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Rybak proposal to kill Minneapolis' civil rights office draws fire

Mayor R.T. Rybak
Mayor R.T. Rybak

Minneapolis Mayor R.T. Rybak won praise from as far up as the White House for managing to keep police officers employed even as the cloud of economic ruin approaches. But closer to home, the details of the city's budget sacrifices are starting to raise alarm.

In the week since Rybak offered his mid-year supplemental budget to brace for an estimated $65-million in Local Government Aid cuts over the next two years, the elimination of the city's Civil Rights Investigations Division has gone from a "done deal" to "something we're looking at." What's clear is the future of a vital function of the department hangs by a thread.

The opposition to Rybak's proposal began building as the reality of it set in. Closing the investigations unit would mean the state's largest city would be without a means to go after landlords who exclude people of color or employers who won't hire Muslims because they pray too much or Minneapolis police officers who stop a car simply because the driver appears Latino. Beginning in January 2010, the plan would send anyone with such complaints to go stand in line at the state's Human Rights Department office.

Civil Rights Director Michael Jordan told staff members last week that the mayor's decision was final and would be set in stone during today's Ways and Means Committee meeting and the full City Council meeting Friday. Asked whether the council would change the proposal, Jordan answered it was "highly unlikely."

Since then, the DFL African American Caucus, the Minneapolis Urban League and other organizations and individuals representing protected classes of citizens began raising their voices against the plan.  On Sunday, Rybak's proposal evolved to include a caveat and a lengthier, more characteristicly bureaucratic timeline. 

"If I can't guarantee that Minneapolis residents will continue to get equal justice protections under the law, then I will not go forward with it," Rybak said. "It will not happen until and unless we get a sense from the state" that shifting the investigations burden to them is feasible.

Rybak's office is preparing to name an advisory task force to explore the consequences of shutting the office down and whether the already crowded state office can deliver.  Rybak said he believes strongly in the Civil Rights Department, he said, which has "a great history and I think it has a great future."

'That wasn't the message'
The mayor's equivocation took Civil Rights supervisor Ronald Brandon by surprise. "That wasn't the message given," Brandon said, by both the mayor during the supplemental budget address and department director Jordan afterwards. Until hearing the mayor's comments from a reporter, he assumed he would spend this week watching his division get dismantled by City Council decisions that were out of his control. A press release prepared by staff members quoted him as saying citizens "must rally to have their voices heard" because once the office is cut "it will never come back."

He declined to characterize the apparent turnabout in a week's time other than letting slip a wry chuckle. He chose, instead, to lament the potential loss to the city if his division is cut.

"[The proposal] seemed odd to me because, as diversity grows in Minneapolis then the more our services are needed," he said.

The division in question is home to Brandon, five full-time investigators and a couple of contractors. Eliminating it would save the city about $400,000 a year. But it would also cut the more than $100,000 a year the office brings in to the city's general fund by helping out with federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission cases.

Civil rights advocates across the city are also concerned. Josie Johnson was a community organizer for the Urban League and helped establish the Civil Rights Department in 1967. She's now co-chair of the African American DFL Caucus.  She said she's "very fond of the mayor" but she's worried his plan to wipe out a key part of the Civil Rights Department will wreak irreparable harm.  The department, she said, is the government's way of assuring its citizens that the city is committed to upholding its responsibility all its citizens regardless of income or sophistication.

"It's important to feel represented in a city government that says we respect your civil rights and we're going to protect them," Johnson said. "Let's not take away a process that might get us through these difficult times."

In recent years it has been the center of controversies and internal spats. City leaders and some community civil rights advocates have complained about the amount of time — more than a year on average — to close a case. The backlog of cases pushed over 500.  Within a year of being appointed by Rybak to head the department in 2007, Jordan, a former state public safety commissioner and spokesman for the St. Paul Police Department, fired two investigators and the other three quit. Jordan, already on the defensive for not having adequate connections with established Minneapolis civil rights outlets, endured public questions about his leadership ability from some City Council members.

Now, staffers boast of doubling the number of cleared cases from 2007 to 2008. They've made administrative changes that they say improves the closure rate by, among other things, making sure staff members don't spend time on cases that are unlikely to succeed. Staff  members said they believe closing the office for budget reasons would be a cruel irony now that things seem to be getting back on track.

Functions duplicated
Despite his reassurances, Rybak still holds on to the possibility that, during the looming landslide of severe budget cuts, the complaint investigations division might be axed because it's the only one of three units whose functions are duplicated at the state level.

"The least damaging of the three options is to get out of the one that someone else is doing," Rybak said. The other two divisions, the Civilian Review Authority and employment contract compliance office, are unique services that can't be shifted anywhere else.

