Wednesday, July 27, 2011

What's Up at those City Council/County Board Meetings?

Have you ever gone to a public meeting of the city council, commission, or county board, school board, or other public body, and you want to know what the members of the meeting are talking about or referring to?  You may also want to look at the documents on the budget, or the licensing issue or any issue that could affect you that is the subject of the meeting.

I have many times.

What I look for is a folder/notebook which usually has all the printed materials   that members of the public body has before them.  The specific section of the law that gives you the right to inspect and review information/documents at a public meeting is 13D.01, subdivision 6.

There have been instances where I have gone to public meetings, and could not find the materials that should be available to public. When I have asked the person responsible for logistics and setting up the meeting-Where are the materials?.  The response sometimes is "Oh you can look at them on the Internet."or "I did not know that", or even "I forgot."

Granted this happens, but it does not mean that is excusable particularly using the Internet as a rationale.  Government entities should know what the law is.

Today I popped in the Metropolitan Council meeting.  I looked for the folder/notebook.  I did not find one, but what I saw was a number of copies of materials on the table in separate piles outside the meeting room.  My impression is that could have been the package of material that was before the Council per the Minnesota Open Meeting Law.  Have to compliment the Council if it was the material that its great to have more than one copy for public to review, inspect, and take if interested.

Next time you go to a public meeting of a public body, and you are wondering what the heck they're talking about, remember the section of law I have told you about.

Thursday, July 21, 2011

Are you being N-Dexed?

You call to complain on a barking dog. Maybe you happen on crime on the way home from work. Maybe you're an innocent person stopped by police. Should your name go into a national database anytime you have contact with a law enforcement agency? 
It could happen.

The FBI and several other law enforcement organizations have been meeting with police agencies in Minnesota to introduce them to N-Dex.  N-Dex is a product of post 9/11 data-sharing. The FBI basically wants to set up basically a national database of all incident reports and other police files -- including names of suspects, victims, complainants and witnesses -- from every law enforcement agency.

There is currently a similar database called NCIC which has criminal history information, stolen properties, and other data.

But before N-Dex gets going full steam here in Minnesota we should be asking authorities: what do we -- as the ultimate authority in our state -- what information do WE want shared?

N-Dex proponents are going to each law enforcement agency and ask them to share their data.  So one agency can share everything as to what they consider incident reports, another may only give the FBI case closed files.  Should there be state standards?  Are there privacy and civil liberties interests?

The answers to these questions are too important to make up as as we go along. But that's what's happening as these N-Dex officials travel around Minnesota.

The above post was originally placed on Open Secrets on October 1, 2010.  Since then there have been developments with our state's involvement with N-Dex.

There has been major discussions about implementing N-Dex in Minnesota since last year.  The Criminal and Juvenile Justice Information Task Force  has taken a lead with work groups.  Next month the task force will start discussions as to what to recommend to the Minnesota Legislature on issues, for example, What kind of data should be shared with the FBI?, Should it go through the Bureau of Criminal Apprehension?, or should law enforcement agencies throughout the state be able to share what they want to share with the FBI?  What protections should there be for the people of Minnesota?

Think of N-Dex has a "large national data warehouse."  It is important the people of Minnesota be involved on this issue because it can and will have an impact on rights, liberties, and  privacy.

N-Dex has positives, but there must be thorough open and public discussion as to how Minnesota should participate.  You might wonder why this matters to you, a law biding citizen.  Well information about you and your contact with a law enforcement agency could end up in N-Dex.

I will be doing future posts on this issue in the near future.

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Having Capitol open is more than symbolic

There were comments made in the media that the Capitol being open is a symbol of our representative form of government.  So true.  As many Minnesotans know though our Capitol was locked up "tight as a drum".  No public around other than essential employees, plus the elected officials, and the Capitol press corps.

But the Capitol is more than symbolism.  It is a living building which carries the vibrancy of history and the exhilaration of the democratic process.  Which the public did not experience for 19 days.

When entering the Capitol from the south steps today I was excited with the eagerness to participate in the process.  I wanted to see if legislation I fought for or against were still in the Special Session bills.

