Minneapolis' inaugural Black History Month Expo has been forced to lower its ambitions after a city ethics violation tripped up more than $1 million in donations.

Event planners are excited about the Feb. 25 event, "I Am My Ancestors' Wildest Dreams," at the Minneapolis Convention Center — the city's first major Black-centered event following the 2020 murder of George Floyd. But they acknowledge their initial vision for a "Black mecca" experience with national A-list entertainers will have to wait until next year.

On Friday, the tale of what amounted to internal confusion followed by a funding scramble became public when Tyeastia Green, the director of the city's racial equity department, appeared before the City Council to seek additional funds for the event.

What happened?

Here's a basic chronology:

Green, who took over what is now the city's Racial Equity, Inclusion and Belonging Department in March 2022, set out to raise funds for the expo, intended as a celebration of local Black culture and commerce, as well as a step toward racial healing, to coincide with Black History Month.

By the fall, she had lined up a number of corporate and philanthropic donors, including a commitment from the St. Paul-based Bush Foundation for $3 million over three years, she said. (NOTE: The Star Tribune has since learned that the Bush Foundation never committed any money for the expo, and was never asked. Read here for more information.)

However, in October, the city attorney's ethics officer, Susan Trammell, told Green that as a city official, she was barred from soliciting outside donations directly. "I didn't know," Green said Friday.

Green said she planned to pivot in a way that could satisfy the city's ethics rules, by finding a third party that could handle the donations. But in November, her father died.

"When that happened, all of this fell apart," she said.

Extra costs

Another hiccup surfaced more recently, when Green learned that the city would have to hire a contractor to stage the convention center — an expense she hadn't anticipated.

On Friday, the nine City Council members present voted unanimously to authorize an additional $145,000 for the project out of the city contingency fund, which now holds about $6 million.

The city has contracted with Atlanta-based Touched Apparel for up to $242,000 to curate and plan the event. Green said the city put out a request for proposals targeted at local Black event planners but it "yielded zero results." A nationwide search drew three bids, and Touched Apparel was the only one that was viable, she said.

After the meeting, Council Member LaTrisha Vetaw said she was disappointed the event wouldn't be organized by a local business.

"It's really important that the people of Minneapolis can own this event," she said.

The owner of Touch Apparel, Casey Ellerby, worked with Green on at least one event in Burlington, Vt., when Green was that city's director of Racial Equity, Inclusion and Belonging.

What's the impact?

The expo will feature local and out-of-town entertainers, speakers and panels of experts, a healing garden, local vendors and a children's zone called the "Too Dope to Bully Experience." Green said she hopes to draw some 20,000 people to the Convention Center.

But the reduced budget of $450,000 — as opposed to more than three times that if the donations had been allowed — meant organizers couldn't afford to bring in high-profile national figures, Green said.

"What I had originally envisioned was bringing in the types of people to create a Black mecca experience — because we want Minneapolis to become a Black mecca, like Atlanta or Chicago," she said.

She said she hopes to be able to restore the outside donations for next year's expo.

Ethics question

Green said she wasn't disciplined for violating the city's ethic's rules because she wasn't aware she was doing anything wrong.

Some council members questioned what the problem was.

"I don't quite understand how this would be different from something that we do all of the time," Council Member Aisha Chughtai said, referring to a formal process for the city to accept gifts.

Indeed, the city regularly takes in money from outside sources, ranging from donations for free lodging at professional conferences to a $700,000 grant from the Pohlad Family Foundations.

The problem here was the active solicitation by a city official, City Attorney Kristyn Anderson said.

Such rules are written to reduce the likelihood that anyone would feel pressured to donate after fielding a request by a city official who could have power over them. The way to work within the rules often is for a third party to ask for money, Anderson said. Council President Andrea Jenkins noted that the Minneapolis Women's Foundation has played that role in recent years for the city-led Trans Equity Summit.

Nonetheless, Council Member Andrew Johnson questioned whether the city should revisit the issue in the future, especially since the largest donations in this case wasn't coming from a for-profit corporation.

Editor's note: This story has been updated to correct the City Council vote and to reflect that the company hired to build out the convention hall was contracted by the city directly.