Velma Korbel came to the Minneapolis Department of Civil Rights with the impressive résumé of an experienced government leader.
Now she’s in a fight to save her job.
Under her eight-year tenure as director of the department, Korbel has repeatedly weathered complaints of overseeing a workplace that flouts the labor standards she’s tasked with enforcing, according to internal documents, court settlements and interviews with former employees.
Last week, Korbel’s reappointment to the $151,633-per-year position was put on hold as Mayor Jacob Frey and at least two City Council members seek answers to issues raised in a Star Tribune story about the department’s hate crime hotline, which was created last year. Kristin Johnson, an ex-employee, says she was terminated after raising concerns that the hotline was poorly planned and misled callers from outside the city.
In an interview Monday, Korbel listed her office’s accomplishments during her time as director, including eliminating a backlog of complaints, creating the city’s Urban Scholars internship program and transforming the workplace atmosphere to one in which employees are happier and better engaged.
“Whether I deserve to be appointed or not, I think my performance speaks for itself,” Korbel said. “I’ve changed the culture in the department. … I’ve done what this city has asked me to do. I think we’ve finally positioned this department in a place where we can be strategic.”
In a statement, Council Member Phillipe Cunningham, chairman of the committee that oversees civil rights in Minneapolis, said he “strongly supports” Korbel’s reappointment and continues to share her vision for the department’s future. “I trust her leadership,” Cunningham said.
Korbel said she holds her employees to a standard of performance, and those who fail to meet that baseline are usually terminated or they quit.
Since Korbel took over the department in 2010, the city has paid $162,000 to settle claims with three workers who say she forced them out, including one who said she had complained about working unpaid overtime.
Asked about allegations from ex-employees, Korbel said she couldn’t talk about them individually. “I can tell you those people weren’t working overtime,” she said. “Those people were barely working. Let’s just leave it at that.”
In Korbel’s time as director, the department has grown in staffing and responsibility, including the implementation of a new investigative unit tasked with enforcing the city’s recently passed safe and sick time ordinance. The 29-person department, with a recommended 2018 budget of $4.7 million, also oversees a police oversight commission, contract compliance and a labor standards division, and investigates claims of discrimination or unfair practices in the workplace.
In 2010, when she came to the city, Korbel had already spent decades in human rights work. A veteran of the United States Navy, she worked as an equal opportunity consultant with Metropolitan Waste Control Commission in 1990, followed by a management role with the Metropolitan Council and a stint as Commissioner of Minnesota’s Department of Human Rights.
When appointing her as director in 2010, Mayor R.T. Rybak praised her qualifications and leadership record.
The conflicts started early in her tenure. One employee, Ronald Brandon, said Korbel fired him a month after she took over in an attempt to fill the office with a group of preferred “hand-picked” staff. Brandon sued for wrongful termination, and the city paid him $90,000 to settle. The city paid another $34,000 to Marvin Taylor, a contract compliance worker who said he was unjustly fired in 2011.
One former employee, Nicole Byre, said a supervisor made a derogatory reference about an older employee’s age in a meeting with Byre.
“This is a protected class of people,” Byre said in an interview. “It’s so difficult for people to understand that these were statements being made by individuals in the civil rights department.”
When the older employee quit in late 2015, Byre followed in protest.
Korbel denied that anyone in her department has been subject to bullying or discrimination. “I’ve never discriminated against anyone,” she said.
In 2014, former employee Seema Desai sent the City Council a transcript of a speech Korbel had given to the office a year earlier, in which the director accused the staff of gossiping, thievery and melodrama, and told those unhappy with their jobs to leave. Desai said she had been forced to work overtime without pay and sued the city for “increasing stress and anxiety” that forced her to quit. The city paid her $38,125 in a settlement, according to city records.
Korbel said the department has no overtime budget. She said anyone who says they have worked overtime under her leadership without pay are plainly misstating the facts.
“People in this department are not required to work overtime,” she said.
In 2014, after Desai publicized Korbel’s speech, several council members expressed concern over her management style. They voted to reappoint her, but at the behest of Council Member Cam Gordon, the council directed her to work with a management coach.
Two years later, Mayor Betsy Hodges nominated her for reappointment, saying Korbel inherited a difficult situation upon her 2010 appointment and worked hard to improve the outcomes.
Hodges acknowledged the concerns of Korbel two years earlier, but said that shouldn’t deter her reappointment. “I can attest that she has done a great job responding to those concerns personally and professionally and work inside the department has gone very, very well,” Hodges said in 2016.
Then-Council Member Blong Yang, who previously worked as a civil rights investigator in Korbel’s department, spoke out against her reappointment. From the dais, he accused Korbel of making a racist remark against him, and mentioned allegations that she forced employees to work without overtime pay, created a hostile work environment and retaliated against employees.
Yang’s colleagues did not share his criticism. Aside from him, every council member voted in favor of Korbel’s reappointment.
Since 2016, the department has continued to see higher levels of employee engagement, said Cassidy Gardenier, who oversees the department’s equity division.
“You don’t get the results that we do in a toxic work environment,” Gardenier said. “Our employees for the most part enjoy coming to work. And this is hard work. This is thankless work.”