High turnover at top of St. Paul’s Human Rights office makes for uncertain future

High turnover at top of St. Paul’s Human Rights office makes for uncertain future

Jessica Kingston. Jeffry Martin. Toni Newborn. Val Jensen. Kristien Butler. St. Paul’s Department of Human Rights and Equal Economic Opportunity, or HREEO, has been led by five directors or interim directors in three years, injecting uncertainty into day-to-day operations at a time when labor rights, tenants’ rights, police-community relations and other human rights concerns are increasingly taking priority in the city.

Kingston stepped down as director in 2018. Turnover since then has continued at many levels. Complaints filed by staff members are not uncommon.

The department — which oversees labor complaints, vendor procurement, and contract compliance — is currently led by interim director Kristien Butler, a new hire, following the abrupt departure of former director Valerie Jensen in April.

Jessica Kingston. (Courtesy of the city of St. Paul)

“They’ve really got to find someone to restore morale,” said a former member of the HREEO Commission, a citizen board that meets monthly to discuss the work of the department. “Really, it’s a morale thing. Staff morale is just so low.”

A spokesman for Mayor Melvin Carter said the mayor’s office does not participate in staff-level hiring decisions within departments.

“Over the past several years, the Department of Human Rights and Equal Economic Opportunity has experienced a number of workplace challenges involving individuals no longer employed by the city,” Deputy Mayor Jaime Tincher said in an email. “Much of the information surrounding the circumstances of these personnel matters are not public under Minnesota law. Despite those challenges, we have continued to benefit from the incredible work of our HREEO staff who have worked tirelessly throughout the pandemic.”

PROCUREMENT DIRECTOR LET GO

In mid-2019, during a lull between department directors, Toni Newborn, Carter’s chief equity officer, took the helm of the department on an interim basis.

Toni Newborn (Courtesy photo)

As one of the first orders of business, Newborn announced to the staff that Jessica Brokaw, who was at the time deputy director of procurement, was no longer employed by the city. No further explanation followed.

In response to a reporter’s inquiry, the mayor’s office recently confirmed two workplace complaints against Brokaw that resulted in disciplinary action.

Within a year, at least four buyers within the procurement unit had followed Brokaw out the door. Current and former employees say department staff with little to no experience in the area suddenly found themselves taking on duties outside their training and job descriptions.

By the time the pandemic was in full swing, the procurement unit was fully staffed, but it’s the only unit within HREEO that today can say as much. From human rights investigators to contract compliance officers, several employees say they’re juggling the jobs of two or three workers, and even entry-level employees have been forced to absorb job duties that would ordinarily fall to more seasoned supervisors.

STAFF QUESTION HIRING DECISIONS

Some staff members have taken medical leaves of absence or resigned altogether. And several have been shown the door. The problems may have bled over to the citizen board.

Given the absence of steady leadership within the department, the HREEO Commission hasn’t held regular hearings on labor standards, or even filed its required assessment of the department and the director’s performance since 2017. Those reports are due 120 days before the end of a director’s three-year term.

Amondo Dickerson had 29 years of experience as a professional buyer, much of it for the state of Minnesota. Dickerson felt he had a good shot at filling an internal opening for a leadership role. Dickerson, who had been hired a few months earlier as a senior buyer in the department’s procurement unit, applied for deputy director of procurement in early 2020.

Instead, he was let go. He was informed he had not passed probation, which not only eliminated him as a candidate but ended his employment entirely.

The deputy director job went to former labor organizer Andrea Ledger, a recent hire who had no experience as a buyer. Several employees in the department were instantly suspicious, as her most relevant prior work experience appeared to be serving as executive director of NARAL Pro-Choice Minnesota, an abortion rights advocacy group.

That Dickerson, a Black man in his 50s, had been passed over for promotion by a younger white woman hit a nerve in some corners, especially since Dickerson had helped train Ledger into the job.

“He was a finalist for deputy director, and all of a sudden he’s not a good fit? It was weird,” said Jeffry Martin, who ran the department on an interim basis in late 2018 and early 2019 before eventually being demoted and then let go. “(Ledger’s) nice. She’s a good person. But this isn’t about that. Either the mayor’s office was involved, or (the mayor’s office) let this train go off the tracks. Either way, it’s unacceptable.”

Jeffry Martin in 2011. (Pioneer Press: John Doman)

Reached by phone, Dickerson offered only a brief statement.

“There were a lot of things that could have been done better there,” he said.

SUDDEN CHANGES AT THE TOP

City officials who hope to see the department succeed in its mission of ensuring fair labor standards worry about its future leadership.

“There are obviously some questions there,” said St. Paul City Council member Jane Prince, who has been active in the city’s audit committee. “We’ve had so much turnover there. … They’re the place where we put all these new initiatives. They’re in charge of our labor standards, the $15 minimum wage, the earned sick and safe time. Then there’s the ‘responsible banking’ work we put in HREEO a few years back. They really have a huge scope of work that I don’t think they’re adequately staffed for.”

While the departures of Dickerson, Martin and Brokaw were sudden, they were hardly the only times HREEO workers and even department directors have been forced out.

Jessica Kingston served as the department’s director from 2012 until Aug. 23, 2018, when she was placed on leave after criticizing the St. Paul Police Department for failing to forward civilian complaints about police use of force to the city’s Police Civilian Internal Affairs Review Commission. The commission is staffed and overseen by HREEO.

In October 2018, the St. Paul City Council approved a $250,000 settlement agreement with Kingston, who had accused the police department of unprofessional conduct toward her and her staff, a claim the police chief denied. As part of the agreement, Kingston agreed to drop a state human rights complaint and not try to get her job back.

