Monday, September 8, 2014

Situational ethics in St Paul

Does the City of St Paul have a code of ethics for it's elected officials so the public can be clear as well as elected officials when a situation erupts as happened in the Black Bear Crossings settlement? Underlying the $800,000 settlement is the personal relationship that's between Councilperson Amy Brendmoen and the St Paul Director of Parks and Recreation Michael Hahm.  Did it play a factor in St Paul's interaction with Black Bear Crossings and the large settlement?  Some people may believe it did, while others do not.  The public may never know.

When one reviews conflict of interest guidelines/rules in Minnesota, they are mostly tied to personal relationships for financial gain.  It appears none where a personal relationship can be tied in with policy change, killing of a proposal, or just using influence to make things happen.  But maybe there should be.  How it is defined is the tricky part, though.  Should it be done on a state or local level?

Speaking with many people last week on the settlement, it is clear there needs to be some space for the elected official to do their work, their "constituent" advocacy, also to push and shove when need be with agencies, but there also needs to be rules to limit the undue influence when there appears to be a conflict of interest because of a personal relationship.

City leaders in City Hall may think it is not a big issue, personal relationships and conflict of interest, but the public gets it and do know what's appropriate or not.  The public just has broader definitions of conflicts of interest.

For your information:
Conflict of Interest definitions from other states:
 http://www.ncsl.org/research/ethics/50-state-table-conflict-of-interest-definitions.aspx


Sunday, August 31, 2014

Closed-door "deal" in St Paul and solution

The Black Bear Crossings $800,000 settlement should create needed discussion with the public, policymakers, and government officials.  In this case as with many other similar type of settlements it's done and negotiated behind closed doors with no public insight as to what happened, how it happened, and what lessons are learned.

I wrote a post on an analogous situation dealing with huge settlements because of law enforcement misdeeds last year.  The secrecy involved in government civil settlements is very troubling.  Dollar settlements by government are reached in all kinds of situations such as employment, contract, and the inaction's and actions of government as it administers its functions with it's broad power.  Over the years I have seen many settlement agreements arising out of disputes with government.  I would say a frequent number of them are to make disturbing and shameful "cans of worms" go away, often with statements to deny liability and have government and parties involved gagged and not to talk with public and the media.

For example, these are two clauses in the settlement with Black Bear Crossings that illustrate the denial and gagging behavior.

"Plaintiffs (Black Bear Crossings) acknowledge the City (St Paul) has denied and continues to deny any liability for the Claims asserted in the Plaintiffs' Complaint, Plaintiffs agree that this Agreement shall not be in any way be construed as an admission by the City of any unlawful or wrongful act whatsoever........."

"The parties and their counsel hereby agree not to comment on the terms, impact, or basis for the Parties' decision to enter into this agreement to the media..........."

But what also the agreement calls for, if the public inquires along with the media, specific terms to respond with, such as the "case was resolved to the mutual satisfaction" of both parties and if continued questioning say "no comment"

Like I said there are different kinds of dispute settlements with government, a great number of them involve personnel/employment matters.  Years ago, when personnel settlements were being hammered out with gag clauses to keep the public from knowing anything and why thousand's of public dollars were being spent, a bill was introduced and became law to remedy that.  It may be time to do the same with other kind of settlements arising from disputes and disagreements with government.

The proposed bill could go something like this:  (modified from Minnesota Statute 13.43, subdivision 10)

"A government entity may not enter into an agreement settling a dispute arising out of the relationship with the purpose or effect of limiting access to or disclosure of......data or limiting the discussion of information or opinions related to.......data. An agreement or portion of an agreement that violates this paragraph is void and unenforceable.
(b) Paragraph (a) applies to the following, but only to the extent that the data or information could otherwise be made accessible to the public:
(1) an agreement not to discuss, publicize, or comment on ........ data or information;
(2) an agreement that limits the ability of the subject of..... data to release or consent to the release of data; or
(3) any other provision of an agreement that has the effect of limiting the disclosure or discussion of information that could otherwise be made accessible to the public."

This kind of law would do several things for the public.  Bring transparency, allow for public and government officials to comment as to what happened, but more important to learn the why and what the government will do so that headaches and complications that caused hundreds of thousands or millions of public dollars will not happen again.

Yes, Council Members Bostrom and Chris Tolbert I share your "frustration and disgust" as I know many members of the public do.  But what are you and the Minnesota Legislature going to do about it?

Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Baring the soul of who we are, to others we do not even know

With the messages I am getting in email and twitter accounts maybe "someone" knows me better than myself.  Advertisements, messages, promotions, and efforts targeted towards me with their comfy questions or appeals are based on the knowledge I have shared with my searches, emails, and interaction in the universe of electronic communication.

In the old days, I would get the phone calls and the junk mail based on preferences of politics and likes with signing up on mailing lists with various groups.  But that has all changed.  It has been four years since I received a laptop and begun my presence on the Internet.  I took the initiative to start a Twitter account, have a blog, and to communicate in a way that has revolutionized my efforts to effect change in the community and state I live in.  But what have I given up?

I am still trying to figure that out for myself.  I have an idea or two.  A fact I have taken into consideration is the following stated in 1968:

Arthur R. Miller, professor of law at the University of Michigan, has said: “The computer, with its insatiable appetite for information, its ‘image’ of infallibility, its inability to forget anything that has been put into it, may become the heart of a surveillance system that will turn society into a transparent world in which our home, our finances, our associations, our mental and physical condition are bared to the most casual observer.”

Monday, July 21, 2014

Stingray contract/agreement Minnesotan's need to see

The Minnesota Department of Public Safety/Bureau of Criminal Apprehension (DPS/BCA) has consistently refused me and most recently the Star Tribune to release and make public the contract/non-disclosure agreement between the Harris Corporation and DPS/BCA.  The Harris Corporation has received over $600,000 of state funds, for equipment known as Stingray and Kingfish.  The dollars have been used to purchase, maintain and upgrade the equipment.  Upgrades can also be done to Stingray that allows for interception of individual phone calls.

What does DPS/BCA wish to hide from the public?  Names of the people who signed the contract?  The dates that the contract was signed?  The amount of public dollars spent?  Will it show if contract/agreement is released to public that DPS/BCA is violating state law and doing illegal behavior?

DPS/BCA has argued to me and I presume the Star Tribune the whole contract/non-disclosure agreement cannot be released because it is trade secret and it compromises law enforcement techniques.  Sorry to say that both assertions are false and can be easily discredited.

Release the contract/agreement with the appropriate redaction's.  It's possible that the contract/agreement may contain data that can be appropriately classified, and if so, DPS/BCA should redact those data. That empowers me and the public to understand the context of any censoring.

In the contract/agreement there is presumptively public data that should be made available to Minnesotans and me, to think otherwise is stupidity and irrationality on the part of the Department of Public Safety/Bureau of Criminal Apprehension.

Saturday, July 12, 2014

Residents should not accept SWLRT as is, fight it

Listening to Mayor Betsy Hodges and others it seems that people who oppose Southwest Light Rail (SWLRT) should just go home, put their heads in the sand and give up.  I would not do that if I had my druthers.  Why?

Because of this court case, RESIDENTS IN PROTEST—I-35E v. DOLE which was decided in the mid-eighties.  What happened is a group of established citizens and residents of the Summit Hill area sued the Federal Government. Uncertainty of the outcome did not stop the RIP-35E group from filing civil suits in the courts.  They won and got major concessions.

As the Star Tribune says today in its coverage of the SWLRT deal:

     "Minneapolis officials long insisted they wouldn't stomach a light-rail line next to
       freight tracks in a part of the city popular with bicyclists, hikers and canoeists."

But what city officials actually did is not "stomach" this proposal, but break a promise to the residents of the communities that are impacted by the rail development.  It seems that the state, Met Council, Hennepin County Board, the Mayor, and others are evoking and conjuring up their points as to why SWLRT should become a reality.  This type of behavior was also done to place the road of 35 E below Summit Hill of St Paul.  But people organized, but they also had one other thing, monetary resources.

The Kenwood and Kenilworth neighborhoods of Minneapolis, and others who want to fight on in regards to the SWLRT I encourage you to do so. Granted, you may be called names, may cost money and time, but you would be protecting your community.

Some one's action of going to court and sue to block the project would definitely create uncertainty and upset a number of private and public sector entities,  so what, is that not what we do in a democracy.

Tuesday, June 24, 2014

Rules for school tools, privacy in danger.

