When the Minneapolis City Council gathered on short notice on Feb. 17, council members said they were convening to save a struggling, city-sanctioned event to mark Black History Month.
With the expo just one week away, the city official in charge, Tyeastia Green, stood before the hastily-assembled council to ask for funds. Council members asked why Green hadn’t orchestrated outside donations to pay for the event but voted to transfer $145,000 in contingency funds to Green’s budget.
The “I Am My Ancestors Wildest Dreams Expo” was meant as a healing moment for Minneapolis’ Black community in the wake of George Floyd’s murder. Instead, the event went down as an embarrassment. Attendance fell far below expectations. Vendors reportedly lost money. The city auditor is planning a review.
But Green has provided new information to MinnPost that, she contends, proves that the public vote was unnecessary — and that the Black expo was far from needing a financial rescue.
Leaked audio of a closed-door meeting
Three days before the council vote, Green met behind closed doors with Minneapolis City Council leadership, Mayor Jacob Frey and several top city administrators. Green secretly recorded this 90-minute meeting and shared the audio with MinnPost.
During that Feb. 14 meeting, Green said she did not need outside help paying for the Black expo; she could cover the event’s full cost out of her department’s discretionary budget, if necessary. Green would not have needed City Council approval to use her budget this way.
Interim City Operations Officer Heather Johnston wanted to avoid draining Green’s budget entirely. During the meeting, she outlined a proposal to transfer funds from other city departments to help cover the expo’s estimated $448,000 price tag. During the meeting, Chief Financial Officer Dushani Dye and City Clerk Casey Carl said this transaction also would not necessarily require a council vote.
“I don’t even know why we’re here,” City Council President Andrea Jenkins said during the meeting, according to the recording. “This seems to me like an executive [branch] thing with staff that they should be dealing with.”
But this wasn’t the last word on the matter. After further deliberation, Jenkins and Council Vice President Linea Palmisano ultimately concluded a public vote was necessary. Palmisano argued it was inappropriate for departments to shift funds internally without council approval, especially with $290,000 of the funds coming from a federal stimulus package.
At minimum, the leaders wanted to ensure public “transparency and accountability” about the last-minute funding change.
“If we’re going to do this, I think we have to be transparent,” Jenkins said, according to the audio recording. “We cannot go around the back end and then [have] the Star Tribune come out with all of this s—. So we’ve got to do it up front and take the heat that we’re going to take.”
“We’ve got to get to ‘yes’ right now,” Jenkins added later, “and … do the back end — for lack of a better word — damage control, because that’s what’s going to happen when the Star Tribune covers this meeting.”
Jenkins and Palmisano did not respond to requests for comment about the meeting.
The audio & Green’s departure: What do they mean?
To Green, the recording proves the emergency council meeting three days later was unnecessary theater.
“That audio, I believe, exonerates me,” Green said, saying it shows the council vote was aimed at publicly shifting blame for the expo to her: “I didn’t mess up my budget. That money is there.”
City officials contend a public vote of the council was unavoidable.
Whatever was said in the meeting, city spokesperson Casper Hill said that transferring control of federal stimulus funds required the City Council’s approval. To pay performers, officials also moved to alter the city’s contract with Atlanta-based event planner Touched Apparel, LLC — a change that also needed a council vote, Hill said in a written response to MinnPost’s questions.
On the recording, several city officials also said they were taking extraordinary steps to ensure the Feb. 25 expo would take place. Palmisano and Johnston offered Green an off-ramp, asking several times about postponing the event. After Green insisted the expo go on as planned, Frey proposed an immediate, last-minute marketing push. Dye outlined a proposal to approve contracts with performers quickly.
“We’ve done a lot of things that we normally don’t do just to get to a ‘yes,’” Dye said during the meeting.
In a nearly two-hour interview with MinnPost, Green acknowledged the city would have been unlikely to land a purported multi-million dollar donation from the Bush Foundation to support the expo. (More on that later.) Outside of that, Green staunchly defended her actions, and said her experience planning the expo was emblematic of problems she faced while working for the city.
