KILLING THE MESSENGER
Last May Minneapolis City Coordinator Kathy O'Brien called Larry Blackwell into her office for a scolding. Blackwell, the city's affirmative action head, found Human Resources Director Ann Eilbracht waiting there as well. Blackwell had been talking, they'd heard. He'd taken a meeting with City Council member Doré Mead--a talk Mead asked him to keep "confidential"--in which the two discussed a pending discrimination case against the Convention Center and a possible upgrade of his department within the city hierarchy. The meeting was not unlike many that go on between department heads, council members, and staffers all the time at City Hall. Yet Blackwell was in trouble.
"I was meeting with my own council representative," says Blackwell, an attorney by training, shaking his head. "What do you do when you have people who are the ultimate supervisors saying we want to meet with you and it's confidential? I was asked about the Convention Center case," he says--a matter in which numerous minority and woman employees are claiming they have been harassed and treated unfairly for years. "Mead wanted to know how it was coming along. I said it was one of the biggest cases we'd ever had and I said I hope we do the right thing in this case. I didn't want to do an investigation just to get rid of some fall people and have the sources of the problem continue to exist. And I think that got back to Kathy. I didn't see the big deal.
"I think Kathy thought I was saying something about her and her administration," Blackwell says now. "I wasn't thinking anything. I just wanted to go back into my hole and do my job." If Blackwell sounds worn and defensive, it's because he's been the city's affirmative action director for 17 years, which has meant going to work every day in an environment plagued by routine and entrenched kinds of discrimination and a marked hostility to change.
Affirmative Action needed to be a "partner" in building a healthy work environment, said a carefully worded follow-up memo from O'Brien. If there were any more requests for private meetings by council members, or anyone, he was to tell them "that you needed to disclose the conversation with your supervisor and that you would not participate in a discussion that was confidential from those you reported to in the organization.... If indeed Council Members have concerns about the effectiveness of the affirmative action function of the City, they should bring them directly to those responsible." Apparently, by O'Brien's lights, that didn't include Blackwell.
O'Brien says she was trying to make a point: "If we have business, we should be dealing with the people we have business with. The letter was to give him direction as a staff member that all of us in City Hall work together that we are inclusive and that we don't hide information." Are other department or division heads under similar requirements? "I can't speak for other department heads. My position with everyone who reports to me is the same--we don't have secret meetings." The fact that such a simple act on Blackwell's part could draw such a quick and paranoiac response is a testament to the political disfavor of affirmative action these days, and to Blackwell's ever-tenuous status at City Hall.
Established in 1973 as a symbol of the city's dedication "in spirit, in law, and in performance" to fairness, Blackwell's office has seen its authority steadily undermined and its position in the city hierarchy diminished over the years. Each move made the office less a watchdog and more susceptible to political pressures; on some occasions specific powers were taken away after Blackwell championed an unpopular cause. He's recently been told to cut back on investigations, to be more "positive" and "pro-active." Meanwhile, the city's payouts in discrimination cases have gone through the roof, reaching a high of $1.3 million last year, compared to $13,000 in 1986. City officials have responded to the escalating troubles with a new proposal: They want to do away with the department altogether.
"People are uncomfortable with the investigative role," says Blackwell in his even-toned manner. Over the years he's become known as a seeker of the middle ground: a straight shooter, but one who's not in the habit of raising his voice. "Quite frankly, nobody wants to be told that they have done something wrong. I'm probably naive, but I see it as an effort to achieve a higher level of performance. I was told that I was advocating for employees and that that is negative--that is viewed as negative in this city.
"I think the City Council's intent when it set up the affirmative action program was that it was not a program that was going to go along with the status quo, because some parts of the status quo needed to be fixed. It was understood that it might upset some people, but it's better for the entire city. And that's what the City Council had in mind when they set it up--that there was a larger benefit. We can correct some problems rather than repeating them."
