Tevlin: Once again, Minneapolis Civil Rights Department in turmoil

  • Article by: JON TEVLIN , Star Tribune
  • Updated: June 21, 2014 - 9:40 PM
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Velma Korbel of the city of Minneapolis’ Civil Rights Department

Photo: Kyndell Harkness, Star Tribune

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When Blong Yang worked as an investigator for the Minneapolis Department of Civil Rights, he asked his bosses for a leave of absence to run for public office. They refused.

Yang quit his job to run for office. He lost that race but ran for the City Council’s north Minneapolis seat and won. Now he’s chair of the committee that oversees the department he left, and his former boss, Velma Korbel, is catching darts for an angry speech she made to her staff. Funny sometimes how things turn out.

It gets worse. Last month Korbel criticized Yang during a discussion organized by the African-American caucus of the Minnesota DFL Party. “I don’t think he knows he’s supposed to represent the community,” she reportedly said of Yang.

Yang took that to mean that he can’t possibly represent a largely black constituency because he’s Hmong.

“She’s saying race matters in this situation,” said Yang. “To me, that’s more dangerous” than what she said to her employees. “She’s the person who is supposed to protect people’s civil rights, and she’s saying things like that? There is a double standard.”

On Wednesday, the Asian-American Organizing Project (AAOP) called for Korbel’s resignation over her remarks about Yang.

Korbel responded by letter, “I deeply regret any offense felt by members of the community when my comments were taken out of context.”

In an interview Friday, Korbel called Yang’s interpretation of her remarks to DFLers “absurd” and said she wants to work with the group and all City Council members.

Yang said her recent comments and rumors of dysfunction, and not his experience as an employee, are the reasons he was one of three council members who voted against her reappointment. The council has ordered Korbel to work with a consultant to improve her management skills. The mayor still supports Korbel.

Korbel’s lecture to her staff included accusations of laziness, low morale and “thievery.” Korbel said that she and the other managers “know a lot of people in the metro.”

“How hard do you think it’s going to be if you try to advance your career and you don’t have these people in your corner?” she asked. “You know who you are. Worse — I know who you are.”

To quote a popular poster: The beatings will continue until morale improves.

Korbel Friday said that her comments “were not artful,” but that she felt it necessary because some staff were “intent on sowing discontent.”

City officials “want a department that would be accountable to the work they are doing, and relevant to the city,” Korbel said. When that’s not happening, it makes her “ferocious,” she said.

Many support the director

While I find both her comments about Yang and to employees to be reckless and bad management, several City Hall insiders I talked to speak very highly of Korbel. One, who asked to remain anonymous, called her “the most competent director we have had in years.”

Former Mayor R.T. Rybak said he couldn’t speak of personnel issues inside the department but argues that Korbel has been very effective with the city’s Urban Scholars program and in getting contractors to meet obligations on hiring minorities.

“The words beleaguered and besieged have gone with the department for decades,” said Rybak, who hired Korbel. “It’s an extremely difficult job, and the director’s role is not necessarily to make people comfortable …

“One thing to remember is that she was sent in there with directions to get stronger performance from that department,” Rybak said. “We set an incredibly ambitious goal: Do what it takes to get remarkably high standards.”

Indeed, controversy surrounding the head of the MDCR is nothing new. Korbel is the sixth director in nine years. Unbelievable. Headlines such as “Civil Rights Dept. in turmoil” go back at least to 1994.

At least one director was fired. Several failed to be reappointed. One director failed to give the council an annual report for five years. Cases brought to the department have at times taken years to resolve, if at all. One lesbian director was sued by two gay men who said she was interested only in discrimination cases related to lesbians.

Korbel and the department have been sued twice since she has been director, once by employee Seema Desai, who claimed she was frequently harassed by managers and forced to work long hours without overtime pay. The city paid her more than $38,000.

On and on. One of my predecessors as a metro columnist many years ago suggested it might be time to consider abolishing the department altogether, something I will echo.

Korbel, a U.S. Navy veteran with an MBA in human resources management, said when she was hired: “One of the things I see is the need for some stability.”

Now, Korbel’s “directness” threatens the department’s stability once again.

Yang is among those who think that’s a shame.

“Leadership is on the line,” he said. “I feel bad for her employees. They work hard and are underappreciated by everyone. They are very good people.”

Korbel said despite being a “target,” she loves the job and wants to stay.

“I would like to preserve the legacy of this department.”

 

jtevlin@startribune.com • 612-673-1702

Follow Jon on Twitter: @jontevlin

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