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Minneapolis’ ex-equity director responds after city releases new report on troubled Black History Month expo

Consulting firm Baker Tilly on Tuesday recommended the city develop and implement better training in procurement and purchasing and create a process for planning and hosting large events.

Minneapolis City Council Vice President Linea Palmisano
Minneapolis City Council Vice President Linea Palmisano: “In this report, you see every department in our city working together until the very last minute trying to make this particular event successful. When we realized we missed the mark, we invested the time and the money … to figure out what we could do better.”
MinnPost file photo by Craig Lassig

An expo envisioned as a healing moment for Minneapolis’ Black community flopped in February, with only a few thousand people registering for an event that was supposed to draw 20,000. So how did it turn into a public disappointment, and why was a behind-the scenes scramble necessary to ensure the event took place at all?

The outside firm hired by the city to investigate those questions found no evidence of a detailed plan for the “I Am My Ancestors Wildest Dreams” expo on Feb. 25 and noted that the now-former director of the city’s Racial Equity, Inclusion and Belonging office seemed to struggle to grasp the city’s contracting rules, despite “multiple offers of assistance” from other city staff.

Consulting firm Baker Tilly on Tuesday recommended the city develop and implement better training in procurement and purchasing and create a process for planning and hosting large events. It also said city officials should explore trying to get back at least part of the $33,500 cost for a performance that never happened.

While the report pointed out possible duplicated invoices and revealed the city spent $681,000 in general funds — not federal stimulus dollars — on the Black History Month event, the consultants made clear it was not a full financial audit. 

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Tyeastia Green, who oversaw the racial equity office planning the event at time, told MinnPost that Baker Tilly’s investigators never contacted or interviewed her. She learned about the report — which the city commissioned at a cost not to exceed $175,000 — by watching Tuesday’s presentation at the city Audit Committee.

The report bolstered city officials’ contention that they bent numerous procurement and contracting rules as part of a good-faith effort to guarantee the event went on as planned.

“In this report, you see every department in our city working together until the very last minute trying to make this particular event successful,” said City Council Vice President Linea Palmisano. “When we realized we missed the mark, we invested the time and the money … to figure out what we could do better.”

But Green — whose employment with the city ended shortly after the event — disputed many of the report’s findings. In an interview, Green said that city staff gave her contradictory information throughout the planning process. She also objected to the reasons staff slowed key contracts, including city officials’ concerns that she had “hand-picked” Black performers — an absurd concern, she thought, for a Black History Month event.

“They kept moving the goalposts,” said Green, who has provided MinnPost with numerous documents — including secretly-recorded audio from a Feb. 14 meeting with Mayor Jacob Frey, City Council leaders and top city officials — that, she argues, prove the city has been trying to unfairly blame her for the event’s failure.

Why this report matters

The Baker Tilly report represented the city’s latest attempt to figure out what went wrong with the “I Am My Ancestors Wildest Dreams” expo. Early in her tenure as the city’s race and equity director, Green had pitched the event as both a healing moment for Minneapolis’ Black community and  as a way for city officials to signal they “understand that the world is watching Minneapolis” in the wake of George Floyd’s murder and the subsequent uprisings.

Instead of 20,000 attendees, the report found the city received only 3,700 registrations, and actual attendance was likely lower than that. It angered some vendors, who’d expected bigger crowds.

Still, Green’s departure has now sent the city searching for its third race and equity director in as many years. Her defenders say the pattern points to deeper problems in the city’s attitude toward equity and inclusion efforts — or even more simply to a lack of support for new hires: The Baker Tilly report pointed out city employees receive “minimal training and guidance on procurement and purchasing requirements.”

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Green said she felt boxed in. During that Feb. 14 meeting, Green pushed back calls to cancel the event, fearing damage to the city’s reputation with the Black community. But Green also provided screenshots of text messages from Feb. 9 in which she practically begged her boss, interim City Operations Officer Heather Johnston, to call off the event amid the confusion about hiring and contracting.

“The event isn’t happening,” Green texted Johnston, according to the screenshots.

“I think there are ways to make it work,” Johnston replied, outlining a plan of action.

What the report found

Investigators combed through the city’s spending records and determined that Minneapolis spent just under $681,000 on the event, including a $108,000 internal transfer of funds to the city-owned Convention Center. This number is new; for months, city officials haven’t been able to definitively say how much the event cost.

Of that total, the city spent nearly $500,000 hiring vendors to perform, speak or provide services at the event. Investigators said that more than half of that amount ($269,000) was spent on out-of-state vendors, including $226,000 to vendors in Georgia — including for the Atlanta-based event planner, Touched Apparel, LLC.

Tyeastia Green
City of Minneapolis
Tyeastia Green learned about the report — which the city commissioned at a cost not to exceed $175,000 — by watching Tuesday’s presentation at the city Audit Committee.
Green said the event did feature local businesses and voices. That said, she also envisioned an event that convened voices from other “Black Meccas” around the U.S. to lend perspectives that would be relevant to Minneapolis. (She envisioned an “Essence festival for the Midwest,” but with less music than the famed Black culture event.)

But Palmisano said the event was meant to bolster Minneapolis’ Black community: “I don’t think we should spend our local city government dollars to support the economic interests of Georgia.”