Besides investigating between 50 and 70 complaints a year, he and his staff of four monitor policies, hirings, and promotions to make sure the city's various departments treat the so-called "protected classes"--mainly minorities and women--fairly. And to some extent, they've been successful. In 1976, the city's workforce was 4.7 percent minority and 20.9 percent female. Now it's 15.1 percent minority and 30.6 percent female. While those numbers look good on paper, cautions Blackwell, most of those people are at the bottom of the pay scale. "We have one department head of color, and that's in the Civil Rights Department. There are few women at higher levels. Pay levels are not equal." He's pushed the issue at meetings with charts and graphs. "I think the challenge to the city is promotions over the next five to ten years. If we don't do something to raise up those people we've brought in, we'll face a tremendous amount of liability. It's something we emphasize every year. We'll just have to wait and see what happens."
But increasingly, says Blackwell, "We are told we are too aggressive, too confrontational. I think there's a perception [among city officials] that anyone who says something's wrong is a bad person."
He's not the first critic to run headlong into a stubborn institutional status quo at City Hall. In 1991, a consultant named Deborah Anderson was hired at the behest of Minneapolis city unions to undertake a four-year study of the city bureaucracy as a work environment. Her conclusion was summed up in a 1995 report: "Abusive, disrespectful behavior among City of Minneapolis elected officials, managers and staff at all levels is causing a decrease in productivity, morale, creativity, and an increase in cost within the city. If allowed to survive, this cancer of disrespect will destroy the life of the organization and leave it unable to serve the needs of Minneapolis residents."
The statement was based on surveys of hundreds of city employees up and down the organizational ladder. They reported a startling range of abuse and intimidation that extended all the way into City Council chambers--everything from ongoing "verbal abuse, sarcasm, swearing, yelling, throwing things," to inappropriate touching, pay discrimination, harassment, job threats, unsafe working conditions, unethical demands, and unresponsive managers. Small wonder that, as Ann Eilbracht told a recent gathering of the Citywide Labor Management Committee, grievances filed by city employees have increased by 60 percent over the past five years and that litigation is expected "to remain high."
"There was a black man in Animal Control," says Blackwell, "who had been subjected to racial slurs. His supervisors had accused this man of stealing out of the till where customers pay fees. They took the matter all the way to arbitration. The arbitrator asked for evidence, and they said he was there when the money was stolen. He said, so were a bunch of other people." The man eventually sued and "the city had to pay $135,000. Nobody checked to see if they had any evidence. He was black and he was there, and that was where they drew the bottom line. It was just ridiculous."
After Blackwell, Anderson, and Council member Mead (11th Ward) arranged for discussion groups between management and employees in Animal Control, where Mead says "people were not coming to work because they were afraid for their safety," things cooled down. "Within a month we were seeing results," she adds. "People were talking to each other, treating each other well, pulling together as teams. Complaints went down."
But problem-solving at such a basic level seems to remain the exception and not the rule in city government. "Healthy organizations deal with the problems," Anderson says simply. "Sick organizations shut the program down and say they don't want to deal with it. Senior management in the city didn't support the project, people like Kathy O'Brien. She would say things like we don't want to create a bunch of victims in employee [ranks]. We don't want to promote whining."
After the 1995 report, the city broke with Anderson and hired another consultant, Violet Arnold, to review the study. Many believed that it was because the City Council did not want to take up the challenge posed by Anderson's findings. But Arnold's conclusions were similarly harsh. "She found that the city has an extraordinarily unhealthy work environment," says Mead, "and if we don't come to grips with it, it does not bode well for city as a whole. I haven't heard of anything happening as a result. This is not something that any of us here now created. But we are paying a price for it. We don't have to look any further than the grievances and lawsuits that increase the amount of taxes we have to pay."
"Affirmative action is very important," says Minneapolis Department of Civil Rights Director Kenneth White, "and I think you state how important you think it is by where you place it. My position is that it should report to the CEO of an organization. If we're talking about the city, it should report to the mayor. When I was affirmative action director at the U, I reported directly to Nils Hasselmo."
When the city's office was first set up, it reported directly to the City Council. Around 1979, when Blackwell took the job, it was moved a bit lower on the ladder, reporting to the city coordinator. At that time, says Blackwell, his office was overseeing the city's minority business program and "monitoring the minority and women employment component of city contracts. But in 1986 all of those were removed from our jurisdiction."
