Council committee approves reappointments for Fire Chief, Civil Rights Department director

A City Council committee voted to approve Mayor Betsy Hodges’ reappointment of Civil Rights Department Director Velma Korbel and Fire Chief John Fruetel earlier today.

The Council’s Public Safety, Civil Rights & Emergency Management Committee voted to reappoint Minneapolis Police Chief John Fruetel 5-0 after a relatively short public hearing. No one spoke against his reappointment.  

Fruetel said he’s committed to increasing the department’s community outreach to spread the word about fire prevention tips. Firefighters will soon be dropping off literature throughout the city and offering free home inspections to help minimize the risk of fires.

The department is also facing significant attrition in coming years. Fruetel said he’s working on an aggressive hiring plan to keep staffing levels at the recommended level.

The Fire Department has a budget for 406 firefighters and will be down to 380 firefighters by June because of attrition, he said.

The committee voted to approve Korbel’s reappointment after a much longer public hearing that had people offering diverging views of Korbel’s management style. Several supporters commended her for turning around a beleaguered department when she took the helm in June 2010. Meanwhile, former employees told Council members that the department has a toxic work environment and leadership discourages employees from airing grievances with their union.

Korbel, however, disputed those suggestions and said allegations that the department has a toxic work environment is “ludicrous” and “offensive.”

Seema Desai, a former employee of the Civil Rights department, told the committee that the department was “top heavy” with management and employees were afraid to speak up and file grievances. Desai recently filed a lawsuit against the city, alleging the department violated the Minnesota Whistleblowers Act for retaliating against her for complaining about having to work overtime without pay, among other things, according to a story in the City Pages.

Committee members Cam Gordon, Barb Johnson, Abdi Warsame and Cam Gordon voted to approve Korbel’s reappointment. Council Member Linea Palmisano abstained from voting and Committee Chair Blong Yang voted no.

Yang, who worked for the Civil Rights Department for a year, said he wasn’t surprised to hear about the complaints raised by former department employees.

The Civil Rights Department investigates allegations of discrimination and enforces the city’s employment and purchasing goals for minorities and women working on city-funded projects, among other things.

Hodges said Korbel faced a challenging job when she took on leadership of the department in 2010 and has been an eager and passionate partner in working on the goal of tackling the city’s significant racial disparities — often cited by Hodges’ as her top priority.

The full Council will vote on the reappointments March 28.