After Kingston, Martin — a former St. Paul NAACP president — held the position of interim director for seven months from the fall of 2018 through March 2019. During that time, the city’s search for a permanent director seemed to stall, for reasons that remain unclear to him and others.

In an interview, Martin recalled sending Tincher, the deputy mayor, an email one day indicating that the department was not properly staffed and needed more staffing in the area of contract compliance.

His idea was to have investigators stop by work sites on Fridays to determine whether companies funded through city contracts were upholding their written agreements around minority hiring. Making unannounced site inspections was a practice the city once employed that had fallen by the wayside. He hoped to revive it.

“I said ‘Let’s put some emphasis on that,’ ” Martin said. “I was hearing from the community that these affirmative action plans weren’t being honored.”

A few days later, he was demoted by the mayor.

“By that Friday at 4:30 p.m., they removed me from the role,” said Martin, who recalled being called into a meeting with Carter and Newborn. “There was no (stated) reason why I was being removed. I thought the timing was odd.”

NEW DIRECTOR FACES THREE FORMAL EMPLOYEE COMPLAINTS

Martin was replaced by Newborn, who served for nine months before becoming the city’s director of Human Resources. Newborn oversaw the beginning of the end for the city’s River Print printing operation. The city’s print shop is now being spun off to effectively merge with Ramsey County’s printing service. But other restructuring efforts hit turbulence amid short staffing.

In December 2019, Carter hired Val Jensen, a diversity consultant and an adjunct legal professor at Mitchell Hamline College of Law.

Valerie Jensen (Courtesy of the City of St. Paul)

Three staffers soon filed workplace complaints involving Jensen through Human Resources. Several key staff resigned or were forced out, including Martin, who had already given notice but was let go a month before his scheduled departure date. The city unsuccessfully fought his attempts to win unemployment benefits, he said, but he prevailed in a state labor hearing.

Jensen, who had never before run a government office, abruptly resigned in April, after little more than a year in the top role, giving the City Council all of two days’ notice. She declined to comment for this story except to say only one of the three workplace complaints centered directly on her.

Citing state statute over personnel investigations that end inconclusively, City Hall officials have declined to make the three staff complaints public or identify the employees who filed them.

“The complaints were investigated, are closed, and resulted in no disciplinary action,” Peter Leggett, a spokesman for the mayor’s office, said in an email.

However, current and former city employees familiar with two of the complaints said Julian Roby, who staffs the city’s Police Civilian Internal Affairs Review Commission, felt pressured by Jensen or her subordinates to spend funds from a $10,000 St. Paul Foundation grant on general spending items not covered by the grant requirements. His complaint was closed without findings.

Roby could not be reached for comment. He recently tendered his resignation and enrolled in law school. His last day in city employment was July 16.

Another complaint was allegedly filed by longtime human rights investigator Gessner Rivas, who felt Jensen’s public criticisms of his work had created a toxic work environment. Employees were taken aback when the investigation into his complaint was led by Newborn. Again, there were no findings.

Some staffers have said that as a director, Jensen was otherwise hands-off to a fault and largely invisible in the role. Even before the pandemic, “her office was always empty,” said a current employee, who asked not to be identified as they are not authorized to speak to the press. “She was kind of like a figment of our imagination. We were like, we have a director, but it was just a title, and a face for the title.”

YANG, AWETU DEPART

Lao Yang worked as a human rights investigator for the department from 2004 to the summer of 2020 and had hoped to move into a leadership role within HREEO. When the possibility of leading the entire department came up, both he and Martin applied for the director’s seat without success. Yang had previously applied to serve as deputy director, also without success.

Citing work stress, he later went on disability leave and then resigned from city employment entirely.

He considers the possibility that his race may have been a factor against him, which still nags him, he said.

“I felt like I knew everything there way more than the people who were getting it,” said Yang in a recent interview. “Human Rights is seen predominantly as a Black field, and I’m Asian. I love human rights, and I know the community, but I was never given consideration. I just felt it was time for me to move on. I didn’t submit a complaint, because if the administration didn’t want me and I didn’t fit what they want, I’m not going to complain about it.”

When longtime human rights specialist and senior investigator Habtamu Awetu also took a medical leave of absence, several staffers felt he, too, was being forced out of a role he was well suited for given his depth of experience. Awetu, they noted, spoke four languages and was one of the few HREEO employees, if not the only one, who could communicate with some East African clients. Shortly after returning from his leave, he resigned.

CHALLENGES ON HORIZON

The department is currently led by interim director Kristien Butler, a former Hennepin County public defender who joined the city less than two months before assuming the role.

On July 14, the city advertised the permanent position online as paying $115,000 to $157,000.

Given the challenges facing the city — from enforcing the new minimum wage to a long list of tenant protections recently put on hold by a federal judge — it’s unclear to current and former employees whether HREEO is the right place for the mayor’s office to toss new initiatives.

“The taxpayers of St. Paul did not have a functioning human rights department for some time,” Martin said. “During the pandemic we needed a strong, united human rights department, and we didn’t have it. You had people who were scared of lifting their hand up and being the next to be let go.”

Tincher, the deputy mayor, said in an email that federal pandemic relief funds could help boost the work of the department.

“As the mayor works toward finalizing his 2022 city budget proposal and leveraging the enormous potential of American Rescue Plan funds,” she said, “we look forward to the opportunity to explore ways to expand the impact of the important efforts which HREEO oversees.”

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