According to the report, the city ultimately spent $33,500 for a performance that didn’t take place and received 49 invoices filled out on the same document template — which was apparently drawn up by Touched Apparel, though they were signed using a different name — using the same invoice number. Of those 49 invoices, 14 were duplicates of each other, which prompted questions from the Audit Committee about whether these reflected possible wrongdoing.

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Green said investigators could’ve cleared this up by giving her a call: She said that in February, the City Attorney’s Office had abruptly raised concerns that Green might have not opened the opportunities to perform at the Black History Month event to non-Black performers.

Green was offended by this suggestion, but a city spokesperson told MinnPost in March that “government entities cannot limit opportunities to contract based on race in hiring vendors, including performers.”

In any event, Green said before attorneys raised red flags, 14 vendors had already submitted invoices. How confident is she that these are the same 14 duplicates that the report flagged? “100% sure,” she said.

The backstory — and how the report has changed what we know about it

In September 2022, Green proposed staging a city-run expo to mark Black History Month.

In Green’s previous job working for the city of Burlington, Vermont, she had worked with Touched Apparel, and its proprietor, Casey Elleby, to organize similar events. In Minneapolis, Green also hoped to hire Elleby again to take the lead on curating and organizing the expo.

Palmisano said she felt Green’s selection of Touched Apparel raised concerns about a potential conflict of interest: “It leaves me with more questions than I have answers … but it does seem a bit problematic.”

Green countered that she was always been open about her desire to bring on Touched Apparel, which offered the expo concept she was hoping to bring to Minneapolis. Green noted that the report’s timeline noted that on Sept. 22, she submitted forms that would allow the city to hire Touched Apparel without a public bidding process, but that staff ultimately rejected this request.

In late October and November, the city put the event planning contract up through two different public bidding processes. Three vendors applied, including Touched Apparel, which ultimately won the contract. 

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Palmisano on Tuesday questioned who made the decision to pass over the other two. In her interview, Green said she was open to the idea of picking another local vendor and that she even met with another bidder, though she couldn’t recall which one.

Early on, Green also began soliciting thousands of dollars from outside donors to pay for the event.

However, in mid-October, a city attorney warned Green that ethics rules barred her from soliciting donations directly from outside funders. Green said she was baffled: She claimed she had already told the mayor, council president and other top city officials about her plans — and none had told her fundraising was against the rules.

Another month passed before Green learned about a workaround: city officials often partner with an outside philanthropy to accept and spend donated funds on the city’s behalf. Green had a plan to find such a partner, but her father died unexpectedly in late November, and by the time she returned to work more than a month later, it was too late.

Ultimately, Green has publicly claimed she had to turn away “almost $200,000 in funds” that she’d lined up for the expo in fall 2022.

Just two weeks before the event, City Council members gathered for a hastily-convened meeting to transfer hundreds of thousands in contingency funds to Green to shore up the expo.

Green contends this move was unnecessary — and perhaps even orchestrated to publicly blame for the expo’s failure on her. Green insisted she could have covered the expo’s full cost out of her own department’s discretionary budget. In the secretly-recorded Feb. 14 meeting, top staffers advised the City Council’s president and vice-president that a public vote wasn’t necessary to transfer funds to cover event costs. 

“I don’t even know why we’re here,” council President Andrea Jenkins said at one point during the meeting, according to the recording Green shared with MinnPost.

But city leaders have disputed Green’s contention that the public vote was unnecessary theater (and Tuesday’s report is likely to provide new fodder for their arguments).

Some council members argued it was inappropriate for city departments to shift funds internally without a public vote — especially because they believed an unused federal stimulus grant had been shunted into Green’s budget to help pay for the event. On Tuesday, Palmisano said she had concerns about whether that move would survive the additional scrutiny involved with stimulus funds.

But Tuesday’s report also offered a new, puzzling revelation on this point: Though the City Council’s vote authorized the transfer of $290,000 of stimulus funds, Baker Tilly investigators found that the city ultimately did not use stimulus funds to pay for any expo costs. In fact, city officials apparently combed through spending records to ensure only city general funds were used to cover expo expenses.

This came as a surprise to Green, who had believed stimulus funds were used.

Palmisano wasn’t certain who made the decision not to use stimulus money on the event, but said that using general funds “seemed most appropriate at the end of the day.”

Report silent on whether the Bush Foundation offered funds

The press headlines that turned the expo from an obscure misstep with underwhelming attendance into a high-profile embarrassment stemmed from a claim Green made before the event even took place.

At the Feb. 17 special council meeting, Green said that the Bush Foundation “had offered us $3 million” to stage the event, “but had some stipulations that we could not satisfy.”

But as the Star Tribune first reported in March, the Bush Foundation said Green’s story was untrue. A spokesperson for the St. Paul-based philanthropy later told MinnPost that a Bush representative did talk with Green by phone about funding the expo — but told Green that the event “was not a fit and we would not fund it.”

Green’s last day with the city was March 13, four days after the Star Tribune’s story. Green said she initially resigned, then rescinded that resignation, but was later told she was “unappointed.”

Baker Tilly’s report says nothing about Green’s interactions with the Bush Foundation, or whether investigators — who claimed to have sifted through more than 300,000 emails and spoken with 13 current and former city employees — were able to corroborate any of Green’s claims about soliciting outside funds. In both her March interview with MinnPost and on Tuesday, Green stood by her account of her interactions with Bush.