St. Paul ponders reorganization of its civil and human rights operations

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In St. Paul, some city officials and community stakeholders are contemplating a plan that would transform the way the city enforces and monitors civil rights compliance.

The plan would establish a whole new Department of Human Rights and Equal Opportunity (or something to that effect — the name hasn’t been finalized yet), to be created through a merger involving the offices that handle most city contracts. Staff and resources would be reorganized under a common mission to increase women’s and minorities’ access to city-funded projects, according to City Attorney John Choi (pictured). Under the proposal, the current Department of Human Rights (DHR) would likely become a division within the super-sized human rights agency. Some community activists interpret that to mean downsizing. They fear that the bare-bones DHR – which dates back to the 1960s civil rights movement – will be lost in the shuffle.

Caty Royce, a community organizer who has been active in the debate since it began to heat up some years ago, said she’s glad to see the administration has finally reached a point where it is willing to look at itself. Ultimately, according to Royce, “It has to be the city that changes its institution. That’s the only way it’ll work. … Groundbreaking work can’t be done without a certain level of trust.”

Not everyone agrees. Nieeta Presley, executive director of the Aurora/St. Anthony Neighborhood Development Corporation, isn’t convinced a new department is needed. Instead, she wants the human rights department as it is to be fully funded and fully staffed.

A long process

Choi’s plan, which is still being tweaked, follows up on the November-released audit of the city’s contracting practices. (A separate study to provide data on female and minority disparities in the marketplace is in the works.) Shortly after the audit came out, Mayor Chris Coleman appointed Choi to devise a strategy to act on its findings. An ad hoc committee comprising a cross-section of city officials — Equal Access Working Group (EAWG) members; human rights commissioners; members of ISAIAH, an interfaith organization, and other community stakeholders — came together to develop a proposal.

All of this got started in 2003 after former human rights director Edward McDonald blew the whistle on the system’s failures when it came to minorities and women. He was fired; he later won a settlement in a lawsuit against the city for being unfairly let go. The whistleblowing prompted the city-formed EAWG to lobby for an audit of the city’s contracting procedures specifically related to inclusiveness. Five years went by before the audit finally materialized.

The resulting 100-page report, focused on the Planning and Economic Development (PED) department and the Housing and Redevelopment Authority (HRA – a separate entity from the city), describes a lack of accountability, communication and resources for inclusive mandates. For example, ordinances such as chapter 84 require a contracting company to put forth a “good faith effort” to utilize 15 percent minorities, women and small businesses in its work force. Similarly, under chapter 183, affirmative action plans are supposed to be attached to contracts. Despite those requirements, in 2007, women and minorities achieved a mere 6.6 percent of $220 million in city spending, the audit cites, while diversity goals hadn’t been updated in years.

The plan

Under the preliminary plan, the merger would combine staffing and resources from the Office of Financial Services, Contract Analysis and Services Division, PED, DHR and the Department of Safety and Inspections. Consolidating those offices made sense to almost everyone, Choi stated in a rough draft of his report.

The new department’s responsibilities fall into the following areas: civil rights enforcement and outreach to contract analysis and procurement, capacity building, work force development, contract monitoring, investigation and enforcement. A new director to oversee the whole outfit would be picked through a community selection process similar to the process for selecting chiefs of fire and police, which ensures independence from political influence while also creating “community buy-in,” he said. Further oversight would come from a beefed-up human rights commission, with 27 members over the current dozen or so that will have jurisdiction beyond DHR.

Until now, these functions have been too spread out. Through the years, various inclusive measures have been applied in a piecemeal fashion, which leads to confusion and “does not allow for City staff to act in a coordinated and powerful way,” Choi’s plan states. Pointing to a wipe-board diagram in his office that maps out the reorganization, he said, “We’re trying to be stronger and better.”

Under the new plan, if a contractor doesn’t comply with the laws or a project manager doesn’t hold a company accountable, there will be consequences. Minority contractors who don’t get a contract will get a letter explaining why.

How much the changes will cost hasn’t been determined, though Choi did say the city is committed to finding the money to make it happen, through grants or otherwise. (In response to the criticism that it will be expensive to pull off, he said, “When I think of expensive, I think of, in the millions.”) Overall, “We’re trying to change the culture, working for equal opportunity and human rights, with investigators much like police officers or inspectors … it relates to us making better decisions on the front end,” Choi said. A timeline for implementing the new plan is also yet to be determined.

Right now, there’s no system to make value judgments on whether a bidder is socially responsible or not, he said. Auditor James Hall, whose legal team conducted the audit, said in a letter to the city attorney that the plan, at this point, concurs with their recommendations. All too often, he said, “well-meaning reports are consigned to sit on a shelf and collect dust.”A newly merged department is logical and practical and will “have the effect of streamlining administration, reducing redundancies and maximizing the benefits of limited and valuable staff and resources,” Hall states. Among other things, “Liquidated damages and immediate enforcement provisions, where appropriate, will give teeth to the implementation effort.”

More oversight and accountability

DHR director Tyrone Terrill, who has spoken against Choi’s plan, says he has previously asked the mayor for many of the things it lays out, because he thought the administration was too splintered. Terrill said he is often blamed for the issues facing minority contractors, but that those issues have been out of his hands since Mayor Randy Kelly cut the department’s budget by 42 percent in 2001. “The best place for [contracting] is in the human rights department. The structure is already there. It’s a natural fit, particularly in a difficult budget time,” he said.

Although the Human Rights Commission has voiced its approval for the recommendations, Terrill doesn’t like the idea of DHR becoming the civil rights division. (Only one commissioner, Darryl Spence, who missed the discussion, has opposed the plan, according to city information.) “Becoming a division within the department, it gets dismantled,” Terrill said. “Reporting to a different structure … it changes everything.”

When asked how it would change things, Terrill answered, “It’s not a department anymore. That’s it.”

Nathanial Khaliq, president of the St. Paul NAACP, argued against that point, saying, “[Human Rights] is going to continue doing what it’s been doing. Before, everyone was operating in silos, doing their own thing. Now, someone will coordinate all of it with much more oversight and accountability.”

Contrary to some people’s impression that the reorganization is a political end-around Terrill’s department, Khaliq said, it was community members, not city officials, who pushed for the audit and for the changes. “Early on, our main criterion was for the protection of the human rights department, for its integrity and process. We wanted to make sure the same protections that exist now didn’t change under this new structure,” he said. “We felt this was the best option. It won’t satisfy everyone, but we’re looking at the big picture and trying to come up with systemic changes that will outlast the mayor and city attorney,” said Khaliq.

The plan will probably move forward with another community meeting, eventually undergoing review by the mayor and city council. City council member Melvin Carter (Ward 1) said he understands the concern about DHR, but in his view, “The role of human rights will be elevated. It’ll add to the ability of the department,” he said. “Simply dumping more money into the human rights department won’t result in more contracts to minority businesses.”

Kathy Meyer, owner and president of Meyer Contracting, which has managed to land some contracts in St. Paul, expressed enthusiasm for a new agency. “What they’ve been doing hasn’t been working, that’s very evident,” she said.

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