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Minneapolis civil rights head Velma Korbel draws strong praise — and criticism

Velma Korbel
Velma Korbel

Velma Korbel drew praise for her management of the Minneapolis Civil Rights Department — and harsh criticism from the union representing city employees and from those opposed to changes she made in the police review process.

Despite the criticism, Korbel’s nomination was forwarded Wednesday to the full City Council for a vote late next week.

She was nominated to continue in her job by Mayor Betsy Hodges.

“I admire and value the tough decisions she had to make and she was willing to make in the name of this larger vision we share as a community,” Hodges told members of the City Council’s Public Safety, Civil Rights and Emergency Management Committee. “Ms. Korbel and I have not agreed on everything.

“She has been an advocate for the work even in the places she and I have disagreed,” said Hodges. “That kind of honesty — that kind of willingness to really speak up on behalf of what she believes is true and what she believes is right — lead to some of those tough choices and tough arguments, but it also leads to the great results out of that department. I want that kind of leadership.”

Seema Desai, a former employee of the Civil Rights Department, said she was terminated after she sought advice for dealing with treatment she thought violated the union contract.

“Our members are being treated poorly,” said Sarah Maxwell, president of Local 9 of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, which represents city workers. Maxwell said there is a “toxic environment” in the department under Korbel.

Council Member Blong Yang, who worked there for a year, questioned Korbel about allegations that she would not allow workers to talk to City Council members, and he also asked about the number of staff who left the department.

“A lot of the complaints did not surprise me,” said Yang, who voted against Korbel’s reappointment.

“Over time, I have been called on to make unpopular decisions,” said Korbel in her defense. “I have had to discipline employees, I have had to give employees less that positive feedback on their performance, I have had to deny vacations and leaves of absence, I have had to delay and sometimes deny promotions, and I have had to terminate more than one person’s employment.

 “These actions have not been fun moments in my live, nor are they moments that define my career,” she said.

“This notion that there’s a toxic environment or something nefarious going on in the Civil Rights Department is ludicrous and frankly offensive,” said Korbel.

“This is a really hard place to work,” said City Council President Barb Johnson, who noted that the department has had four directors during her 16 years on the council. She praised Korbel for completing projects left undone by other directors.

“It’s a hard department. People are angry,” said Johnson. “They feel like they have been mistreated. You can’t always make them happy, you can’t always make things right. People will go away disappointed.”

911 center: new equipment, more staff

The city’s 911 department — the subject of recent complaints for understaffing and lengthy wait times — will get new equipment and more staff. WCCO-TV has done a series of reports about the complaints.

Heather Hunt, who leads the 911 staff, told council members that the department currently has 66 operator/dispatchers with recent hires, and there are two vacancies that should be filled soon and four new spots by the end of the year.

Minneapolis 911 staffers have been training to do two jobs that have traditionally been separate.

Previously, operators did not dispatch fire, police or ambulances to emergency calls, but that has changed. Now a majority of the 911 operators and dispatchers have been trained to handle both jobs.

“Part of the reasons we’ve been working so hard to hire and train is because it takes a long time to train a 911 worker,” Hunt said. “It takes about a year [to complete the training] and we don’t want to rush people through.”

The department is slated to receive new telephone equipment next year that will make it easier to send calls to other emergency-response agencies when the Minneapolis department is swamped with calls.

“No 911 center can guarantee that every call will be answered immediately by a person,” said Hunt. The department average for answering is 7 seconds. “Improvements in technology will provide ways to route overflow calls to other locations.”

So far in March, the average time to answer a Minneapolis 911 call has been 5.8 seconds.

Fire Chief Fruetel re-nominated

Two years ago, John Fruetel came out of retirement when then-Mayor R.T. Rybak asked him to become the chief of the troubled Fire Department.

At the time, there was a problem with firefighters calling in sick on weekends, especially during the summer, as well as a huge list of employees eligible for retirement and no new hires in five years.

“I knew there would be challenges,” said Fruetel who took the job because “it was something I really wanted to do.”

Since his arrival, there have been 54 promotions, several classes of new firefighters and replacement of some aging equipment. The department has 11 new pumpers with two more coming in the next year. A new platform truck is coming this summer, and a new hook-and-ladder truck next year.

“He’s great for the Fire Department, he’s great for the city and he’s great for the people of Minneapolis,” Mayor Hodges told the committee.

“I have seen him, unfortunately too many times lately, in situations where he is in direct contact with [those] experiencing some of their worst moments of their lives,” said Hodges of recent tragedies.

The committee voted unanimously to forward Fruetel’s nomination to the full council.

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