“I’ve been treated as a department head when it’s convenient for the city to do so — when the optics are in the city’s favor,” Green wrote in a widely-circulated March 6 memo. But “in practice,” Green said she lacked real power in the city bureaucracy. She felt city leaders forced her to navigate conflicting or unwritten rules. When she’d ask for help, as in the case of the expo, Green said her requests were ignored. She felt it all stemmed from systemic racism that her office aimed to uproot from City Hall.
Green’s last day at the city was March 13. Green says she initially resigned, then rescinded that resignation, and was later told she was “unappointed.” The city has only confirmed she no longer works there. In any event, her departure raises questions about what happens next for Minneapolis’ Racial Equity, Inclusion & Belonging department, which has gone through two leaders in three years.
In a written statement, a spokesperson for Mayor Frey said that, in recent years, the city has taken steps “to build a more inclusive workplace and embed equity in policy and practice.” The statement said that Frey supported elevating the office Green led in the city org chart, which “enhanced the influence and stature of this work in the city enterprise.” The office also saw an $800,000 increase in its general fund budget, the statement said.
“The future of [the Racial Equity, Inclusion & Belonging department] remains unchanged,” spokesperson Ally Peters wrote, “as the city remains committed to the success of the department and to race equity work. We will publicly post for a new director soon and will support the [department’s] staff through this transition phase.”
Joy Marsh, who worked for six years as Minneapolis’ race and equity director before the city hired Green, said Minneapolis’ leaders could have done more to support her successor — and will need to do better by the person who they hire to replace Green, too.
“The city can’t keep hiring Black women into these roles and leaving them alone to figure it out — or people, whoever they are, to come in and figure it out,” Marsh said.
The mission of Minneapolis’ race & equity office
For all the attention the Black History Month expo received, Green said she and her department’s staff spent the vast majority of their time on other core priorities. The Racial Equity, Inclusion & Belonging department helped craft strategic plans, analyzed legislation and developed anti-racism and inclusion training sessions.
Green — a Minneapolis native, who worked in IT before moving into government in 2016 — envisioned the department as an idea factory for ways to chip away at racist structures in the city. Her staff would identify equity problems, then craft solutions to those problems, “enabl[ing] city councilors and the mayor’s office to actually create and write policy.”
“The goal is to ensure that racism isn’t a determining factor in any measurable outcome,” Green said.
The work was rewarding, said Marsh, who shared the same vision for the job: “Hands down, the best, best work I’ve ever done professionally.”
But Marsh and Green said the city didn’t match this lofty objective with a commensurate level of funding when they were in charge of the office.
Marsh had “no budget” and “no staff” when the city hired her as an equity and inclusion manager in 2015. In the wake of Jamar Clark’s death, Marsh secured a $1 million-per-year grant from the U.S. Department of Health & Human Services, which made up a majority of the office’s budget for five years. At its peak under Marsh, the Division of Race & Equity employed nine people; the city funded four of those jobs.
Marsh said members of her staff — most of whom were Black, Indigenous, people of color, or members of other marginalized communities — were underpaid relative to their peers in other city departments. (Hill said the city launched a racial pay equity study in Fall 2022.)
While Marsh said many city officials publicly celebrated the office’s work, the message wasn’t always greeted warmly inside City Hall. Another former staffer said city employees’ reactions to the race and equity work ranged from skeptical to outright hostile.
“What the city wanted that office to do was completely dismantle systemic racism without making anybody uncomfortable, or disrupting the status quo, or actually having funding or proper support for their staff,” said Track Trachtenberg, who worked under both Marsh and Green as the city’s trans equity project coordinator.
Tired of the uphill battle, Marsh resigned in August 2021. Most of her office’s staff was also burned out. By the time Green started in March 2022, every employee except Trachtenberg had quit. Trachtenberg left the city in February.
