Three years after launching St. Paul's Human Rights and Equal Economic Opportunity department to address a lag in minority hiring, director Luz Frias is leaving with a strong record and a clear case to continue with the office, City Hall officials say.

Under pressure from activists and lawsuits for years, the city in 2006 audited its minority hiring and contracting record, finding unsatisfactory results.

Since the department was created, Mayor Chris Coleman's office said last week, access to construction projects for minority-owned businesses increased to $12 million from $1 million in 2008. Similarly, the city started at $1.6 million for women-owned businesses, and now is at $16 million. Small-business contracts increased from $2.4 million to $14 million.

Among those initially applying pressure was Nathaniel Khaliq, retired head of the St. Paul NAACP and a member of the search panel that helped hire Frias. "It certainly exceeds my expectations," Khaliq said of the department.

Frias is leaving the $116,000-a-year post to become vice president of community philanthropy at the Minneapolis Foundation. Her last day is Friday. She was not available for an interview last week.

Ramsey County Attorney John Choi, who was city attorney at the time, spearheaded the creation of the department, which has an annual budget of $5 million. He said the most important change is that there are now measurable accounts. "There was always a feeling [before] that the outcomes weren't good; the question was, 'Why?'" he said.

Before the merger, Choi noted that the tasks of the agency -- outreach, contract compliance and responding to complaints -- were spread throughout the city. Contract compliance, for example, was in the financial services agency.

Coleman and the council will appoint a community advisory committee in the next 30 days to select a new director. Khaliq said the new person will "have an opportunity to step right in and carry on."

Even at a time of restricted resources, City Council President Kathy Lantry says, "oh, my goodness yes" when asked if the office has justified its existence. "For large cities who are incredibly diverse, this is an important function," she said.

Minneapolis has a similar agency, as does the state. But Lantry said the state office doesn't have the time or money to help the cities.

The mayor's office also notes that the St. Paul Human Rights division has the shortest investigation time of human rights cases in the state at 234 days per case. Average total settlements of discrimination complaints also more than doubled, to $80,000 per year.

Khaliq said the agency's greatest accomplishment so far is the Emergency Medical Services Academy, which trains low-income youths to get certified as emergency technicians. Before the academy, only one minority student graduated from the program per year. When the most-recent class is honored Monday night, the academy will have graduated 73 students, the city says.

Coleman's office said 70 percent of the graduates are working in health care or furthering their studies. "That's a wonderful thing in light of the employment disparity we have in the Twin Cities," Khaliq said. "We appear to have made strides."

Rochelle Olson • 651-925-5035 Twitter: @rochelleolson