The powers of Blackwell's office were scaled back, he says, not long after he raised a flap over the construction of City Center. "We brought City Center and the PCL construction company into the City Council for not hiring enough women and minority construction workers," he recalls. "We also found that some of the firms that were being used by contractors weren't really minority firms. They were just fronts. That was exposed. People were definitely not pleased with that.
"Essentially, in 1986, the Council acted to remove those things from my jurisdiction and [said] we would just deal with city employment stuff. At the time, Mayor Don Fraser said to me that some of the developers felt that in the city of Minneapolis, they were under a lot stricter standards than outside the city. There were some members of the City Council who were concerned."
Ron Edwards, who chaired the Civil Rights Commission at the time, worked on the issue with Blackwell, forming a bond that has been useful over the years. "I have had the utmost respect and appreciation for Mr. Blackwell in his 17 years as affirmative action director," says Edwards. "He's been one of the few appointed administrators in the city who has done his job with integrity. He has paid the price. He has alienated the mayor and administrators in Minneapolis over a decade and a half, people who he has been called upon to investigate and help put their house in order. I also know that Larry has been criticized for his long working relationship with me. They never forgave him for our work during the days of the City Center controversy." Edwards, who was voted out of office in 1982--with O'Brien as one of his key opponents--predicted in a City Pages story at the time that "The agenda calls for an erosion and demise of affirmative action. That's what they're shooting for. Once they get me out of the way, Blackwell is next."
In 1986, says Blackwell, Affirmative Action was downgraded in status from its rank as a separate, independent agency to a division of the Human Resources Department. And the city began to see its discrimination suit payouts increase. In 1986, the figure was $13,100. By 1991, it had risen to $50,000. In 1993, the total was $409,500; by 1995, over $1.3 million. "It seemed that before we were placed under the Human Resources department," says Blackwell, "we had more authority to get in and settle those cases. Before 1987 we had a pretty low rate of findings and liability against the city in terms of [equal employment opportunity]. We said we want zero liability against the city and we were headed in that direction. Around 1986 and even before, the chart shows we were decreasing liability.
"I don't entirely know why, but it seems that under Human Resources, we had a more difficult time getting cases resolved. Frank Reiter, the director at the time, asked us to back off making the written findings and recommendations. He said just go gather some facts. Go talk to some people but don't put any conclusions in writing. We could say to them, we think there may be a problem here, but we couldn't draw conclusions. That left us in the position of having to go back to the person who brought the complaint and they would say, 'Well, what did you find? Was there something wrong or not?' And we would have to say, 'Well, we can't tell you.' We ended up looking incompetent, and the people would go out and bring a suit or go to EEOC or some federal agency."
Under Human Resources direction, Blackwell's authority was further compromised when various departments, including the city library, began claiming that they didn't have to follow the city's affirmative action policy. "Reiter accepted the library's idea that we didn't have jurisdiction. Library issues would just remain internal to the library. The opinion was, 'You guys are in the way and you are harassing the departments.'"
When Ann Eilbracht took over the department, says Blackwell, she encouraged his office to begin making findings again. But in lieu of giving affirmative action more power, he adds, she proposed merging it with the Labor Relations division and cutting affirmative action staff. The proposal has elicited some public criticism; Eilbracht now says she isn't sure the merger will go forward. She says a "panel of experts" solicited by her department has given the notion a thumbs-down. The idea, she says, was simply to cut costs and to get the two divisions to "work on solving problems jointly."
In any case, says Eilbracht, "We will respond to all complaints. There has been an increase in complaints, and perhaps people are viewing that as a sign that the city is less and less tolerant. But to some extent, the fact that the city has been successful in developing a diverse workforce creates opportunities for people to feel that they have been discriminated against." As for Blackwell, she adds, "I'm very impressed with Larry's knowledge and his experience in the area of affirmative action. I think he takes a long view and understands that the role of his department is swimming upstream."
"I don't know that much" about the merger plans, says Blackwell. "It was brought to me that there was going to be a merger, that we were possibly going to lose some positions as a result, and that there would be less investigation. Part of the reason was to reduce cost and the rest was to get me into a pro-active role"--meaning, he says, more educational and consciousness-raising presentations--"because a lot of the departments didn't like my investigative role."
"When people heard about it, internally and externally," he adds, "they viewed it as getting rid of me."
