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Mike MIner • Chicago Tribune/MCT,

MORE CHANGE NEEDED

“State laws give the four councils significant flexibility to engage in a wide range of activities … The councils have generally focused on cataloging their activities rather than measuring their impact … more change, rather than less, is needed.”

From a March 2014 evaluation of four minority councils by the Minnesota Office of the Legislative Auditor

Minnesota's minority councils need to justify existence

  • Article by: Editorial Board
  • Star Tribune
  • March 21, 2014 - 6:06 PM

Minnesota’s legislative auditor could not have been clearer: Four state-funded minority councils are in various states of disarray.

In an evaluation of agencies dedicated to representing Minnesota’s minority populations, the auditor found that in recent years they have been largely ineffective and should be significantly revamped or eliminated.

Issues raised in the audit should be taken seriously and used by the Legislature to re-evaluate what the mission and goals of the councils should be. All four are decades old, and they are overdue for legislative review.

The councils on Asian Pacific Minnesotans, Black Minnesotans, Chicano/Latino Affairs and Indian Affairs were created by the Legislature between 1963 and 1985. They were set up to operate as independent operations in the executive branch with boards appointed by the governor — except for Indian Affairs, whose board is selected by the tribes. The boards hire the executive directors. In 2013, the councils in total employed 16 staff members and spent about $3 million.

State statutes say the councils are responsible for advising state policymakers and acting as liaisons between the governor, Legislature and their respective communities. But the auditor found little evidence that they were effective in those roles.

At times in their histories, the councils have had leadership issues. The auditor’s report said they had done a poor job of setting objectives and measuring the impact of their activities. Researchers said that although the panels share some concerns, there is little collaboration among the groups. Timely appointments to the councils and meeting attendance have been problematic, and communication with constituencies has been inadequate.

But the study also placed some blame with the Legislature. Because they were not made directly accountable to the governor or the Legislature, the councils have been structurally isolated from state policymakers, which has limited their effectiveness. Compared with other state agencies, $3 million spread among four groups is small potatoes, so lawmakers don’t spend much time or energy on them. Nor do enough legislators take them seriously.

State law is vague about the purpose of the councils and gives no direction as to how they should prioritize activities. The auditor’s report recommends that the Legislature adopt one of four options. The first strategy would be to maintain the councils but clarify their primary purposes and improve their operations. A second approach would restructure the councils by making them part of the state Department of Human Rights.

Alternatives three and four would eliminate the councils altogether. One would create a new Office of Minority Affairs in the executive branch to address concerns of people of color. The fourth option would require that existing state agencies establish their own advisory groups to focus as needed on disparities between the white residents and people of color.

Before taking off in any of those directions, it would be prudent for the administration, Legislature and representatives from communities of color to decide how best to bring diverse voices and influence to setting policy. What kind of mission for any board, advisory group or full agency would address 2014 needs?

The councils have served a purpose over the years. At times they have been the only voices advocating for their communities at the state level. The council for Black Minnesotans was instrumental in establishing the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday. And all of the groups have held events to improve cultural awareness or celebrate their histories.

Nevertheless, the landscape has changed. More people of color can be found in state offices today, and more diverse community groups are lobbying at the Capitol. The councils may not need to fill the organizing roles they did years ago, but they could gather more critical data to support critical policy proposals.

The legislative auditor has revealed the weaknesses in the councils. Now legislators, council officials and the communities they represent need to prove that the $3 million in state funding is being used effectively.

© 2014 Star Tribune