The Minneapolis City Council appears poised to re-appoint Velma Korbel as head of the city's Department of Civil Rights, in spite of complaints from former employees that she didn't respect their rights and a polarized public hearing on Wednesday.
Korbel served as state human rights commissioner under former Gov. Tim Pawlenty, and she's held her position with the city since 2010. The department's 22 employees investigate complaints of discrimination by landlords, employers and the police. The department also makes sure city contractors comply with minority hiring goals.
Mayor Betsy Hodges backs Korbel, saying she's been effective running a city department that was once notoriously ineffective.
"Many people had come into the civil rights department and been charged with turning that around, and had not been able to do that successfully, and Ms. Korbel has been able to do so successfully," Hodges said.
Several people who testified in support of Korbel on Wednesday at the hearing praised her for eliminating the department's backlog of unresolved complaints. But Seema Desai said that efficiency came at the expense of the staff. Desai worked there for two-and-a-half years, starting in 2011, and described the environment there as hostile.
"As an employment attorney in the civil rights division, the irony struck me: How could the employees be so terrified to go to work?" Desai said.
Korbel required employees to work overtime, but wouldn't pay them for it, Desai said, adding that when she complained about , she was disciplined. She quit in July and filed a lawsuit against the city.
“As an employment attorney in the civil rights division, the irony struck me: How could the employees be so terrified to go to work?”Seema Desai
Sarah Maxwell, the president of the AFSCME Local 9 union, which represents the department's employees, said she and other workers have also complained about Korbel.
"When people talk to me about what's going on down there, they get tears in their eyes they're so upset. And they talk about how they bring this home, and how it's affecting their relationship with their husbands or their wives, because this environment has been so toxic for them," Maxwell said.
Maxwell compared Korbel to Rocco Forte, the city's former Emergency Preparedness office director, who resigned in 2011 in the midst of a personnel investigation. Documents released last month revealed Forte engaged in what investigators called "deliberate and malicious personal attacks" on his subordinates.
Still, the city's former human resources director, Pam French, came to Korbel's defense.
"I led the investigation into Rocco Forte's department, and there is in no way, shape or form anything that's happening in miss Korbel's department that even remotely resembles what happened in that department," said French, who is now deputy director of the city's Park's department. Korbel called the allegations "ludicrous" and "offensive."
"Leadership is not easy. As anyone here knows, who has ever been a supervisor or a manager, in the role you will be called on to make unpopular personnel decisions," French said.
She bristled under questioning from newly elected council member Blong Yang.
"I would just like to point out, Mr. Yang, that you of anybody on the dais should have some first-hand knowledge about the environment in the civil rights department, because you worked there for a year," she said.
Yang was an investigator in the department under Korbel from 2011 to 2012.
"You know a lot of the complaints that were brought up are not surprising to me. I will leave it at that," said Yang, who chairs the public safety and civil rights committee.
He was the only member to vote against Korbel's nomination.
The Public Safety Committee's vote in support of Korbel makes it likely she'll be confirmed when the full City Council votes next week.