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Council reappoints civil rights director following allegations

Posted by: Eric Roper Updated: March 31, 2014 - 11:48 AM

The city's civil rights department director has agreed to outside management consulting following allegations of a hostile work environment that arose during her reappointment hearing.

The City Council voted Friday to reappoint Velma Korbel to her post heading the civil rights department for a two-year term. The department is responsible for monitoring city contract compliance, handling claims of police misconduct and investigating both public- and private-sector discrimination complaints.

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 'no' on Korbel's reappointment. The council subsequently passed a staff direction from Council Member Cam Gordon to consider creation of a new labor-management committee in the department, encourage the outside consulting and request an update in July.

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 testifier said the department overlooked major 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 qwell a little creativity in staff and the department.”

Council President Barb Johnson said the nature of both civil rights and the 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," Gordon 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.”

Here is the full text of the mayor's letter:

Colleagues,

I’m writing to reiterate my strong support of Velma Korbel as the director of our Civil Rights Department, and to ask once again for your vote to reconfirm her. As I said at her public hearing last week, and have said to all of you individually, Velma’s results in turning around a once-underperforming department and inspiring the community’s confidence in our work are extremely strong, and by themselves qualify her highly to continue to lead the department.

Beyond those results, though, Velma deserves our support for her dogged efforts over several years several years to set us up to do the hard and much-needed racial-equity work that we are now poised to accomplish. Velma has led not only her own department through this work, she has led her fellow department heads through it and they are beginning to deliver on it in their own departments.

In the last week, we have heard allegations about Velma’s management of the department. I want you to know that I have been in close communication about them with Velma, Patience Ferguson and Susan Segal. The Human Resources department, in coordination with the City Attorney’s office, is reaching out to those people who raised those allegations and is fully engaged in responding to them. In addition, I have also spoken personally to Sarah Maxwell of AFSCME: I have listened carefully to her concerns and am entertaining solutions that she has presented for managing relationships in the department.

I also want you to know that Velma has willingly agreed to outside management consulting and advice. Velma’s openness to engage with this is a sign not only of her openness to other perspectives, but of her strong desire to lead a cohesive, unified department with a positive work environment that is focused above all on achieving the important work goals that we have set for it.

We are at a potentially historic juncture: for the first time ever, all elected officials in this city are in agreement on the urgent need to end our disparities, and are ready to act — and we are supported in our resolve by our many external partners. Reconfirming Velma Korbel is essential to making sure that it moves forward with all due urgency. We must not disappoint the people and communities who have waited many long years for us finally to lead this work.

I have full confidence in Velma Korbel and urge you to continue our momentum by voting to reconfirm her tomorrow. Please contact me at any time to share your thoughts.

Thank you,

Betsy

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