Thursday, June 30, 2011

Last Open Day at the "People's House"

I have been going to the Capitol since 1964. I lived in the neighborhood.  I would play in the tunnels, go to the Historical Society Building, of course, say Hi, to Mr. Graham, who served as the Governor's reception person. My ma knew him from the old neighborhood. I introduced myself to him.

The Capitol has always stood for me as the symbol of the people, the "People's House.  It is where people go to see government in action, to assert their 1st Amendment Rights, and to participate in the making of law.  I have done this for nearly 35 years.

In those decades of voluntary public service I strive for accountability, transparency, and openness in our government.  Many of bills I have helped become law. I have helped make the law through lobbying, research, and just being there.

Now with shutdown the "People's House" will be closed.  Only essential personnel and the news media will be allowed in the building.

I decided to spend the last two hours of the people's accessibility to it's building.  When I came to the Capitol today the security was beefed up.  One of the first things I saw were 5 Minnesota State Troopers in front of the Senate Chamber doors.  I asked myself, why?  I even made a statement to them, Is there a need for all of ya in front of the doors. or something to that effect.

There were demonstrations throughout the Capitol today.  I have to give credit to Capitol Security and Senate Sargent of Arms for the professionalism they showed during the time I was there and what I saw.

But to close the Capitol and sweep out all non essential people out the door at 5, and then not to be open to the public until the shutdown is over with top elected leaders in the State discussing our fate is incredulous and not in the ways and spirit of our open government traditions.

I started tweeting about what was happening at the Capitol. Knowing practically everyone there, spoke with Capitol Security, said hi to the staff and elected people, and small talk with reporters. Observed how the public were asserting their First Amendment Rights when the GOP Leaders went by.

But what stuck in my craw and what I saw as sad was this building which is such a great place for me and the public to do our work in as citizens, and to observe the political process will be only open for the selected few while the people's business is being done behind close doors. I understand that because of the shutdown.  My core principle of accountability, transparency, and openness of government opposes the reality.

As I saw the last protesters be asked nicely to leave by the Troopers, I knew I was next.  I could not blend in. I am too well known.  Plus my handle bar moustache gives me away pretty quick.  The Trooper said it is time to go, closing time.  Well I turned off the lap top, and my core principles hit me hard. As I was gathering my stuff, I said to the media who were in front of the Governor's office, keep the public informed.  I then said something like, as I was going towards the south front door of the Capitol. Accountability, transparency, and openness sacrificed because of the shutdown.  The People's House closed to the public.

Last time I actively said something in a sense of demonstration like this was in the early seventies when I would go to stores in support of Cesar Chavez and the United Farm Workers.

I have to thank Captain Mock, and the professionalism of his crew.  As I was told they are only following the orders of the Department of Administration.

It is a sad commentary on our political process and where we stand as to the state of Minnesota politics today

Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Cone of Silence: What it is and how to use it

The "Cone of Silence" has been placed on the budget negotiations at the Capitol.

More info on this equipment can found be here:

Tips for how it is used for Governor and Legislative Leaders  are as follows:

Here is an illustration as an example of a Cone of Silence----

Monday, June 27, 2011

Room 237 State Capitol--Has the "turn" happened on budget

Before I went to the Capitol today I went to the court hearing on the Judicial branch budget plea. The question, whether part or all of the Judicial branch will be open if shutdown occurs.  I listened, and learned a bit about Roman History, heard about the Gideon decision which is about the right to counsel, informed about how our State Constitution reads.  Fine and dandy, but the question in my mind was what were the Governor and GOP Leaders doing to avert the shutdown.

I would find out at 3pm this afternoon in the hallway where Room 237 is.  I set my self up as an observer, watching the press, and the staff, and of course, the Speaker, Majority Leader, and the Governor.

I was there a hour ahead of time, talking to the TV station cameraman, bs'ing, with some of the media and political people, even explained to a visitor from South Carolina what the difference between DFL and a Democrat is.

