Velma Korbel

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Divisive Minneapolis civil rights official in hot seat again

  • Article by: Eric Roper
  • Star Tribune
  • June 16, 2014 - 9:47 PM

The divisive leader of the Minneapolis Civil Rights Department is facing renewed scrutiny for a 2013 speech lashing out at her employees, just days before a City Council committee meets to discuss her management style.

Council Member Cam Gordon said in an e-mail to constituents that the just-released text of Velma Korbel’s speech “has only magnified my serious concerns about the management of the department.”

Gordon is on the council’s executive committee, which meets Wednesday to hear an update about the management training Korbel agreed to undergo when a divided City Council reappointed her this spring. During that process, union representatives and former employees accused her of creating a toxic work environment.

In the June 2013 speech to her department, Korbel took aim at the employees she felt were dragging the department down. She said they needed to shape up and either grow accustomed to the department’s culture or find another job.

“Some of you are unhappy here because you’ve convinced yourself that you need to be unhappy,” she said. “The fact is, we could give you everything you wanted today, and in six months, you would find another way to be dissatisfied.”

Seema Desai, a former employee who filed an employment lawsuit against the city, sent the text of the speech last week to Gordon and three other council members: Blong Yang, Andrew Johnson and Jacob Frey. That suit was recently settled for $38,125, according to city attorney Susan Segal.

Mayor Betsy Hodges said in a statement Monday that she is committed to a “respectful, positive work environment for everyone at the city” and has confidence in Korbel’s ability to be an effective leader.

She added that a management consultant has been retained and is working with the department.

In her speech, Korbel anticipated that employees might complain of low morale in the next employee engagement survey. But she said that low morale is more likely the result of people gossiping, being lazy, practicing “thievery” and otherwise overblowing small issues.

Some employees, she said, tear others down, are vindictive or unsupportive. “You know who you are. Worse — I know who you are. You are being given notice today that I have instructed my division directors to assist you in finding your way out of this organization if this behavior continues.”

She also warned employees that promotions were unlikely if they did anything “boneheaded” because other department leaders would be aware of who they are.

In an e-mail to the Star Tribune on Monday, Korbel said that her job as a manager is to ensure that employees reach their full potential.

“If I observe that there is behavior that detracts from a productive work environment, I try to counsel the employee(s) responsible, if possible,” she wrote. “If that is not possible, I will call the employees together to get on the same page regarding the department’s values for respect and accountability.”

In Desai’s lawsuit, she said the speech was made at a mandatory meeting for all staff members in the department. The department is budgeted for 22 employees.

Several days after that meeting, Desai was suspended without pay for three days for creating a negative work environment and complaining to co-workers about unpaid overtime and retaliatory treatment, the suit said.

When Korbel was up for reappointment, Gordon successfully introduced a motion to have the city coordinator consult with the mayor’s office and Civil Rights Department on possible outside management consulting for her.

Gordon said he’s looking forward to discussing the matter at Wednesday’s meeting. He said he doesn’t know what the update will be.

Eric Roper • 612-673-1732

Twitter: @StribRoper

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