FORUM | Cut the Minneapolis Civil Rights Department’s Complaint Investigation Unit?


Should Minneapolis abolish the Complaint Investigation Unit of the city’s civil rights department? Read both sides of the argument. Then add your opinion.

“By almost any indicator, in terms of income, education, healthcare, and home ownership,” said Councilmember Robert Lilligren, “in Minneapolis, the gap between communities of color and white communities is greater than almost every city in the country. After such a robust civil rights movement in this city, that gap is still persistent, and it grows. I can only imagine that this gap exists because of discrimination.”

There are many different ways in which the city of Minneapolis addresses this existing and growing gap. The Minneapolis Civil Rights Department includes an arm called the Complaint Investigation Unit (CIU), which investigates residents’ claims of discrimination or harassment. The unit covers areas such as employment, educational institutions, sexual harassment, and real estate. Its website gives examples such as, “A store did not honor a discount because you are Somali,” or “A real estate agent or for-sale-by owner home seller refuses to sell real property to you because you use a wheelchair.”

Currently, the Minneapolis Civil Rights Department (MCRD) contains two arms besides the CIU: the Civilian Review Authority (CRA), which provides oversight of the police department, and the Contract Compliance Unit (CCU), which monitors contracting between contractors and the city of Minneapolis.

Minneapolis must cut its budget significantly in July. Mayor R.T. Rybak has proposed to cut the CIU, which would save the city $400,000 annually.

The CIU’s backlog of about 460 cases would be transferred to the Minnesota Human Rights Department (MHRD).

Many do not want to see the CIU go, and Councilmember Elizabeth Glidden established a taskforce to engage with the community and attempt to come up with the best solution for this issue. On July 1, the taskforce organized by councilmember Elizabeth Glidden will present their recommendations to the mayor.

The case for cutting the CIU: a financial necessity

“We have no choice given the tens of millions of dollars the state is cutting from our general funds budget,” explained Mayor R.T. Rybak’s spokesperson, Jeremy Hanson.

In 2009, the state cut local government aid to Minneapolis by $17 million. Then, there was $8.5 million lost due to unallotment. In 2010, $21.5 million will be cut, coming to a total of $47 million, with the unallotment, cut this year and next year.

“Every department in the city needs to make cuts, even essential and important programs,” Hanson said.

Each city department has been asked to put forth recommendations to cut 10% of their budget. For smaller departments, like the MCRD, that is nearly impossible without losing an entire arm; thus, the mayor has labeled the CIU a “duplication of services” that can be cut. He has used the phrase “duplication of services” because the state civil rights department contains the same authority to review and investigate claims of civil rights violations.

“You can debate whether or not or how much it is a duplication of services,” said Hanson. “It may not be an exact duplication of services, but Governor Pawlenty and the state is offering and has the capacity to take over the [CIU’s] services.”

“Rather than doing everything less well in the city and getting by with fewer resources,” Hanson said, “we are going to do less in the city.”

The case for keeping the CIU

While many proponents of the cut say that the CIU has been an ineffective unit for several years, many who oppose the cut see this as a perfect opportunity to improve the CIU and disperse the budget cut more creatively instead of simply cutting one third of the MCDR.

Currently, the CIU has a backlog of about 460 cases, which would all be transferred to the state department if the cut happens. Many people are concerned that these cases will not be addressed effectively by the state.

Councilmember Cam Gordon, who is not in favor of cutting the CIU, is optimistic about improving the unit. “It’s been hard because they don’t always have the staff they need, but they have improved dramatically over the years,” he said. “The number of complaints that they complete the investigations on has increased, and the quality of reporting of the investigations and the standardization of what they’ve been doing has increased.”

“It’s not just about saving the department,” said Minneapolis Civil Rights commissioner Louisa Hext. “It’s about actually setting it in the broader context of a history of sustaining civil rights, and we worked really hard in the U.S. to do that, and now we have a budget issue cutting this department.”

“Basically you’re removing people’s human rights,” said Louisa Hext, “and so much happens during economic turmoil, and people get disenfranchised.”

Tough times call for tough decisions. Minneapolis has to make budget cuts. But where should those cuts fall? Should all departments face equal cuts? Do some have higher priority than others? What should the city’s priorities be?

People have passionate opinions. Read what Kenneth Brown, Chair of the Minneapolis Commission on Civil Rights; Michael Jordan, Director of the Minneapolis Civil Rights Department; and Councilmember Robert Lilligren have to say. Then click on the comment button below and send us your opinion.

Kenneth Brown, Chair of the Minneapolis Commission on Civil Rights

“For many years, I believe they haven’t had qualified people in the department and that’s part of why they have so much backlog,” said Kenneth Brown.

“The mayor said that he would not do anything with the CIU if the state could not take on these cases, but the state human rights department is getting ready to go through a budget cut, so all these extra cases are going to be dumped on them,” Brown said. “They have one year by law to get rid of all their cases, so how effective will they be in addressing these cases being transferred?”

Brown also discussed his personal experience with the state human rights department. “Just twice in the last six months I’ve had issues because of my disability,” he said. “You don’t get to talk to anybody, you have to fill out an online form, and when they talk to you, they aren’t very welcoming, they aren’t easy to talk to, they seem like they are trying to get you to not file a complaint.”

