ever been in the entire time I've worked here."  

Rumors are widespread within the fire department that when his current term expires at the end of this year, Chief Dickinson will step down from his post. The most common of many scenarios is that he will stay on in the department where he has served for 37 years, probably as a battalion chief. Meanwhile, the speculation is that Sayles Belton will conduct a nationwide search for a new chief, reaching outside the department for a person of color.

Of course there is always the possibility that she won't get the chance. Despite Barbara Carlson's own bumbling approach to racial matters in Minneapolis, she has publicly stated she would replace the fire chief if elected. As the November 4 election looms it is improbable, but possible, that as Dickinson goes down, he will take his most loyal patron down with him.

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