But the investigations office is unique in other ways. Unlike the two other civil rights sectors, complaint investigators have subpoena authority. They also have the ability to recommend monetary damages be paid to complainants.  In many cases, the civil services investigators become Davids to the corporate Goliaths of Minneapolis who employ teams of high-priced attorneys.

"These are really people who cannot afford an attorney. They come to our agency as a last resort," said Taneeza Islam, one of the five investigators who also said she believed her days in the office were numbered.

"I have doubts whether the state Human Rights Department can take the addition of the 450 cases we have open right now," Islam said. Gov. Tim Pawlenty has proposed a 24-percent cut in that office in his efforts to fill the multi-billion dollar state budget shortfall, a hole that is expected to grow by billions more in the next budget forecast in the coming days.

Islam also worries the geographic reality of making Minneapolis residents cross the river to St. Paul would cut the number of people willing to file a complaint. "They have a hard enough time just getting to our office," she said of her clients who frequently don't have their own cars and may even have a disability that limits their mobility. Islam said that if people understood the consequences of eliminating the division, it would never happen.

"It's up to the people and the different organizations in the city that want to have their voices heard," she said.

Art Hughes is freelance journalist living in Minneapolis who writes about poverty, demographics and cultural issues.

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Comments (4)

So funny trying to watch Democrats save money-constitutionally incapable, like your kids.

Paul, I bet you also have fun spilling things and watching other people clean up your messes.

The Civil Rights Department is an important part of the City that works to ensure fair treatment for all the residents and visitors of Minneapolis – work that needs to continue. The City of Minneapolis has a strong history as a beacon for justice and equality and we will not abdicate that role for as long as I am Mayor. We continue to aim for a strong and effective Civil Rights Department.

Because of the impact of the State budget deficit on the City, every city department will be undergoing a significant reduction in order to maintain a balanced budget. The Civil Rights Department will also to be part of those cuts, and because this is a relatively small department we have to be especially strategic to ensure we continue to protect the rights of people in Minneapolis in this new fiscal environment.

As I proposed in my budget speech last week, I do not believe that we should not just cut everything in the Civil Rights Department equally. That would mean that everything would be underfunded and all parts of the department would be ineffective. Instead we need to make choices to make sure the services we deliver are effective.

The Civil Rights Department currently performs three functions: the Civilian Review Authority, Contract Compliance and Complaint Investigation. All three are important functions. Two of those, the CRA and Contract Compliance, are done only by Minneapolis. Complaint investigation is also done by the State. If we have to choose the services for us to continue it should be those that are only done by the city, and are not duplicative government.

Governor Pawlenty has proposed that the State Human Right Department could take over complaint investigation and we should actively explore that transfer option, which is why I made that proposal in my budget speech last week. However I also said and still believe that there are still questions to be answered, including whether the State has the capacity to take on that transfer in light of its own budget cuts. Because of those questions I did not propose this transfer happen in 2009. The City budget does not anticipate this transfer happening until 2010, which was intended to give the city and the community the time to properly study and implement a smooth transition.

If, at the end of a transfer planning process, it is clear the citizens of Minneapolis can get the justice they deserve by using the complaint investigations process at the State, then we will move forward with a transition in 2010. If we find that the State cannot provide that justice then we will not go ahead with the transfer. In that case, we will need to find a different way to balance the City budget.

Because this transition to the state is not proposed until 2010, a final decision does not need to be made until I present my 2010 budget later this summer. Before then I am open to input and a process that could explore other options, knowing that any alternative would also require us to make other budget cuts in Civil Rights that are required of every other City department because of the state cuts.

Transferring complaint investigation to the State is not an action I would have proposed if not for the critical budget challenges we face, but doing so will allow us to continue to provide the services our citizens need in the remaining areas of civil rights protection. It will also allow us to provide additional needed focus on contract compliance and inclusion that will be critical as we ensure job and business growth for all our residents and communities, including businesses owned by underserved populations.

I am especially focused on ensuring that the State budget cuts hitting Minneapolis do not slow the progress our Civil Rights Department has made on critical inclusion issues like oversight of contractor compliance to our employment and Small and Underutilized Business Program goals. The implementation of these goals on all city departments includes planning for a city government apprenticeship program to establish a career path for underserved populations and put more people to work. In these tough economic times, it is essential that we remain focused on job creation and business growth.

Jeremy Hanson, Communications Director
Office of Mayor Rybak

Eric--
No, I don't. But a couple of years ago I did read the Minneapolis budge, being a taxpayer with time on my hands, and I was startled to see that the city had its own department of civil rights, with a healthy budget. To me, this department has always symbolized the inefficiency and tempest in a teapot character of Minneapolis City politics, with its weak mayor and too-many City Council Members and incessant employment and racial litigation and settlements. I applaude Rybak for taking this small step. Of course this office should be cut, the state should and can cover this function. How much time was wasted just on having Jeremy Hanson write that too-long press release. Stop the waste, please.