I engaged legislative staff in discussion.  Spoke and interacted with lobbyists who were there to see what may have happened to their legislative endeavour.  Spoke frankly with a number of legislator's about the last 19 days of having the Capitol wrapped up like a cocoon.

I have not seen the actual comments of Governor Dayton and Speaker Zeller when questioned by the press today on why all the secrecy the last few days.  Been told though, answers were basically, that public had opportunity for input on bills during regular session.  Also in the past meetings of legislators and members of the executive branch have been private.

But what was so different from public input on bills during the regular session and the private meetings as done in the past?

"Action and scenery of a great drama" called the Minnesota Shutdown.

For 19 days, this dramatic play took hold, people's lives were upset and the state shook.

The Capitol should have never been closed.

To have gone to the Capitol during shutdown people would have known we would get through this, the public would have been able to see and talk with their leaders and elected officials, for the public and lobbyists interested in legislative bills to engage and to participate.

The "People's House" is more than symbolic, it gives us a sense of continuity, it is who we are as a State and as a people.

Sunday, July 17, 2011

Why Capitol should be open to public during shutdown

The public has a strong sense of what is right and wrong, and what is fair or not.  The situation at the "People's House" is very unique, but it does not mean the public should be locked out when legislator's behind an impenetrable Capitol discuss the public business.

How the legislative sausage is made during regular session is far different when there is a special session as I stated in a previous post.  If this was just a "regular" special session, the Capitol would be open, the public and lobbyists would be able to engage the elected officials and staff.  Ask questions, get materials, gather information and see things.

It is unique since the early seventies when the "Open Government" movement hit the Minnesota Legislature, the Capitol and Legislature is less accessible to the public for the last 18 days than since that time.

Per media and press reports, billions of dollars of state monies and how to spend or reallocate it are being discussed in conference committee/committees.  Deal making and horsetrading is going on to  get support from other legislator's, to comply with the GOP Leadership and Governor Dayton's agreement, and for many other reasons.  This happens all the time, but what's different, there's no public to see, watch, to ask questions, and put two and two together.

Since the announcement of the Gov/Leaders agreement the outstanding bills which include, the Health and Human Services bill, State Government Finance bill, and Legacy bill among others are on a "fast track."  Commissioner's, legislators, and staff are working "out hundreds of details" in these bills.  What does that mean?

It means that there is a big push to zip these bills through and that there will be changes of language, with shifts of money going from one program to another, language and money allocations in bills disappearing, possible new language being added, and an array of legislative slights of hand without any public scrutiny.

From the small non-profit who worked on language in a specific area with funding to the large corporate entity that wants less government regulation are all interested where the money and resources go.  There is also interest in the law and policy changes.  But we are all locked out.

With the public or interested parties to be able to be at the open "People's House" where discussion since July 1 has taken place there would be so many positive gains rather than the suspicions if the doors were only open.

The ability of the public to be at the Capitol would allow for Minnesotans to gain knowledge about the spending of public monies, priorities and policy changes that may be different because of the BIG DEAL. To gain a good realization of the entangled and challenging choices we in Minnesota face, but  also to be more broad minded about the negative consequences and to appreciate the Legislator's dilemma.  To see the various interests play out in the public we are able to discern the conflicts of interests, the special interests, and to watch the decision making about the public expense and policy which is about us.  We may also be able to bring a perspective, facts, or information that may help resolve an issue, error, or misunderstanding.

The Governor and the Legislative Leadership did not provide the direction for the Capitol to be open for the public during the shutdown time.  It was a slap to our faces, to our traditions of open government and accountability.  Even to the point, that legislators could not even escort their own constituents to their own offices.

Am I too idealistic about government of the people, for the people, and by the people.  Damn right I am.  I have a real appreciation of the process and I know the public can make a difference.

The public I think believes it was wrong and not fair to have the "People's House" closed and locked while legislator's and Dayton administration officials worked on our business.  The shutdown created the unique situation,"but that does not mean we should throw away Minnesota's tradition of accountability, transparency and openness."

As I said to the Pioneer Press "This is the weird backside, the ugliness of the shutdown. It's sausage making on the fast track, greased, without any public questioning."

