Former city employees and a union representative told the City Council Wednesday that Minneapolis' 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 (right) to lead the department. 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, many of them in support of Korbel's reappointment. Opponents included two former employees, several police misconduct activists and a union leader.
"[Employees] exist in fear, keeping their heads down, hoping to stay under the radar and not be the next target of management," said AFSCME Local 9 president Sarah Maxwell. "They’re told not to talk to the union. They’ve been told in a meeting by Ms. Korbel that she has lots of connections to City Hall, inferring not to cross her.”
Korbel has served in the position since 2010. During the hearing she disputed allegations about the environment in 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 told the committee.
But committee chair Blong Yang, a former employee of the civil rights department, wasn't ready to dismiss the claims.
“I did work in civil rights department for a little over a year. And a lot of the complaints that were brought up [today] are not surprising to me," Yang said. "I will leave it at that. I would just say that I oppose this motion. I just think that we should really know what goes on in that department before we make this decision.”
The committee voted to approve Korbel's reappointment, which must be affirmed by the full council later this month. Council Members Kevin Reich, Barb Johnson, Abdi Warsame and Cam Gordon voted yes. Yang voted no and Council Member Linea Palmisano abstained.
Kristin White, a former attorney in the department, said that she was dismissed after raising concerns to human resources. She said staff are not given enough resources to complete their work.
White oversaw compliance for major contracts, including plans to revitalize Downtown East. Her focus was on ensuring the projects met legal goals for women and minority participation.
White said she discovered that a large company had asked women- and minority-owned businesses to act as "pass-throughs" by accepting contracts but not receiving the funding. She was drafting a determination to debar the contractor.
"To date, however, nothing has happened on this case and no penalty has been issued to this non-compliant contractor who submitted false claims to the city," White said.
She met with human resources out of concern that a failure to uphold legal requirements would jeopardize her law license. "I was not prepared to put my professional career on the line for the motives of the department," White said. Within 24 hours of the meeting, she said she was dismissed.
Another former employee, Seema Desai (right), has filed an employment lawsuit against the city. She testified that hourly employees were being asked to work during the evening, night shifts and on weekends in violation of employment laws and bargaining agreements.
Desai said she took her concerns to several council members, including Hodges.
"I told them that the city was violating employment laws and union laws," Desai said. "I told the council members that there is cronyism, that the managers work on inappropriate things during office hours such as political campaigns. I told the council members that the employees were afraid to speak out.”
Other opponents of Korbel's reappointment criticized her handling of the dissolution of the Civilian Review Authority, which previously oversaw police misconduct allegations.
Many testifiers came to support the reapointment. Among them were Minneapolis public schools superintendent Bernadeia Johnson, Minneapolis YWCA president Becky Roloff, businessman Tim Baylor and Judge Martha A. Holton Dimick, a former employee of the city attorney's office.
"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."
Lea Hargett, president of the Minnesota Black Chamber of Commerce, said Korbel took over the department at a time when the city and non-government entities not meeting contract compliance mandates.
“Since Velma Korbel has been in her position, we have finally seen positive movement in the areas of hiring, contracting, reporting, monitoring and enforcement," Hargett said.
Former Minneapolis Human Resources Director Pam French disputed one testifier's comparison of the situation to recent revelations of a hostile work environment under regulatory services chief Rocco Forte.
"I can tell you I led the investigation into Rocco Forte’s department," French said. "And there’s no way shape or form what’s happening in Ms. Korbel’s department that even remotely resembles what happened in that department.”
French added: "She walked into a very beleaguered department, for a variety of reasons...And through her leadership she was one who invited partnerships on a regular basis."
Hodges spoke in support of Korbel before testimony began on Wednesday.
“She has managed through the challenges. She has managed to get results from a department…that had seen negative results for many many years. And she’s had to make a number of tough choices to make that happen. She’s had to make a number of tough choices to make that real.”