Former city employees and a union representative told the Minneapolis City Council on Wednesday that the city's civil rights department is a "toxic environment" where management retaliates against employees and tells them not to speak out.
The allegations arose during a public safety committee hearing over Mayor Betsy Hodges' reappointment of Velma Korbel to lead the department. The panel voted to approve Korbel's reappointment, which must be affirmed by the full council.
The civil rights department is tasked with monitoring city contract compliance, handling claims of police misconduct and investigating both public- and private-sector discrimination complaints. About 25 people spent the afternoon testifying for and against the reappointment.
"[Employees] exist in fear, keeping their heads down, hoping to stay under the radar and not be the next target for management," said Sarah Maxwell, AFSCME Local 9 president.
Two former employees testified against the reappointment. One of them, Seema Desai, said employees were being asked to work extra hours in violation of employment laws and bargaining agreements. Desai said she took her concerns to several council members at the time, including Hodges.
"I told them that the city was violating employment laws and union laws," said Desai, who has filed a lawsuit against the city. "I told the council members that there is cronyism, that the managers work on inappropriate things during office hours such as political campaigns."
Korbel disputed allegations about the environment of her department. "This notion that there's some sort of toxic environment, there's something nefarious going on in the civil rights department is ludicrous and frankly offensive," Korbel said. She added that she has had to make many difficult management decisions surrounding discipline, feedback, promotions and vacations.
But committee chair Blong Yang, a former employee of the civil rights department, didn't dismiss the claims. "A lot of the complaints that were brought up [today] are not surprising to me," said Yang, who voted against Korbel's reappointment.
Many testifiers came to Korbel's defense. Among them were Minneapolis public schools Superintendent Bernadeia Johnson, Minneapolis YWCA President Becky Roloff, businessman Tim Baylor and Hennepin County Judge Martha A. Holton Dimick.
"Ms. Korbel is an excellent, excellent person to lead this city and to deal with some of the issues that we deal with in terms of racial inequality," Holton Dimick said. "Disparate impacts on people in education, in the courts, however you want to look at it: She's got the background, the experience."
Hodges spoke in support of Korbel before testimony began. "She has managed through the challenges. She has managed to get results from a department … that had seen negative results for many many years," Hodges said.