Monday, July 11, 2011

Two ideas for Gov & GOP leaders to leave the "Cocoon"

I went to the "People's House" our State Capitol today for the first time since the shutdown.  I became aware of a press conference that Governor Dayton was to have.  It was to be on the front steps or the south front of the Capitol.

As I walked to the Capitol from downtown I did not know what to expect to see.  Was there going to be fences to prevent people from going on the steps, jersey barriers, or what?  To my amazement I did not see any of that out right, but did see steel barriers in various places.  Also physical appearances can be deceiving.  Do not kid yourself the Capitol is locked up, and tight as a drum.  It is like a cocoon.

Cocoon used as a noun is a "silky case spun by the larvae of many insects for protection as pupae."

As I waited for the Governor to step out of the "Capitol Cocoon" for the press conference I noticed a lot of people coming from the west end of the "Cocoon."  It was members of the press.  I asked why they did not come out of the other exits.  Told by media folks can only go in one way, and generally out one way.  If you are are not a member of the news media, and a member of the public, tough luck, you cannot even go into the "People's House."

Several legislator's have told me that even constituents escorted by their Representative or Senator cannot even come in.

The Governor arrived.  I got a press release stating he was"launching a week long discussion with Minnesotans on what's at stake in the ongoing budget debate."  I commend him for that.  He is also going to major areas of the state during the week.  He answered a number of questions from the media and back into the "Cocoon" he went.

Like after all press conferences in the political scheme of things, the other side will want their say and press conference.  I was looking forward to the GOP Leadership emerging from the "Cocoon" to meet the media, say a statement, hand out a press release, and answer questions.  But to no avail it did not happen.

I asked a GOP Senate media person if the leaders were going to do an outside press conference.  No, he said they were going to remain inside and do it.  In other words, they were to stay in the "Cocoon."

Many things are happening with the shutdown, but what I see and hear is that there is more cynicism about Minnesota government than ever before from my experience.

With little or no opportunity for public input, during the negotiations before July 1, and now with the Capitol being in a "silky case".  The elected officials are taking up to the sorry beliefs that the public has about their legislative and administrative processes of government.

What can the Governor and the GOP Leadership do as a public service to engage Minnesotans in the budget process/debate and to advance a greater recognition about the tough choices we need to make?

I suggest the following:

1.Offer the opportunity for the people to ask questions about Governor and GOP budget differences and proposals in public and also to get answers in a immediate way.  This to be done together.

2.The Governor and GOP Legislative Leadership together engage in several open forum to discuss their approaches to specific parts of the budget.

The Governor is stepping outside the "Cocoon" for the next week to engage Minnesotans. GOP Leadership should do the same with the Governor.  Would it not be refreshing to see the GOP Leadership and the Governor on the same platform discussing solutions for our state?

Excuse me, just woke up, I must be dreaming.

Thursday, July 7, 2011

A secret at the Minnesota Supreme Court

I drove past the Best Buy World Headquarters recently.  It reminded me of a stain on the transparency and accountability of our Minnesota Supreme Court.

The Minnesota State Supreme Court made a decision which dealt with what standards could be used for a government entity to take private property for eminent domain in 2002.  The case came out of the City of Richfield actions against Walser, an auto dealer.

It was a big story because Richfield was a taking through the power of government, private property from one owner and giving it to another private person.  Intervention of government to buy property for public purpose has always been a hot button issue.  A major issue of the case was this an appropriate taking of property using the public purpose concept, with other factors such as blight, or was this an appropriate economic development or not.

The case went through the judicial process and ended up at our state's big court.  Our high court is made up of 7 people.  On this case, one justice did not participate in it.  So it left six to hear it and decide the case.

The guts of the case, to decide, a Court of Appeals decision whether or not it is ok for Richfield to take a flourishing business and its property and give it to a growing business who wants property for their headquarters.

The case was decided on tie vote with the Court of Appeals decision being held and the taking of Walser went through.

For the transparency and accountability of this Court decision, I and others went to see who voted on what sides in the opinion.  To my amazement there were no justice's names assigned to the tie votes and a statement saying they were evenly divided.

Then and now I contend that the names of the justices and their votes on the case should have been made public.