There seems to be a groundswell of support for exactly that approach, although few people will say so openly. "When I started on the Council 20 years ago," says Dennis Schulstad (12th Ward), the body's lone professed Republican, "I would have found no support for getting rid of the department. They would have politely voted me down 12 to one. Now, privately, there are several who support me. Some say they wish they could vote with me--more than three or four, though they wouldn't all vote that way because of politics."
Mead isn't one of them: "I think we should be moving in the opposite direction and elevating the department, rather than burying it deeper within the organization. It should be its own separate entity. It should report directly to the City Council. With the current arrangement, the director doesn't have the authority needed to mandate changes in city departments. He can just make recommendations that they can follow or ignore as they see fit. As they ignore them, it gets us into trouble in a very expensive way. I think if the rest of us would just get out of Larry's way, he'd do a spectacular job."
According to Edwards, "There is no doubt in my mind that their intention is to punish Mr. Blackwell. They would basically take away his investigative authority and render him ineffective. It's a retaliatory and punitive action initiated at the highest possible level. The mayor clearly had to sign off on this. They want him to go around and work on the diversity of the city's workforce through workshops and seminars, not through investigating. Then, when they report that tensions are not down a few years down the line, they will fire him. What amazes me is how chickenshit they are about saying what is really happening."
"People are getting tired of affirmative action," says Blackwell, a little more charitably. "It's like, well, if those people haven't made it by now, we are just kind of tired of that. We still have a long way to go. And look at higher job levels, that's a whole other issue. We can ignore it, but that's expensive."
There are currently 101 employment discrimination cases pending against the city, according to figures from the City Attorney's office, including lawsuits and those filed with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, the Human Rights department, and the Civil Rights department. "They aren't all lawsuits," says City Attorney Jim Moore, "but they all certainly have the potential to go that way."
In case after anecdotal case, Blackwell cites ways the city could have avoided liability. Nor is it all Monday-morning quarterbacking. In many instances he can likewise cite his office's efforts to intervene--and the city's looming indifference. Or hostility. "Right now we have authority to sit down and negotiate promotion and hiring goals with city departments. But we don't have any authority to enforce those goals. We have no authority to review the hires and promotions before they are made or even after they are made. We have the authority to take a complaint, and we have the authority to investigate it. But once we make the findings, the department has total autonomy to accept or reject them. They can take our findings and flush them down the toilet if they want. And if the department is sued, the city will defend them and pay."
In 1994, the city paid $20,000 to a clerk in the Emergency Communications Department. "A ridiculous payout," says Blackwell. "One of the supervisors came to us and said this guy is harassing one of the women down there. We found about 12 instances where he had sexually harassed her. Touching her hair, driving by her house and then saying, 'I saw you in the yard in your bikini and you looked really good.' One day they were both standing outside smoking and he grabbed her by the lapels and pulled her close to him." All the woman wanted, Blackwell points out, was a transfer outside the department. "Eventually," recounts Blackwell, "they got her out of there after we pushed and pushed and pushed. It took three months. And in the meantime she had to stay with this person who was blaming her for the complaint. It was a bad environment for her. Finally, she got an attorney involved, and she got $20,000 from the city in a case that could have been done with a transfer to begin with."
That settlement was chump change compared to the case that came out of the Public Works Department in 1995--a $1.2 million class action settlement. Mary Jo Rains and Connie Long complained to the Affirmative Action office that they were performing jobs beyond their classifications. "They wanted to be recognized for jobs they were actually performing. They wanted to be upgraded and weren't given that consideration, while upgrades went in for men. We investigated it and said you're discriminating. That was in '83 or '84. We said here you've got some women who are working out of class and you need to upgrade them and take a look at the overall process. It'll probably cost you $4,000 a year in increased salary. The department head said no. And so the plaintiffs got an attorney and asked if it was happening to anybody else. They got certification for hundreds of women in Public Works.
"Now, not only do we have to pay $1.2 million in back pay plus attorneys' fees. We are also under certain kinds of mandates. There is the cost of doing all these additional things. We have a review committee set up, so that if any woman has a discrimination complaint or concern she can bring it to committee. There are extra reports that have to be done. Every time there is a promotion or hire, they have to stop the hiring process and the promotion process and we have to look at it. The attorneys have to continue to be involved. This could have all been avoided so easily."
