Can Minneapolis beef up its ‘weak’ affirmative action?


While the City of Minneapolis is working to improve the enforcement of various affirmative action (AA) policies concerning its internal workforce as well as outside contractors, critics say its efforts simply don’t go far enough to address a deeply entrenched problem.

A similar retooling is underway in St. Paul, where the Human Rights Department is being completely overhauled. Although St. Paul’s approach to the issue is more aggressive, others say that Minneapolis was already ahead of the curve. Some City officials claim that the St. Paul model resembles the Minneapolis structure.

In either case, both cities, along with many others, have been too slow to adapt affirmative action to suit modern needs, according to John Gilbertson, a spokesman for the Minnesota State Affirmative Action Association (MSAAA).

Gilbertson recently put together a report on the status of affirmative action at the state level. “We found out agencies were not doing well,” he said. “They need to get back on track.”

Gilbertson points out that it’s hard to say how things are going without more data. “It begs the question, what’s happening? What’s the composition of the workforce? How has it changed? What’s the effect of not having an up-to-date AA plan?”

He noted that “without having an AA plan first, it’s like planning without knowing the conditions.” Gilbertson stressed that, according to local ordinances, the cities are supposed to be updating AA plans each year.

Some would draw a parallel between a lack of affirmative action enforcement and greater racial tensions. Case in point: Currently, five high-ranking Black police officers are suing the City of Minneapolis for racial discrimination. A Latino police officer, Sgt. Giovanni Veliz, is also bringing forward similar claims. His case goes to trial this week.

(Additional allegations along these lines have arisen in the Minneapolis Fire Department and the City Attorney’s Office.)

Minneapolis Civil Rights Commissioner Vladimir Monroe said that while he wants to see things get better, he’s not convinced that the City’s actions will make much of a dent.

“We still have [police officers] patrolling areas where they’re not representative of the community… Affirmative action is the only mechanism in place that can level the playing field. It provides an avenue for qualified people to get the opportunity to try to get a certain job.”

While he believes that improvements are being made, Monroe is not aware of an enforcement mechanism in place. “You have to get the community involved, and you have to make it aware of how it affects them,” he said. As for what’s going on now, “It sounds like a lot of rhetoric.”

A lot of rhetoric?

Currently, Minneapolis is revamping its 1989 affirmative action plan that is internal to the City. (Some City staffers claim that it was updated in 1998, but the paper copy of the plan that the MSR has obtained is dated 1989.) The law goes so far as to require each City department to prepare its own AA plans, a requirement that has never been met.

However, some officials claim that the City has recently started asking for diversity plans from departments. Going forward, it’s unclear whether these broader plans will end up taking the place of tailor-made AA strategies, or if they should. Supposedly, the City’s overarching AA plan, which is still being developed, will support the department-level initiatives.

Human Resources (HR) Manager Pam French said via email that the City is making departments more responsible and accountable for diversity. HR, which had previously been responsible for all diversity efforts, has shifted to more of an oversight body in this respect. In the past, it led the charge.

“Accountabilities are now built into existing systems, including department head reviews, annual business planning processes, and Results Minneapolis, so they are better aligned,” French stated. [Results Minneapolis is a management tool the City uses to systematically track performance toward achieving the City’s five-year goals and 2020 vision.]

The City hired an outside consultant to help with an availability analysis to inform the internal affirmative action plan. It involves analyzing the workforce according to eight job categories to pinpoint the availability of people from protected classes and women for various jobs, according to French.

The consultant helped generate this data, illustrating where there might be fewer protected-class members and women than should be expected in the city’s workforce, she said.

Additionally, “This update on the affirmative action plan is not new. The City has spent the last couple years updating its plan so that there are measurable and sustainable results.” She said it’s too early to gauge results. To that end, “HR will be working with each department in developing strategies and timetables that will address recruiting, selecting, training, developing, and/or promoting members of protected class groups,” said French.

Likewise, officials say they’ve gotten tougher on contractors, holding businesses accountable for inclusiveness goals — something it failed to do in the past. To identify the extent to which it should be hiring minorities and others, the City has hired a firm, National Economic Research Associates, Inc., to complete a disparity study that assesses the availability of women, minorities and others in the marketplace.

That data will provide a legal basis for the City’s affirmative action policies. Both the AA plan and the disparity study are slated for completion early next year.

Committed to diversity?

The Minneapolis Department of Civil Rights (MDCR) is responsible for enforcing those standards with outside contractors for City projects. Over a year ago, a Humphrey Institute study reported on its shortcomings in terms of contract compliance. It found then that the department’s enforcement of such policies was weak, with many contracts awarded to non-complying companies.

The MDCR was plagued by a lack of communication and transparency and other issues, while non-complying companies didn’t face any consequences for not meeting goals. Civil Rights Director Michael Jordan said the department has acted on the study’s recommendations.

For example, Jordan said the department had denied a contract to one undisclosed business that failed to accomplish the goals. The contract “went to the next business on the list,” he said, adding, “We bypassed the lowest bidder that didn’t meet the rules.” He offered another example in which payment was withheld until a company came into compliance.

“We’re committed to the goals,” said Jordan. “There are others. We’re holding companies accountable. We’re making them uphold the goals or we’ll punish them within the limits of the ordinance.”

Meanwhile, he said the department has become more transparent: The Civil Rights
Department reports on its progress regularly to a city council committee. Although some civil rights commissioners, who are tasked with overseeing the department’s actions, said they weren’t aware of any major improvements in the MDCR, Jordan said, “We’re not doing anything under the radar… Anyone can attend the committee meeting” if they want to learn about it, he said.

The Humphrey report also pointed out that the department is understaffed and needs more resources, but Jordan said he promised the city council that he would not ask for more money for the department. “We’re doing pretty well,” he said, adding that one way it hopes to compensate is through new software that will streamline contract monitoring.

Currently, staffers must manually input information about companies’ workforces into a database. However, it’s unclear when that new software will start to work.

Civil Rights Commissioner Kenneth Brown said he’s concerned that not all City departments are cooperating. In 1996, some language in the original affirmative action ordinance that would have required the department of Community Planning and Economic Development (CPED) to provide quarterly reports to the Civil Rights Department was removed. That’s troubling, Brown said, because “CPED is the worst in the City for contract compliance.”

He added that the City should abide by the same standard it imposes on its contractors. In the case of CPED and other departments, Brown and other commissioners have “asked to be informed, but they don’t have to report to us unless we beg them.”

City Council Member Elizabeth Glidden (Ward 8) said that from what she can tell, circumstances in the department are improving: “There’s a newer vigilance, and the department is more willing to challenge companies.”

Because of the Civil Rights Department’s heavier hand, “I feel more confident knowing that it’s watching the contracts,” Glidden said. “Because [the need for change] has been made public, stuff is being worked on.”

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