Who would want this job?
In the Metropolitan Human Relations Commission’s recent history several of its directors have been pushed to resign, one was fired and the last two left suddenly with no explanation.
Meet Dawn Cummings, the woman the commission hired on July 1 to take over the challenging position of director. She joined the agency as staff attorney in 2007.
The governmental agency – responsible for investigating claims of and enforcing laws against discrimination in employment, housing, public accommodation and education – has a tumultuous history.
In 1996, complaints from businesses and allegations of unqualified leadership led the Fort Wayne City Council to shut down the agency and start over. Then the commission’s seven-member governing board started the ill-advised habit of hiring directors from the commission’s own ranks. A rash of short-tenured directors followed. Leslie Raymer, who was forced to resign in 2001, sued the commission for discrimination. Her replacement, Greg Shade, was fired in 2004.
Shade was replaced by Gerald Foday, a staff attorney at Metro. He made several improvements to the agency and appeared to turn it around over his seven-year tenure. But then without explanation Foday abruptly resigned in 2011. He was replaced by Cathy Serrano, an attorney who previously served as human resources director for Allen County, but she resigned after only 13 months with no warning and little explanation.
I think that perception-versus-reality thing is at play here just because Metro has had this focus on some negative things with directors coming and going, said Larry Wardlaw, chairman of the Metro board of commissioners. I know you mention Metro and some people just roll their eyes. But the day-to-day operations are really solid.
Flawed leaders, great employees
Cummings was asked to manage the staff temporarily the last time the board had to search for a new director.
We saw she did a good job then and, rather than go through a lengthy search, we really just thought we have the right person right there, Wardlaw said. She had good experience in government and at Metro; that reinforced our decision.
Cummings, 40, applied for the director’s position when Foday left and was one of the finalists, but the board decided to go with Serrano.
When I applied the first time, it just wasn’t my time, Cummings said. I learned quite a bit from Gerald and I learned a lot from Director Serrano. Everything happens for a reason. They helped put the agency on the track we are now.
Cummings, a Geneva native, earned her bachelor’s degree in political science from Ball State University and her law degree from Thomas Cooley Law School in Michigan. Before joining Metro, she worked in the tax division at the Indiana Attorney General’s Office.
This agency does good work, she said, Whatever happened in the past, I’m not involved with that. Under Director Foday and under Director Serrano, we’ve had a great staff and they do great work. I had no doubts about taking over as executive director because of the staff. It’s not a perfect system. We’re always looking for improvements, but we have one of the best civil rights organizations in the country.
We’ve met numbers, we’ve met goals, we’ve met objectives, we’ve met (Equal Employment Opportunity Commission) standards, we’ve been audited and we’ve come out good, he said. We’ve had some missteps with directors in the past, but the staff has done a great job.
He said board members thought it was important to hire from within the agency this time to provide staff with some continuity and give them a level of comfort. Promoting from within the agency was also an opportunity to acknowledge the quality work at the agency despite the turmoil at the top.
I don’t get the calls I used to from businesses about a case languishing, Wardlaw said. We’ve got a tight system and a good staff.
What is Wardlaw’s advice to Cummings for dealing with Metro’s unfortunate history?
My answer to that is she needs to stay the course, he said.
Apparently, Cummings is prepared to follow that advice. She said she doesn’t plan on making any major changes.
So, there are two sides to what Metro does: The enforcement and the outreach, the diversity training, Cummings said. The past two directors were very different in their focus. Director Foday was very focused on enforcement, and Director Serrano was very focused on outreach. If I can take the best parts of those two approaches, I think it will be successful.
She said that the most important thing for the agency is to continue to perform thorough investigations and always make sure the agency has strong evidence to back up its determinations.
Sometimes even when we don’t find a violation, we give them good information so the company can look at its policies to avoid misunderstandings in the future, avoid the complaint in the first place, Cummings said. We are a law enforcement agency. Not an advocacy agency. Some people get confused by that. We are a fact-finding organization and not an advocacy organization, and sometimes that can lead to hard feelings. You have to have solid evidence to back up any claim.
Often people tell Metro staff about an incident that feels like discrimination, but the agency has to have solid evidence to take any action, she said.
A majority of our cases are found not to have probable cause, Wardlaw said. Just because a person thinks something is discrimination, it doesn’t mean there is.
More than ‘dazzle’
Cummings said there are a few things she knows she needs to improve. She likes to get knee deep in cases, but she said as director she needs to watch herself to make sure she is not micromanaging.
She also needs to get used to being the face of Metro. She readily admits she is a reserved person who doesn’t like to speak in public or give interviews.
She’s a very business-oriented person, very serious, Wardlaw said. Dawn tends to err on the side of being a little shy. But we’ve watched her over the years and she’s really grown. Quite frankly, it’s not all about dazzle and sparkle. It’s about facts and getting the job done, and that she does just fine. She’ll become more comfortable as time goes on and we’re confident she’ll do well.
A large part of Cummings’ new role is building relationships within the business community and repairing the agency’s public reputation. But it’s possible that rather than seeking attention for herself, her more reserved nature is precisely the type of leadership Metro needs at this time to move the agency forward.