As a pioneer among cities, Minneapolis has a history of civil rights activism. In the mid-1940s, Mayor Hubert Humphrey established a fair employment practices commission. Over the years, the city strengthened its civil rights ordinances and enforcement as times changed and discrimination awareness deepened.
Now, due to pending budget cuts, the city's long-standing Civil Rights Department faces the loss of its investigations division. Mayor R.T. Rybak reluctantly recommended that the department eliminate the division. His choice was spurred by Gov. Tim Pawlenty, who has said that the Minneapolis division duplicates the investigative function of the state Human Rights Department.
Still, there are good reasons for Minneapolis to maintain a strong civil rights presence. The city arguably has the most diverse population in the state. And it has experienced a number of high-profile settlements involving discrimination over the past decade. About 200 complaints are filed with the department each year, some based on city civil rights ordinances that the local investigators know well.
In some areas, local law provides better remedies for victims. And if a probable cause is found, the victim can appear before the Civil Rights Commission at no charge, rather than filing a district court action or hoping that the state will bring the charges to the attorney general.
The department currently has three primary functions -- investigations, contract compliance and the civilian review board. The investigations group is made up of about six attorneys who do the legwork to determine the validity of complaints and then recommend a probable cause, no probable cause or dismissal of a case. The investigators can also work with filers to settle disputes or direct the parties to mediation.
Eliminating the unit would save about $300,000 to $400,000 -- a relatively small amount in the city's $350 million-plus operating budget, but a sizable chunk of the department's $2 million budget. But with the cuts that the city has taken and those it is expecting next year, it's understandable that every budget item is on the table and every department must look for ways to cut back.
When the mayor suggested cutting investigations, the City Council rejected the idea pending further study. The council convened a task force to examine department operations, assess citizen needs and examine whether the state can effectively absorb Minneapolis cases. That group is expected to offer recommendations by July 1.
For its part, a state Human Rights Department says the state has no backlog and is prepared to handle any additional cases. Under statute, the state department must investigate filed complaints within one year. Although there's been progress over the past two years, the Minneapolis department historically has struggled with backlogs and has had frequent leadership turnover.
Even as Mayor Rybak suggested eliminating the investigations unit, he said he is open to other ideas to balance the budget. Keeping the history and demographics of the city in mind, the mayor and council should carefully review the task force findings. That information should help them balance inevitable budget cuts with the need to provide fair, comprehensive enforcement of civil right laws.