The state department has the power to dismiss cases up front, and Brown expressed concern that they may be rude to people so as to avoid investigating claims. “Especially if you can’t speak English, I can’t imagine how people like that would ever get through these people and their screening process,” he said.

In the end, only 10-12% of the people calling the state department end up filing a claim. “In Minneapolis, they go through the commission and you get a panel to listen to your case,” Brown said. “We see it through until the end.”

Brown emphasized the fact that the CIU has much more power than the other two units of the MCDR. “The CIU has subpoena power, the power to award damages—we have no limit on damages, just on punitive damages,” he said. “So, they want to get rid of the organization that actually has teeth.” Brown went on to explain that the Civilian Review Authority (CRA) has no power to award damages; it only has the power to get a complainant an apology.

Another important facet of the CIU is that it is the only arm of the MCDR that brings in revenue, and according to Brown, the mayor insisted he would not cut any departments that brought revenue to the city. The CIU investigates cases acting as a Fair Employment Practices Agency (FEPA) under the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), which Brown explained brings in about $110,000 a year. In the past they also had a relationship with Housing and Urban Development (HUD), in which they received money to investigate housing discrimination cases. This brought in about $150,000 a year. The proposed elimination of the CIU would save the city $400,000, but Brown calculates that with these two sources of revenue, the CIU could make $260,000, thus covering 65% of their costs.

Brown expressed confusion and even suspicion at the failure of the MCDR’s Director Michael Jordan to become HUD-certified again. “Some people believe this plan has been going on for a long time to get rid of the department,” he said, “slowly making the department ineffective over the years to justify it getting cut.”

There are also concerns about the elimination of the CIU in light of the current economic climate.

“What they’re trying to do is place the economic downturn on the backs of folks who have no voice. It’s not the people who file complaints’ fault that the department is slow or the resources are too few,” Kenneth Brown said.

“This is not just a minority or black issue,” said Kenneth Brown. “This is everybody, but a lot of people don’t think it affects them.”

Minneapolis Civil Rights Department Director Michael Jordan

“I just want to stress that this is not being taken lightly, and this is not some sinister plot to ruin the civil rights of people,” Jordan said. “This is not on the mayor’s agenda and it’s not on my agenda. People can have all the opinions they want—that is something good about this country—but it doesn’t mean they’re right.”

Jordan explained that the CIU has not been HUD-certified for about five years or more. Only a small number of cases coming through the CIU are housing-related, therefore neither he nor his predecessors found it worthwhile to go through the process. According to Jordan, both EEOC cases and HUD cases are very complex and cost more money than they make.

“The idea that you could make money with more EEOC cases is a bit fallacious,” Jordan said. “For every EEOC case, which brings in $540, it probably costs me $1500. We do not receive nearly enough money to cover what we have to do to process these cases; it’s not the panacea people would have you believe.”

HUD cases bring in $1500, but Jordan explained that they are even more complicated than EEOC cases and this does not cover the costs to do these cases.

Jordan went on to say that perhaps the CIU should not focus on HUD or EEOC. “What we should do because we’ve had backlog in cases non-EEOC, to bring them to closure at reasonable times, it might be better not to have any EEOC cases and just focus on people coming through our door.”

Thus, Jordan pointed out that making the case for more EEOC and HUD cases is a bit of a “double-edged sword.”

In terms of the subpoena power and the ability of the CIU to award damages, Jordan explained that very few cases actually have monetary damages attached.

“Sometimes people just want their job back, or want people to quit picking on them, or they want to be treated better,” he said. “Sometimes the complaint is mediated and sometimes the people get redress without our involvement. People aren’t always looking for money when they make a complaint.”

Jordan stressed that no decision has been made yet, recommendations are still coming in, and different scenarios are still on the table.

“We’re trying to figure out a way to make the best call when all the calls are bad,” he said. “There is not ‘two sides’ to this issue. The mayor does not want to cut the CIU; nobody wants to do these things.”

If the cut does happen and the backlogged cases are transferred to the State department, Jordan believes they will be handled satisfactorily. “Commissioner [Velma] Korbel said she can handle the cases. She is a professional and the people in her department are professionals—they can do their jobs, and I take her word for it.”

Councilmember Robert Lilligren

Councilmember Robert Lilligren, a member of the White Earth Band of Ojibwe and an openly gay government official, opposes the elimination of the CIU for many bigger-picture reasons.

“I oppose eliminating the CIU for a number of reasons, but most of it has to do with the demographics of Minneapolis and the fact that it’s radically different from the rest of Minnesota,” Lilligren explained. “There are many people who are more likely to be discriminated against [in Minneapolis].”

Due to the continually growing gap in Minneapolis between white communities and communities of color, Lilligren believes that discrimination is a municipal issue that must be addressed on a municipal level.

“Discrimination and perceived discrimination affect different parts of our city differently,” Robert Lilligren, who represents the 6th Ward, explained. “So people like me, who represent a part of the city where people feel discriminated against, think differently from people who don’t represent these parts of the city.”

Lilligren said that the council members who may vote to cut the CIU will be those who represent “people more on the outskirts of Minneapolis,” who have more money and a lesser likelihood to be discriminated against. Those who represent “the urban core” will most likely vote to keep the CIU.