A divided Minneapolis City Council voted Friday to reappoint Velma Korbel as the city’s civil rights department director while she simultaneously agreed to outside management consulting following allegations of a hostile work environment.
Mayor Betsy Hodges, who reappointed Korbel, told council members by e-mail Thursday that Korbel had agreed to the consulting. Hodges also said the city’s human resources department, in coordination with the city attorney’s office, has reached out to people who recently levied allegations against the department.
Three council members, Blong Yang, Andrew Johnson and Jacob Frey, voted against the reappointment. The council subsequently passed a motion from Council Member Cam Gordon asking city staff to consider creation of a new labor-management committee in the department, encouraging the outside consulting and requesting an update in July.
The department is responsible for monitoring city contract compliance, handling claims of police misconduct and investigating both public- and private-sector discrimination complaints. Korbel has been at the post since 2010; her reappointment was for a two-year term.
At a public safety committee hearing last week, former city employees and the president of AFSCME Local 9 said that the department is a “toxic” environment where management retaliates against employees and discourages them from speaking out. One testified the department overlooked her findings of a contractor skirting women and minority hiring goals.
“What I hear from the civil rights department, from current employees and from past employees, frightens me a bit,” said Council Member Blong Yang, a former civil rights department employee. “I think the irony of a civil rights department that operates in some ways to violate some laws — labor or employment related — is really just disappointing me. I think that we’re going against our values by doing this.”
The council seemed to largely agree, however, that the department is in better shape today than when Korbel inherited it in 2010.
“When you’re driving an agenda for change, not everyone’s going to be happy,” said Alondra Cano, who added that the vote was not an easy decision. “So it’s a very difficult position to be in. And even the most sweet, loving employees will have some issues. At the same time, there has to be opportunity to change the pace of the work and to not stay in that mode of change agent all the time because that does quell a little creativity in staff and the department.”
Council President Barb Johnson said the nature of both civil rights and police work frequently make their director reappointments more controversial.
“These two fields, police work and civil rights, are areas that are fraught with conflict,” Johnson said. “And that provides for citizens that sometimes go away unhappy. They’ve been harmed. They come to us for redress, for help, trying to solve their problems.”
Gordon said he has concerns with how Korbel handled the elimination of the Civilian Review Authority — in addition to the issues that arose during the committee discussion. He added that strides have been made in the department under her leadership, however.
“I’m hoping that we learn from this experience,” he said. “I have had the advantage of working with other civil rights directors and also with Ms. Korbel. I’m supporting the reappointment, but I’m doing it with some reservations.”
Also reappointed Friday were the fire chief John Fruetel, public works director Steve Kotke, and health department Commissioner Gretchen Musicant.