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Is is time for a state human rights office in Rochester?

A legislative push is underway to establish a state human rights office in Rochester.

A legislative push is underway to establish a state human rights office in Rochester.

The Council for Minnesotans of African Heritage has been leading the charge to get the Minnesota Department of Human Rights to establish offices in Rochester, Duluth and St. Cloud. The group, formerly known as the Council on Black Minnesotans, helped draft legislation to open the greater Minnesota offices.

Kolloh Nimley, a Rochester-based community program specialist with the council, said the efforts to get an office came after the council completed a detailed survey and found that human rights remain a top concern in the community. She said a local office is needed to investigate local claims of discrimination.

"A local office that has investigative abilities will be able to deal with those issues at the local level and refer the ones that need to be referred to the St. Paul office," Nimley said.

Discussion about setting up these regional offices comes as some lawmakers are urging quick action to address racial disparities in the state. This issue has been thrust into the spotlight as protests in Minneapolis have continued over last month's fatal police-involved shooting of Jamar Clark, a 24-year-old black man.


On Tuesday, DFL Gov. Mark Dayton sent a letter to Republican House Speaker Kurt Daudt reiterating his request that a special session be called to begin addressing racial disparities in the state writing, "we cannot ignore these problems any longer." He proposed allocating $15 million "to improve economic outcomes in communities of color." He also wants lawmakers to extend unemployment benefits for laid-off Iron Range miners.

Nimley said she often gets questions from Rochester residents about anti-discrimination laws surrounding employment. Residents in the minority community also want to make sure that everyone in Rochester benefits from the $6 billion Destination Medical Center initiative.

"What is in it for this community that is actually paying for (DMC?) No one has been able to answer that question," Nimley said.

Bill also beefs up oversight

Rep. Frank Hornstein, DFL-Minneapolis, is sponsoring a bill in the Minnesota House that would open human rights offices in Rochester, Duluth and St. Cloud. The legislation also beefs up oversight of the state's human rights department, requiring the state auditor review the department's enforcement efforts.

"Human rights is very important and this proposal really just looks at enforcing the existing laws on the books more effectively," Hornstein said. "Human rights is a statewide issue. It's not only a metro issue."

A similar bill is being sponsored in the Senate by Sen. Chris Eaton, DFL-Brooklyn Center. Austin DFL Sen. Dan Sparks is a co-sponsor of the bill. Neither Eaton nor Sparks responded to a request for comment. The bills failed to get hearings last session, but Hornstein said he is optimistic his bipartisan bill will pass in 2016 given the interest in addressing racial disparities.

"I'm just really pleased that there is a growing recognition that this is a statewide concern and that we need some staffing here in the regional centers of our state, which are growing and have issues that relate to disparities and human rights as well," Hornstein said.


The House bill's first stop would be the House Civil Law and Data Practices Committee. Chairwoman Peggy Scott, R-Andover, could not be reached for comment on Tuesday to find out if she would be willing to give the bill a hearing.

Minnesota Department of Human Rights Commissioner Kevin Lindsey said he has had discussions with the governor about having human rights staff travel to Duluth, Rochester, St. Cloud and Worthington to work on various issues.

"I'm not so naive to not understand and appreciate that we have many different communities in the state of Minnesota, and they have different needs, and it's not going to be one-size-fits-all for the department in working to eradicate discrimination and disparate outcomes," Lindsey said.

Funding in short supply

The big issue for the department continues to be funding. Lindsey said the department is receiving $70,000 less in actual dollars now than it did 15 years ago. The department has also been asked to do more since Dayton took office, including ensuring state contractors are paying women fairly and making sure employers are adhering to the recent "ban the box" legislation that prevents them from asking potential employees about their criminal background on initial job applications.

He said the governor's initial budget recommendation would have boosted funding for the department by $900,000 and paid for a St. Cloud human rights office. Ultimately, legislators approved a budget increase of $150,000.

Lindsey said he is open to the idea of satellite offices, but that the state would likely need to partner with local governments to find space where human rights department staff could be housed. He is opposed to the state auditor language in the bill, saying that the additional oversight is duplicative and unnecessary.

In May, Rochester Mayor Ardell Brede sent a letter to the governor in support of establishing a human rights office in Rochester and said the city would be willing to provide free office space. Brede wrote, "I believe such an office would be invaluable to this region of the state."


Dayton's spokesman Matt Swenson said on Tuesday that the governor has not yet considered the idea of a human rights office in Rochester.

Nimley said she believes establishing these human rights offices across the state would be a good start in beginning to address racial disparity issues in the state.

She added, "I strongly believe that human rights is a starting point, but we cannot end there."

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