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Minneapolis civil rights department under siege

published on November 11, 1994
in Equal Time

Charges of inefficiency and bias could threaten the future of Minneapolis' 25-year-old Department of Civil Rights. As the city council heads into budget cuts this month, the department my find itself on the chopping block.

"Anyone in this community who thinks they're safe [from discrimination] just because there are laws on the books is living in a fantasy world. The laws are only as good as the people who enforce them," said Tom Doolittle, flatly.

Doolittle, a former manager at the Minneapolis Omni Northstar hotel, claims the company refused to promote him and then fired him because he was gay. He also says the Minneapolis Department of Civil Rights (MDCR) mishandled his two discrimination cases against the hotel. In one of Doolittle's cases, the department found in favor of the hotel. That finding is on appeal to the Civil Rights Commission. The department has made no decision in over a year on Doolittle's other case.

Complaints about the department of civil rights aren't new. In fact, Emma Hixson, the department's director, said most people want to vent about the department for one reason or another. "It often happens if we don't find in people's favor, they tend to get angry," said Hixson.

"It's hard to prove discrimination," said Hixson. "It's hard to enforce the laws, but we do find probable cause [for discrimination charges]. You have at least a 50 -50 chance that it would be in your favor." But the department numbers bear a different interpretation. In 1992 and 1993, for example, only about 12 percent of cases brought to the department were found to have probable cause.

Anyway you look at it, Minneapolis gays, lesbians, bisexuals, and transgender people fighting discrimination face a steep climb against a bureaucratic civil rights system, say some critics.

The MDCR serves three functions. It investigates charges of discrimination in Minneapolis. It runs the Civil Rights Commission, which rules on the department's finding when they're disputed. And it certifies that companies doing business with the city have policies against discrimination. For gays living in Minneapolis, MDCR is and has been, the only vehicle to enforce all of the city's anti-discrimination laws, which are broader than Minnesota's recently amended civil rights act.

Minneapolis began investigating civil rights complaints in 1967. Today, the department has a budget of $1.2 million. Each of the department's six investigators handle an average of 35 cases a year. Hixson said to be able to complete the majority of the department's investigations in six month, is would need two or three more investigators. Right now, most cases take less then a year. Hixson has asked for one more investigator in 1994, for which she is requesting a $13,096 increase over the 1993 budget.

However, charges of inefficiency, unequal treatment and mismanagement cast an ugly shadow on the department just as the city approves its 1994 budget, which cuts just under $4 million from this year's city funding. And the charges are being lobbed by more people than those just losing civil rights cases in Minneapolis.

According to Minneapolis City Council member Dennis Schulstad, what began as an unpopular idea, to completely eliminate the $1.2 million-a-year Minneapolis Department of Civil Rights, has moved into a position of favor with the council. "It started out 12— 1. Now it's getting a little closer," said Schulstad, who has repeatedly introduced a resolution to eliminate the department.

Schulstad said he has two beefs against the MDCR: It duplicates services provided by the state; and he claims that Emma Hixson directs it poorly.

Critics like Schulstad say the Minnesota Department of Human Rights (MDHR) essentially does the same work, but they seem to ignore opinions that the state would provide a lower level of service than the city.

"It would have a major impact on us," said Kristine Preston, a spokesperson for the MDHR. "There's no way we can take on an additional 360 cases [the approximate number of cases Minneapolis now handles] without added resources. As a result, the length of investigations would go from one year to an indefinite period of time. We wouldn't be able to guarantee that we could start an investigation in a timely way."

Schulstad specifically cited what he described as Hixson's unrelenting battle against the city in the case of three lesbian library employees who sought domestic partner benefits. The Civil Rights Commission awarded them $90,000 this year in a finding against the city and the Minneapolis Library Board.

After pressure, the city council eventually approved temporary insurance reimbursement for domestic partners of city employees. But the city is still appealing the ruling for the employees because the commission's decision undermines the city and the library board's autonomy.

