Instances of Discovery

Since August 2007 I have been a monthly columnist for the St. Cloud Times. My theme, taken from the mission statement of the Collegeville Institute for Ecumenical and Cultural Research, is “the renewal of human community.” The columns are republished here with permission of the St. Cloud Times.

Column #025. First published in the St. Cloud Times Aug. 25, 2009

Vice President Joe Biden quotes his father: "Don't tell me what you value; show me your budget, and I'll tell you what you value." Evangelical leader Jim Wallis gives a sharper edge: "Budgets are moral documents."

Budgets of all sorts — national, state, local, business, charitable, personal — have become exercises in pain management. There have always been constraints, but the worst economic conditions since the Great Depression make choices more agonizing. Many good things have been jettisoned. Reductions and cancellations rip our social fabric.

The fate of the human rights office in the city of St. Cloud has profound values and moral implications for this whole area. With the resignation in July of Baba Odukale as director, the office de facto ceased to exist, since, according to Mayor Dave Kleis, a general hiring freeze applies to the position.

Closing the city's office was supposed to set the stage for something better. According to a scenario announced to great fanfare at St. Cloud City Hall on Martin Luther King Jr. Day in 2008 by Gov. Tim Pawlenty and his Human Rights Commissioner, Velma Korbel, a local office of the state's Department of Human Rights would open later that year.

The Times Editorial Board welcomed this "excellent news" in an editorial on Jan. 27, 2008: "The office will replace St. Cloud's human rights department and bring with it the legal authority to investigate complaints about discrimination based on sex, age, race, ethnicity, ability and sexual orientation. The city's office did not have as much power as the state office and focused more on education and referrals. As we have said previously, based largely on anecdotal evidence and rapidly changing metro populations, we believe a state 'branch office' is well worth the small amount of money participating cities are being asked to invest."

Many people and organizations had been working for years to promote such a regional office.

Waite Park and St. Joseph were persuaded to join St. Cloud in the effort; Sartell, Sauk Rapids and St. Augusta showed little interest. But before 2008 was over, St. Joseph (April) and Waite Park (December) had reversed themselves, the latter because of Pawlenty's threatened reduction in Local Government Aid, a threat carried out in his recent unallotments.

I was proud of my city, Waite Park, for its original positive vote, disappointed at its reversal. As the city manager said, the total cost would have been $10,000 a year — right at the per capita rate ($1.50) calculated by the Times.

We should have stuck with it, showing by the Waite Park budget that even in very tough times we place a high value on strict attention to human rights laws.

However, a much more serious budget moral failure is grounded in Pawlenty's inflexible no-new-taxes dogma. (As one legislator put it, "Yes, he gave us a choice: You do it my way or I'll do it my way.") Pawlenty's approach has caused serious erosion of the common good for our state. Drastic cuts in Local Government Aid have forced cities to slash services.

Some might call a human rights office a frill. I believe it's as essential as police and fire protection — not usually in terms of instant emergency, of course, but the damage caused by unaddressed human rights violations is deep and spreads. And assigning responsibility for human rights issues to other offices, ones that are already stretched to do their own jobs, diminishes attention.

Kleis is between a rock and a hard place — as he says, the unallotment of Local Government Aid has put the city in "survival mode" — but I suspect that if the police chief or fire chief had resigned, the hiring freeze wouldn't apply. And Kleis is keeping a promise to add law enforcement personnel.

Moreover, a hiring freeze on a single-person office — the office disappears — has consequences different in kind from those on larger departments.

I urge Kleis and the City Council to reactivate the city's suspended Human Rights Commission and hire a director. The budget sends a message about our values.