“Everyone had left, except for one person,” said Marsh. “If they wanted [Green] to be successful, there is far more that could be done in order to support her success through partnership, collaboration, mentorship, ‘we know you’re in a difficult spot.’”
“It’s clear,” Marsh added, “that the level of support that she needed to ensure her success did not come in the ways in which it should have.”
Green’s first six months on the job were tumultuous for the city. One month into Green’s tenure, several dozen employees publicly accused Green’s boss — Johnston, the city’s COO — of overseeing a “toxic, racist and unsafe workplace.”
The Star Tribune recently reported that an independent investigation cleared Johnston of wrongdoing. Still, that early conflict led to an early “disconnect” between Green, who felt she had to “stand with the Black employees,” and her supervisor, who oversaw day-to-day operations in nearly every city department outside of police, fire and emergency management.
Green also started her job after voters had approved a move to a strong-mayor system, which triggered a restructuring of the city’s bureaucracy. As part of that reorganization, Green felt city leaders, including Johnston, had kept her from receiving autonomy over budgets and staffing that she had requested while negotiating for the job.
What went wrong with the expo? Green’s audio offers hints
All of this was prelude to September, when Green first floated putting on an event to mark Black History Month: an expo that would feature musical artists, speakers, panel discussions on health and personal finances, and a market for owners of local Black businesses. This expo concept came from the proprietors of Touched Apparel, LLC, the Atlanta-based clothing company with which Green had worked during her previous job with the city of Burlington, Vermont.
Green’s goal? Put on “an ongoing event that shows that the City of Minneapolis … is serious about racial justice, and that the City of Minneapolis understands that the world is watching Minneapolis to see what they’re going to do after the murder of George Floyd and the subsequent uprisings,” she said in the interview with MinnPost.
But over the ensuing months, Green said that city staff slowed approvals for several key expo contracts — delays, she said, that cascaded into problems that ultimately doomed the event.
Green attempted to fast-track a contract with the event planner, arguing Touched Apparel offered precisely the expo concept Green wanted to use. In mid-October, the city’s Procurement Division rejected Green’s request, saying a public bidding process was necessary. Two other event planners applied, but in mid-November, Green selected Touched Apparel.
Then, with less than one month before the event, the Procurement and city attorney’s offices both began raising questions about contracts with expo performers and speakers. Part of the delay stemmed from these performers charging more than $5,000, a threshold in state law that triggers a higher level of scrutiny.
Her frustrations with the process were evident on the recording of the Feb. 14 meeting that Green gave to MinnPost.
“I know that there’s been a lot of conversation about me not following process,” Green told the city’s top elected and appointed leaders, according to the audio. “I’m a new director. I have reached out to Procurement several times saying, ‘Hey, just tell me what to do and I will do those things.’”
Another snag in selecting speakers: Green told this closed-door meeting that an assistant city attorney had warned her against “hand-picking” Black performers for a Black History Month event — and suggested this red flag was one reason why the contracts weren’t approved yet: “I found out that I could not hire talent by our city attorney’s office, who said that we can’t have all Black people on the stage … which I found incredibly offensive.”
In a statement, Hill said that “under the United States Constitution, government entities cannot limit opportunities to contract based on race in hiring vendors, including performers.”
The delays in finalizing the list of performers snowballed into another problem: Green said the city attorney advised her not to promote the event publicly until their contracts were finalized.
“What could we have done if we were able to properly promote this event?” Green asked the group on Feb. 14.
Council Vice President Palmisano said Green was right to be concerned about a lack of promotion. With time running out, she urged Green to postpone: “I’m worried about how we get you 20,000 people for this event on short order.”
Green ruled out postponement, pointing out the expo was pegged to Black History Month. So Frey jumped in to suggest the city start promoting the expo — without mentioning specific performers.
In an interview with MinnPost, Green argued this delay in promotion was devastating to the expo, and that it was unnecessary. She felt the city should not have needed to use a formal selection process to choose talent.