Perhaps no case exemplifies the city's unwillingness to change more than that involving the fire department, the only other department under a court order at this time. Since 1972, when a judge ruled that the department had to diversify its nearly all-white, all-male ranks, the city has had to pay at least $220,000 to minority applicants and employees on testing issues. Blackwell recalls one of the discussions: "There were some black firefighters who wanted to become captains. We found that the test was given so that it favored white applicants. We had a meeting with the black firefighters, the NAACP, the Civil Service, and others. We all agreed that the city was discriminating and that there was going to be some liability. The meeting must have been in the spring of 1993. We couldn't come to a resolution. And nothing was done. We ended up paying $177,000 to settle the case."
In 1994, after a group of Native American firefighters had gone to the mayor's office claiming that some of those identified as Indian on the department may in fact be fact white, Blackwell wrote a memo to Fire Chief Tom Dickinson indicating that out of six fire captains and one fire investigator identified as American Indian for affirmative action purposes, only one could had provided verification. He pointed out that one allegedly Native American firefighter had identified himself as white on one city form and as Indian on another. Another had identified himself as white on two confidential data forms. Others had no documentation at all. Blackwell asked that the chief have them fill out the necessary forms with their tribal enrollment numbers. "Unless I hear differently from you, I will direct staff to change the race coding for [the two] from American Indian to white."
Blackwell's move was stopped dead in its tracks by Reiter, who, according to a jotting at the bottom of the 1994 memo, "Directed me not to make these changes and to talk to the chief to see if he had a justification for counting them as Indian." Reiter went to the City Attorney's office for an opinion. Eight weeks later, Assistant City Attorney Joseph LaBat wrote that anyone hired before 1991 didn't have to prove their enrollment. Though the requirement had been on the books since 1985, it hadn't been enforced until 1991, reasoned LaBat. A complaint was filed with the Minnesota Department of Human Rights who sided with the city. The matter is under appeal.
Privately, a number of onlookers believe that it's the Native American firefighters imbroglio--bitter, protracted, and fraught with potential liability--that's done more than any other case to damage Blackwell politically and set the stage for a further diminution of his department's powers.
Kathy O'Brien tells a different story. She says the rising cost of discrimination cases points to the need for organizational reform--and there's nothing personal about it. "We haven't had very strong human resource functions," she says. "Services have been very decentralized in the city. We haven't had citywide standards. It's a project I've been working on for two years. You might recall that in 1993, there were incidents of police officers that the Civil Service Commission couldn't fire. There was the gender discrimination suit in Public Works. All of those suggest, if you look back, where were the personnel systems in the city to fend these off before they happened? We want to build a citywide system so that those things don't happen. Strengthening affirmative action is just part of that."
According to Eilbracht, "We're looking for ways to provide more clear-cut roles and responsibilities. I think that will [help] give some authority to the Affirmative Action recommendations." She declined to be more specific.
Blackwell says if they merge him into a position where he's powerless, he'll quit. "If I don't feel like I'm making a difference," he offers, "I'm not going to stick around. I really want to do something for Minneapolis. I live in the city. I like it. I think it should have a diverse government. There are so many talents out here that we aren't tapping."
"If Larry's rocking the boat, it has to be justifiable, because he is as stable as they come," says Council Member Walt Dziedzic (First Ward), who's been around City Hall even longer than Blackwell. "He was involved in the firefighters' dispute, and he did a good job there. That issue isn't over, but the minority membership of the fire department has risen, not to where we'd like it to be, but it's a lot more than it was years ago. I credit Larry and Ron Edwards. When we built the Convention Center, we set a record for the number of minority businesses we hired, and Larry had a hand in all of that." But, adds Dziedzic, "The truth will always ruffle a few feathers."
Affirmative action, says Blackwell, is a gradual affair. "It's slow. It's a compromise between a court order and no movement at all. I don't know why it's threatening to talk about better ways to do something. It's beyond me. Smart businesses are doing it themselves. If you can't understand the human side of it, understand the business side. Decrease the dollars. If the city doesn't change things, liability is going to continue to go through the roof."
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