"Hixson [a lesbian], let her personal feelings overcome her responsibility to follow the law and it will cost the tax payer a substantial amount of money," said Schulstad. "She's going to lose in court on the appeal."

Hixson said that Schulstad "has been on a little mission" against her since the Commission's findings for the library employees.

However, Schulstad is not alone in his campaign against the department. Half of the city's Ways and Mean's Budget Committee— Walt Dziedzic (ward1), Dennis Schulstad (Ward 12), and Carol Johnson (Ward 13)— support eliminating or down-sizing the Civil Rights Department. The committee makes budget recommendations to the council. If the city council disagrees with the committee's priorities, the council then begins a multi-million dollar bartering game, where one budget line (or department) sacrifices for the gain of another.

Hacking away at the MDCR, a department that's been accused of inefficiency and self-interest, one which has cost the city taxpayers $272,921 in awards against the city since 1988, may be tempting to council members.

In a survey last spring of the city council's 1994 budget priorities, the MDCR came next to last.

"I think the department would be in jeopardy, survey or not," said Campbell. They are always a target for some council members. I think there are some lame duck council members who may be willing to stick their necks out."

Lame ducks on the council include Tony Scallon (Ward 9), Joan Niemiec (Ward 10), Steve Cramer (Ward 11), and Carol Johnson (Ward 13). Cramer's vote in Ways and Means could provide the necessary strike against the department.

Also likely to vote against the Department of Civil Rights budget on the floor of the city council is Ward 7's Pat Scott, according to Schulstad.

Though Scott didn't return Equal Time's calls, her assistant Peter Roos said, "There are no sacred cows," referring to budget cuts. Roos and Scott supports the civil rights department's contract compliance function. But he hedged when pressed about Scott's vote on the future of the department and the commission.

Also firing shots against the MDCR are several gay men who claim that the department is a massive, mismanaged bureaucracy run by an anti-male lesbian.

Hixson said, "The way I've got it from these guys is that I don't like them because they're gay. That's kind of silly, given that I'm a lesbian."

According to Doolittle and Bob Bxxxx, who both allege that the Omni Northstar fired them because they were gay, the department seemed uncomfortable with their cases. The MDCR found no reason to believe the Omni had discriminated against either of them. Both men are appealing the MDCR's findings to the Civil Rights Commission.

Doolittle's account of a meeting with MDCR investigator Eileen Kapaun, who refused to speak to Equal Time on order from the department, suggests that Kapaun thought the men might be misogynist. "She asked if we didn't like working with women," said Doolittle, who says he was stunned at the suggestion. "I told her to speak to other female bosses I'd had," he said.

"These guys have been very persistent in terms of being unhappy about the cases," said Hixson. "They called a lot of council members, staff, the mayor, and what not.

"It's kind of unnerving to have these guys so angry right at this juncture," continued Hixson. "We're trying to defend our budget and ward off attacks on our program. We have a lot more happy people than unhappy people. Unfortunately, they aren't running to the city council to say how well we handled their cases."

Perry Merz, a gay man who says the MDCR botched his discrimination case by letting the statute of limitations run out, said he felt the MDCR's investigators didn't know how to handle his case either. "The feeling I got was that it was completely unknown territory. It wasn't anything direct. I understand that they're supposed to remain neutral and unbiased, but going into the department for the first time, I felt this was very uncomfortable [for them]."

The experience was so unnerving for the men that, according to Merz, he, Doolittle and Bxxxx may start a support group for gay men trying to navigate the civil rights system.

Women and lesbians have had support groups to help them fight their battles, but gay men are lone soldiers in the fight, said Merz. "You're out there in the elements all by yourself with your testicles hanging out," he said.

"My feeling is that [the MDCR response it] a major let down and a slap in the face to the gay community," said Merz.

"People have to wake up to the fact that just because civil rights are on the books, it doesn't mean anything's changed."

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