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.
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.