Minneapolis civil rights chief needs civility tutor

  • Article by: EDITORIAL BOARD , Star Tribune
  • Updated: June 25, 2014 - 6:08 PM

Minneapolis mayor, council must hold agency head accountable.

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Velma Korbel, director of the Minneapolis Civil Rights Department, has done a good job of handling civil rights complaints, but her management style has been questioned.

Photo: KYNDELL HARKNESS • Star Tribune,

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It’s troubling and ironic that the Minneapolis Civil Rights Department is embroiled in controversy over the workplace insensitivity of its top official. MCRD Director Velma Korbel has rightly faced scrutiny over comments she made in a June 2013 meeting with department employees.

Shortly after her recent reappointment, those comments became public knowledge. In those remarks, Korbel said some of the department’s 22 employees needed to shape up and stop sowing seeds of discontent. And she implied that she and her direct reports “know’’ people and could make it difficult for staffers to find other jobs.

That kind of threat from a boss is inappropriate. In conversations with an editorial writer this week, even Korbel’s strongest supporters in City Hall voiced concerns about her judgment. Given the controversy surrounding the department, it is reasonable to ask if Korbel’s style and temperament fit the job.

The June 2013 incident came to light because of an employment lawsuit against the city that had been filed by Seema Desai, a former department staffer. The suit was recently settled for $38,125, and earlier this month Desai sent the text of the 2013 remarks to four City Council members.

Korbel also has a running feud with Council Member Blong Yang, who previously worked in the department. Most recently, Korbel criticized Yang during a discussion organized by the African-American caucus of the state DFL Party, when she reportedly said: “I don’t think he knows he’s supposed to represent the community.” Yang, who is Hmong, interpreted the comment as meaning he could not effectively represent a black ward — a suggestion that Korbel called “absurd.”

Despite the turmoil, Korbel has strong support in some quarters, and she was reappointed with the backing of Mayor Betsy Hodges and 10 of 13 council members. As a condition of her reappointment to a two-year term, the city has ordered Korbel to work with a consultant to improve her management skills.

The fact is that the department has made strides after years of questionable performance and revolving-door leadership. It exists to fulfill civil rights ordinances that say Minneapolis must investigate discriminatory practices and monitor and ensure enforcement of employment and purchasing goals for women and people of color on city-funded construction projects. More recently, investigating complaints against city police officers has been added to the department’s task list.

Hodges and others give Korbel high marks for the way she has fulfilled the department’s mission and worked well with other department heads to integrate MCRD goals across city functions.

And supporters both outside and inside City Hall say that under Korbel’s direction, the department has done a good job handling civil rights complaints — one of its highest-profile responsibilities. Plagued by significant backlogs for many years, the number of complaints opened and unresolved for more than 270 days is down from 112 in 2010 to only six this year. The mayor and council now receive regular reports about MCRD activities. Though required, that reporting did not happen for five years under a previous director.

Leadership turnover has been a problem for the department for years. When Korbel was appointed in 2010, she became MCRD’s sixth director in nine years.

It’s difficult and often contentious work. The department is charged with confronting racial equity and discrimination issues head-on, often challenging city departments and private employers for failing to live up to city goals.

It’s a necessary function. As noted in the most recent MCRD annual report, more than 60 percent of city residents surveyed said that race or color are a reason for unfair treatment, and another 30 percent cited economic status. Smaller percentages of respondents said that disability, age, gender, ethnic background or country of origin are reasons that discrimination takes place in the city.

Racial equity — including narrowing gaps in employment, housing and education — is critical for the city’s social and economic well-being. An effective Civil Rights Department can be a major player in that effort.

The leader of the department must be a skilled communicator who inspires the confidence of the staff. The city is taking an important step in having Korbel work with the consultant on her management skills. The mayor and City Council are ultimately responsible for determining that the investment pays off in improved professionalism and strong leadership.

  • TWO VIEWS

    The released text of Velma Korbel’s speech to staff last year “has only magnified my serious concerns about the management of the department.”

    Council Member CAM GORDON in an e-mail to constituents last week

    • • •

    “I am committed to a respectful, positive work environment for everyone at the city and have confidence in Korbel’s ability to be an effective leader.’’

    Mayor BETSY HODGES

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