“We already had our slate of performers!” she said. “Opening up that process because [the city attorney] was uncomfortable with only Black people being on the stage didn’t make any sense to me.”
Did Green stretch the truth about the Bush Foundation gift?
On Feb. 17, when council members gathered to approve a fund transfer for the Black History Month expo, much of the discussion centered on Green’s failure to secure outside donations for the event.
Here’s what Green said happened: Back in September, Green said she met with Johnston, Frey and Council President Jenkins about the expo idea. Green said she told these officials explicitly that she hoped to raise lots of money — something like $1 million — from outside donors to put on a February event. Over the ensuing six weeks, Green said she started lining up funding commitments.
In mid-October, a city ethics officer told Green there was a problem: Ethics rules barred city employees from directly soliciting funds. She’d have to turn away any funding commitments she’d received. Green felt misled, questioning why none of the officials she’d asked had warned her about ethics issues.
“Nobody thought that I would be using general funds!” she recalled in the interview. “Everyone knew that I would be fundraising and soliciting funds.”
At the Feb. 17 special meeting, Green said city officials had forced her to reject “almost $200,000 in funds” for the expo. At that same meeting Green dropped a reference to another gift that, if it had been an option, would’ve been a game-changer:
“Bush Foundation had offered us $3 million, but had some stipulations that we could not satisfy,” Green told the council.
Weeks later, staff for the foundation — a St. Paul-based philanthropy that often funds race and equity-related initiatives — told the Star Tribune and MPR News that Bush had never “offered” or “committed” any funds for the expo.
In her interview with MinnPost, Green stood by the story she told in emails now released on Twitter: She met with a Bush Foundation staffer who said he could likely secure $3 million in funding over three years — but on the condition that Frey and City Council members couldn’t be involved in the event. Green said she didn’t spell out this “stipulation” in the council meeting because she wanted to avoid embarrassing the mayor.
Bush Foundation spokesperson Kari Ruth said none of this is true. Ruth said that in an initial phone conversation with Green, a foundation representative told her the expo “was not a fit and we would not fund it” and that neither the mayor nor the City Council president came up in the conversation. Ultimately, Green never submitted a formal application, so “this request was never under consideration,” Ruth said.
“We have good relationships with local officials,” Ruth added.
In her interview with MinnPost, Green acknowledged that the money from Bush was never a serious option for funding the expo, especially if she felt “stipulations” would be part of the arrangement.
“That’s very true. I wasn’t going to be able to do it,” Green said.
Then was it a mistake to bring up the Bush Foundation, and such a specific dollar amount, during the council meeting?
“I think that people are putting too much emphasis on it,” Green said.
Trachtenberg — the recently-departed staffer in the race and equity office — stood by Green, saying that the city “humiliated” her on the expo. He also pushed back on the portrayal of his former boss as a manager who couldn’t learn the finicky government rules involved with raising funds or inking contracts.
“Most of those rules are not written down,” said Trachtenberg. “They change depending on who you ask. They change depending on who you are, as the person asking.”
Trachtenberg navigated those rules as the organizer of the city’s annual Trans Equity Summit. Unlike Green, Trachtenberg said he had no trouble getting permission to directly solicit donations or sponsorships from the event. He also did not need to go through an open selection process to pay keynote speakers or performers.
Trachtenberg’s event was smaller, with a roughly $50,000 budget, and fewer of the performers’ rates exceeded the $5,000 contracting threshold. If they did, Trachtenberg remembered getting permission to pay them was straightforward. In Green’s event, more performers were paid above that threshold, leading to more headaches with payment.
But Trachtenberg doubts that the costs of these two events alone explain the differences in his and Green’s experiences with paying for big events.
“I am pretty sure that the only difference in how my solicitation of funds for an event was treated,” he said, “is about how the two of us [him and Green] were perceived by city leaders at the point that we were doing it.”
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