Minneapolis Mayor R.T. Rybak has proposed eliminating the investigations unit of the Minneapolis Department of Civil Rights, and transferring its work to the Minnesota Human Rights Department. If implemented this decision would mean the transfer of close to 500 open and active cases and the loss of nine jobs.
Community leaders strongly oppose the proposal, which City Council members debated March 5 at a Ways and Means Committee meeting. Minneapolis Civil Rights Department director, Michael Jordan, found himself in a tough spot and unable to adequately answer many of the questions posed to him.
Councilmember Gary Schiff (9th Ward) led the round of questions by asking why the committee was being asked to make a decision on an action that impacts the 2010 budget, but not the current year. Committee chair Paul Ostrow responded by pointing out that Mayor Rybak would be in a better position to answer that question, while stressing the need to make early preparations for the 2010 budget. Councilmember Betsy Hodges (13th Ward) agreed, saying, “2010 is going to be far more painful that it is now. We have got to start preparing for it now.”
“Don’t read from the fact this is on the table, that this is a done deal,” Ostrow said, attempting to reassure the audience in the packed room. According to investigative unit staff members, however, Jordan had informed them on February 23 that a final decision would be reached after the Ways and Means committee hearing and, if the cuts were approved, the unit would be gone in as little as ten months. During the committee meeting, Mayor Rybak sent out a press statement explaining that a final decision would be made when he presents his 2010 budget in the summer.
Schiff questioned whether the state’s Human Rights Department was prepared to accommodate the 500 cases from the investigative unit, saying, “My sense is that the state wouldn’t be able to absorb the workload from Minneapolis.” Governor Pawlenty who has said that the state would assume the city’s workload has at the same time proposed a 24 percent budget cut for the Human Rights Department. No one from the state department returned phone calls or responded to emails asking for comment on caseloads.
Other council members advocated for community conversation before any actions are taken. “This is a department that has had a problem with resources. There needs to be more dialogue with the community as this is an outward serving department,” said councilmember Elizabeth Glidden (8th Ward).
“We not only need to look at the financial aspect, but the significance of the community’s perception of this action,” added councilmember Don Samuels (5th Ward).
“Some of the city’s most vulnerable people have the most to lose,” said councilmember Robert Lilligren (6th Ward), getting nods from those in the packed room. “Can we obtain 2009 cuts without affecting the current workforce?”
Councilmember Ralph Remington (10th Ward) was also concerned about the staff direction. “By main indicators, we have a huge and growing gap in communities of color,” he noted. “Smaller departments are hurt more by these cuts.”
Jordan claimed that he had suggested an alternative to the mayor’s proposal, but was prepared to implement Rybak’s plan. He did not elaborate on what his alternative proposal was, but concluded by saying, “This not the work I came to do at the Civil Rights Department. I never intended to dismantle it.”
Community leaders and staff members from the city’s Civil Rights Department Investigative Unit later met at the Minneapolis Urban League to discuss how to proceed.
“We officially oppose these budget cuts,” said Kenneth Brown, who heads the Minneapolis Civil Rights Commission.
“Those of us who have been part of the struggle so far cannot fathom how, in the 21st century, we can still be struggling with what we have dealt with in the past when Minnesota is ‘theoretically’ considered to be progressive,” said Urban League community organizer, Cheryl Morgan Spencer.
“The mayor has no right being in charge of the civil rights of people of color,” said civil rights activist Spike Moss. “This is our civil rights and we’ve got to stop acting like it’s the mayor’s. We want our civil rights and we need to take over the civil rights department.”
“This issue is not something new,” said Ron Edwards. “The department has never been well funded, never been well supported, but for 30 years it has hung on,” he stated. Like others in the room, he questioned Jordan’s commitment to keeping the Civil Rights Department intact. “He said the same thing in 2007, when he was hired. He said ‘Give me a chance’,” Edwards said. “This proposal was generated by a lack of caring, compassion and responsibility.”
Though the community leaders were critical of the mayor’s proposal, they were also critical of the operations of the Minneapolis Civil Rights Department.
“I want to know why we have such a large backlog,” said Brown.
Toni Newborn and Taneeza Islam, who are attorneys in the Investigations Unit pointed to gains made since they started working in the office barely over a year ago. “We’ve closed 100% more cases that anyone did in 2008. The history of the department is dysfunctional, but it’s important to recognize improvements in the past year,” said Islam. “They’ve hired an entire staff of lawyers and this is a precedent.”
Nelima Kerré is a freelance writer living in the Twin Cities.