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Messenger, Shot

Zoned out? Blackwell believes his report on the city's Empowerment Zone led to his demise
Tony Nelson

On Friday, the Minneapolis City Council undertook the routine business of approving a handful of mayoral appointees to christen R.T. Rybak's second term. Part of the agenda included giving a yea vote to seven members of the city's Commission on Civil Rights, a list of whom had been approved in the council's Health, Energy, and Environment committee on January 5. If the vote was pro forma, the list itself was notable for whom it didn't include: a sitting member of the commission by the name of Larry Blackwell.

What's amazing is that the city still had Blackwell to kick around at all. Over the course of 35 years, Blackwell has been an agitator for equality inside and outside of City Hall, starting with a stint with the Minneapolis Department of Civil Rights in 1971. Beginning in 1979, Blackwell was the city's affirmative action director for the next 18 years, until the city essentially demoted him in 1998. (Blackwell sued the city over his departure that year; the suit was settled a couple of years later.) Through it all, he earned the reputation as a low-key but tenacious investigator.

So it was surprising that Blackwell came back to the fold in 2004, when he was appointed to the city's civil rights commission for a two-year tour of duty. By all accounts, Blackwell was, as one colleague puts it, "one of the pillars of the commission," and brought three decades of practical knowledge to what is a relatively inexperienced group. Blackwell's reappointment by Rybak seemed a forgone conclusion, but in a circumstance that has surprised many, Blackwell apparently fell out of the mayor's favor.

"I don't want this to be about me," says Blackwell, with typical humility. "I just want the city to address these issues."

This, apparently, is exactly the kind of attitude that got Blackwell the boot. By city of Minneapolis ordinance, the commission "implements the city's civil rights policies" to "promote and protect the civil rights of the citizens of Minneapolis." In effect, the commission works in concert with the civil rights department, which actually investigates complaints of discrimination. The department has long been plagued by politics, charges of nepotism, and general disorganization; the 21-member commission, which is appointed by the mayor and the City Council, is by comparison a more neutral and stable watchdog.

To many observers, including Blackwell, it appears that the decision not to reappoint him may have stemmed from a yearlong undertaking that eventually cast one city program in an unfavorable light. In the fall of 2004, Blackwell and other commissioners were putting together a report on how the city was distributing federal dollars it had received for funding of so-called "Empowerment Zones." In October, the damning report was making the rounds at City Hall.

Rybak spokesperson Jeremy Hanson says in an e-mail that Hizzoner "believes it's important to include new voices on city decision-making bodies. The mayor's appointments to the commission are not related to the resolution related to the Empowerment Zone."

But others aren't buying it. "It reeks of retaliation for stirring the pot," says former City Council member Natalie Johnson Lee. "Larry Blackwell was not dancing to the tune that the mayor would have him dance to."

 

The Empowerment Zone (EZ) program has been a source of controversy since it was first implemented in 1999. At that time, some 6.7 acres of Minneapolis--mostly on the city's north side, in the Phillips neighborhood on the south, and some industrial tracts in Northeast--were designated to be eligible for money from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. The mission for Minneapolis, which was one of 15 cities in the country to get a 10-year EZ designation, was to replenish impoverished neighborhoods by offering incentives for the development of businesses, affordable housing, community services, and job training. According to the city's website, "the federal EZ designation has resulted in $25.7 million in direct funding to Minneapolis, $100 million in tax incentives, and $130 million in tax-exempt bonding authority."

In December 2004, Jonathan Palmer, who had been serving on the Jordan Area Community Council on the city's north side, was named EZ's new administrator. Palmer had been a vociferous backer of Rybak during the mayor's first term.

Soon enough, Blackwell and Palmer were clashing. Blackwell claims that much of the data requested for the report was unavailable; Palmer says the commission was looking for information broken down by race--something Empowerment Zone administrators are not required to do.

By October 2005, the commission had received Blackwell's report looking at EZ grant breakdowns by racial and ethnic groups. "Approximately $3,432,710 of the total $22 million [disbursed] was awarded to identified organizations of color," or some 15 percent, the 10-page missive asserts at one point. "The population of color for the city of Minneapolis...is 31.6 percent. The combined population of color in two EZ zones is 71.8 percent."

There remains some dispute as to how Blackwell and his cohorts arrived at those figures, namely how some organizations were designated to be "of color." Palmer himself says that he went over a spreadsheet of EZ money recipients and ID'd predominantly minority businesses; Blackwell, he says, did not include some of them.

Either way, the report was a bitter pill in some circles at City Hall, and Palmer's office countered with an Empowerment Zone retort that claimed the commission report "has not only little merit, but no legitimate analysis on which to base its conclusions." Claiming EZ is firmly within HUD's federal guidelines, the response concludes, "This entire exercise has been a waste of both the commission and Empowerment Zone's time and resources."

Jayne Khalifa, who heads the city's civil rights department, says that the "problem is not the substance, but the methodology and subjectivity of the report." Ingrid Nuttall, a commissioner who helped Blackwell with the report, notes dryly, "I didn't ask to have my name taken off."

Whether the report is what prompted Rybak not to reappoint Blackwell is a matter of speculation--despite Rybak's assertion--but at least four other commissioners express shock that Blackwell wouldn't be asked back. Observers like Natalie Johnson Lee see a larger dynamic at work. "What is it about Larry Blackwell that makes him not viable to reappoint?" she asks rhetorically. Her answer: "He's not one of Rybak's boys."

As recently as October, Blackwell's name had appeared on a list of 12 still in the running for the commission's seven open positions. But on November 21, Rybak and council member Don Samuels wrote a letter to members of the civil rights commission, urging them to "reject" the Blackwell report and any resolutions pertaining to it. (The commission voted to receive the report, and voted for some resolutions echoing major points in it, but has taken no further action on it since.)

By December 28, when Rybak sent his list of seven appointees to the City Council's health committee, Blackwell was excised. "I can't think of any other reason but the report," Blackwell says of not making the cut, noting that he only missed one meeting in two years. Blackwell says he hasn't talked with the mayor about either the report or reappointment. "I don't think I did anything wrong, but if I did, they could tell me," Blackwell says. "My main concern is that the city has some serious problems with communities of color."

Blackwell is hardly alone in that assessment. "R.T. fares very poorly in communities of color," says one City Hall insider, noting that the mayor did not win much support in poorer, minority precincts in his reelection bid. "I don't know what [he] is going to do about race relations this term. You'd think he'd be more transparent about something related to this." (The source and others offer another theory: that Rybak bowed to council pressure.)

Transparency aside, what's clear is that Blackwell is out. Last week, as the council considered the appointees, newly elected council member Elizabeth Glidden (8th Ward) spoke directly of Blackwell's "crucial and valuable work" for the city on the commission and lamented his absence from the list. It was a sentiment her colleagues on the council apparently did not share: Hers was the only vote cast against the mayor's appointments.


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