Karl Cassell, who became executive director of the Cedar Rapids Civil Rights Commission roughly three months ago, stopped by for an editorial board meeting today.
He takes over the commission after a turbulent period. His predecessor was sacked over budget problems and a lack of communication with board members. There were charges and counter charges thrown back and forth. Commission Chair Miriam Amer didn’t appreciate our coverage of the saga.
But Cassell is eager to move on. Here are a few highlights from our conversation:
Public Image — Cassell is seeking a higher profile through speaking engagements, panel discussions, training sessions with employers and other public events, with hopes of rehabilitating the commission’s image. The commission’s Web site also has been updated.
“The perception has changed. That was probably the biggest hit that was taken,” Cassell said. He also pledged to have an open relationship with local media.
Budget — Ousted director Kenneth White drew criticism for his large travel budget and a $5,000 monthly rental rate for commission office space. Cassell is trying to address both issues.
Travel spending has been curtailed. But the rent issues is trickier, because the commission has a lease that extends through the end of 2010. Cassell calls the rent outrageous.
“That was, I think, a mistake in his vision,” Cassell said of White. “We are not going to spend money willy-nilly.”
Cassell has a four-person staff, including three investigators and an administrative assistant. He says a city-mandated 10 percent budget cut could force him to cut one position.
The agency handles 80-100 cases each year, most involving charges of housing or employment discrimination. And most of those cases, he said, are settled through conciliation.
Housing — Cassell said housing discrimination remains one of the commission’s top focuses. He expressed hope that aggressive education efforts would make a difference, along with enforcement.
Last year’s controversial housing audit, which found alleged discriminatory practices at several property management firms, has been largely resolved. Some landlords must still complete a training program initiated after the audit.
But Cassell is concerned that the city could see a spike in housing discrimination cases this spring when the rental market and the weather heat up once again.
Predatory Lending — Cassell wants his agency to step up efforts to weed out predatory or discriminatory lending practices amid economic woes and a tight credit market. He expects reports of problems to increase.
Big Picture — Has progress been made on civil rights issues in Eastern Iowa?
“I would be silly to say there hasn’t been growth,” Cassell said. “The difference is some of this (discrimination) has been institutionalized. You don’t wear it on your sleeve.”
He said problems in education, law enforcement and housing persist.