The surprise announcement by the District administrators to have every St Paul student be given an Ipad (mini-laptop) took many people (even the school board) and public by surprise.  The coverage by the two daily newspapers recently has received front page attention.  The St Paul School District decided to completely shift gears from what they told voters last year when we voted for a school tax referendum. As soon as I read the articles the questions started to flow. Would there be a parent anywhere who would support the school district’s actions to abrogate their families and children's privacy rights? Does the Ipad initiative violate students/family privacy and liberty rights?  Does the School district have the right to install devices in the Ipads that allow monitoring and surveillance of where students go and what they do? What are the choices that parents and students have?

I spoke with a school board member who said to me that students/parents may not have a right to privacy with Ipads. The member, said their private employer asked the board member to sign away their right to privacy. I said correct, but an employer can ask you to waive away your privacy, but it's different with government, the member's employer is not a government entity.  Can it be a requirement to waive your 1st and 4th Amendment privacy rights and liberty as a condition for receiving an Ipad from the St Paul School District?  Is that illegal in itself?

When I asked Karen Randall, a leader in the Ipad initiative for the district, if there are rules in place to protect student's and families privacy with the school issued Apple Ipad's?  I did not get a clear and straight answer.  She referred to a study that was done last year by a security specialist.  She also tacked on there was input by community people at the same time.  But that was a year ago when Ipad's were not in the school district's dreams or where they?  But are there comprehensive and detailed rules in place to protect student's and families privacy?  What rationale and standards are there for a school official to get access to data on the Ipad?  I would say the answer is NO

It seems that the St Paul School District wants to develop their own privacy policies without any input from the community and parents. Parents, students, and community members should demand that our school district have very clear rules with input from the public.The school board should demand and necessitate a group of parents, privacy people, and others to suggest what the rules for the tools should be.  Not dictated by the school district management which in my judgement do not know what they're doing when it comes to technology and protection of privacy/liberty.

The questions still flow. What kind of data sharing or collection will there be with Apple?  What will they do with it?  Will the issued Ipads track student's activity and block certain websites including social media? Will the discriminatory barrier stay in place after the school hours?
Will  social sites be blocked?  How about YouTube and other kinds of sites?

The St Paul School District through the Ipad Apple program will collect details about students and families that they have never done before.  With privacy there is a lack of trust with institutions, such as the public schools.  By engaging the community with diligence on the data privacy issues on the Ipad program with respect..........the school district can make a significant step forward in building a trust relationship between parents, students, and schools.  What are the rules for the tools?

Monday, June 9, 2014

Cell phone spy devices used multitude of times, but no documentation

Since last September with my first data request to the Bureau of Criminal Apprehension, I have been finding out more and more how the agency has been very secretive to keep from the public and policymakers information.  Information that the public and policymakers have a right to have.

What we Minnesotan's have found out since last last fall is that the Bureau since 2005 has spent hundreds of thousands of public dollars on devices that can locate and pinpoint individuals very precisely.  Through data requests and the media we have found out that these devices have been used hundreds of times by the Bureau and local law enforcement agencies.  These devices have also collected data on innocent people who may be in the area of the suspect that law enforcement targets.

I went through hundreds of pages of the Bureau's inactive criminal investigative files where the Kingfish/Stingray has been used.  I leave after reviewing the files a feeling the Bureau makes it an utmost priority to leave as little as one can any mention of these devices.

Even though the Bureau continues in its realm of secrecy on the spy cell devices, they responded to a request I made a couple of weeks ago.

The data request was based on the following facts.  The Bureau uses the Stingray/Kingfish for their investigative purposes.  Per the BCA inactive criminal investigations I reviewed the devices were only used a handful of times.  On the other hand, the Bureau borrows/arranges for its use to other law enforcement agencies.  The devices are used "roughly" 100 times a year per their spokesperson. (April 23, 2014-----"Senate passes phone surveillance bill" Politics in Minnesota)

I asked for documentation in the borrowing/arranging behavior in the use of the Bureau's Stingray/Kingfish by other Minnesota law enforcement agencies. The use of these devices by other agencies in the "surveillance" of  Minnesotans in my estimation is several hundred times since 2008. What I got in response from the Bureau last week was this:

"Mr. Neumeister,

I am writing to follow-upon this request. 

The information you reference is an estimation based on the current number of times we believe we have used this equipment and not a firm or exact number.  We have no documentation regarding the times we have utilized our cellular exploitation equipment for an outside agency.

Thus, we have no further data responsive to your request at this time. 

Based on the increased level of interest in this technology we are in currently assessing how we document the use of this technology in future cases."