Three months after surviving a bruising confirmation hearing, Velma Korbel, director of the Minneapolis Civil Rights Department, finds herself again surrounded by controversy.
A recently released text of a speech Korbel made last year to employees lends credence to complaints about her management style. She also is engaged in an unusually public feud with the chair of the City Council committee overseeing her department.
Last week, a former city employee sent four council members copies of a speech Korbel gave at a staff meeting. The message from Korbel was that unhappy employees needed to change their attitudes or look for new jobs.
"You know who you are," she said. "Worse -- I know who you are."
Korbel said the unnamed, unhappy employees were endangering their future careers, and not just with the city. She noted that she and the other managers "know a lot of people in the metro."
In the speech, she asked, "How hard do you think it's going to be if you try to advance your career and you don't have these people in your corner?"
Seema Desai, a civil rights investigator in the department, took that as a threat.
"It seemed to me that she was flexing her political power and silencing the staff from speaking out," said Desai, who quit her job a month later.
Desai, who obtained a copy of Korbel's remarks as part of a lawsuit against the city that she recently settled for $38,000, sent the document to city leaders.
Council Member Cam Gordon was taken aback by what he read.
"That stuff was very disturbing, shocking, and it's not anything that I would ever expect and want to have any supervisor, manager or department head in the city of Minneapolis say to their staff," he said.
Gordon said he's glad the council has asked an outside management consultant to review the work environment at the Civil Rights Department.
Korbel acknowledges her speech was "inartful." But she said never intended to threaten her staff for voicing concerns.
"People who know me and have worked for me for a long time understand that I have a very direct style and I also am not a mincer of words," she said.
Some of Korbel's recent statements also have drawn criticism.
Last month she participated in a panel discussion organized by the African-American caucus of the Minnesota DFL Party. According to news reports, she took a jab at first-term City Council member Blong Yang, saying, "I don't think he knows he's supposed to represent the community."
Yang detected racial undertones in Korbel's remark.
"It just smelled bad. It looked bad. And it was just awful," he said. "I think essentially what she said was just that a Hmong person like myself just can't represent the folks in north Minneapolis, because it's predominately African-American."
Korbel, who is black, was politically connected to Yang's African-American predecessor, Don Samuels.
Yang said the fact that Korbel apparently got away with her comment indicates a double standard.
"Imagine if she was some old white guy and she said something like that," Yang said. "Most people would be calling for his head! I mean, here is the civil rights director, somebody who is supposed to protect our civil rights, and she is discriminating."
In an interview, Korbel denied her comment was discriminatory. She didn't dispute the accuracy of the quote, or offer an apology.
"But this is what I will say about Council Member Blong Yang and every council member on third floor: I wish all of them the best success as council members, and my department and I are ready to assist them with whatever work they think they need to do out in their wards or in the city," she said.
Yang and Korbel have clashed over the city's approach to addressing disparities between white and minority residents. But their dispute also has a personal dimension.
Yang was one of three council members to vote against confirming Korbel for a second term, due to complaints from employees about her management style. He also had first-hand experience with those issues, having worked under her for a year as a civil rights investigator.
As a council member, he chairs the committee that oversees her department. But he's not her boss. Mayor Betsy Hodges is. And in spite of the continued controversy, Hodges is standing behind Korbel.
In a statement, the mayor credited Korbel with improving the department, which used to suffer from a chronic backlog of cases.
"Change is not always smooth or easy," Hodges said in the statement. "But Velma has a track record of moving our civil rights work in the right direction."