The press were mostly in front of the door which leads to the hallway to Room 237.  The GOP Leaders came first with staff, not many.  The Governor then came with notebook in hand by himself.  Going towards the Room 237.  As I saw the Governor go towards the end of the hallway I thought he is determined, he knows his stuff, and he is centered as to what is views are for compromise.  He may have answers to questions from previous meetings.

The GOP Leaders who came in before him were confident, projecting an air that they can get this done to avert a shutdown.  The Speaker I think realizes even though there is forty years of pent up energy of GOP not having full sway over the Legislature and many new first time elected people want to get tons of action on those forty years of so-called DFL influenced programs and policy in one year, it is not going to happen.

To the best of my knowledge it was only the three of them in Room 237.  As I stated in previous post, the meetings may have been an atmosphere of advocating their positions, or inquiring of each other of their positions, but the turn has happened.

The three are now discussing their interests, not their positions, which are two separate concepts.  The Governor, the Speaker and Majority Leader are trying to create solutions, then decide if those solutions work for them.  It's just plain problem solving.

They are acting with a purpose and knowledge which has carried them to where they stand today.  Each side is also realizing that the eyes of  Minnesotans are on our State Capitol.

Speaker Zeller and Majority Leader Koch know they can only go full steam ahead so far on the GOP's agenda of 2011 because what is in the back of history.  That is the GOP loss of the Minnesota House in 1986 when they took over in 1985 and went full steam ahead and with it alienating many independent voters.

Governor Dayton knows there is change in the air on some aspects of the Minnesota experience over the past forty years.  This is evident by several of the bills he has signed which surprised some interest groups.

Now for the last thing, where does transparency and accountability come into this process?  Frankly, at this point there is none, in the immediate sense, because the public does not have access or are not  given access to documents, memos, working paper, ie.

We do not know what is going behind the closed doors.  Even though most information would be public under current law for the Executive branch and not public under the Legislature, there is no willingness to share because of the "negotiations" and to build trust.  I did make a comment to legislative staff person today that after these meetings and agreement reached the Legislature should make public all their documents, memos, working papers, ie.  The person said they will "take it under advisement."  Bottom line, public wants to know how we came to this point and how it was solved.

As I have stated before it is a political reality that there is secrecy in these kinds of situations.  The question is why?

If there is any kind of comments as to what is being discussed it can raise anticipation, apprehension and disapproval among interest groups and the people before the t's are crossed.  If there is revelation on legislative issues and policies not resolved, it could make it more tough to negotiate.

In other words, the Governor, the Speaker, and Majority Leader are trying to do the best to resolve the budget crisis and serve the State of Minnesota without being "ping pongs" in the political game.  For that I salute them.

One thing though, I am not comfortable in not knowing the details of the agreement without the opportunity of seeing and knowing the details before it goes to the Legislature as I think many Minnesotans are of the same ilk.

If that means a special session on the Fourth of July so be it.   What a neat way to celebrate our 235th Birthday, Representative Democracy in action.

Sunday, June 26, 2011

Days til Midnite Shutdown, So What's Happening at Meetings?

Viewing the takes of the short press conferences on the budget yesterday I came away with the feeling there is realness and genuineness in the Governor and the GOP Leadership wanting to avoid the midnight deadline.

Governor Dayton is quoted as saying reasons why not to share information about the budget talks, our agreement is "not to discuss in details our discussions really is crucial to build trust necessary--that we can really exchange candid ideas and talk things over."

So if the public cannot get details, and more than likely there is no tape or video camera, the public will never know the meat and potatoes of the meetings.  So what is the next best thing.  An idea of what is happening.

I am not a writer with experience in dialogue, so that is not the approach I am to take.  I will try it this way.

In the Lock-In meetings as they have been characterized, are two sides of different views and approaches, where there is a certainty for them to achieve an agreement to avoid the shutdown.  Each side has some control over the other, the Governor who signs the bills, and the Legislature who passes the bills.  Either side does not have absolute control over the other.

So the Governor and the Leaders sit in the big conference room on the 5th floor in the State Office Building.  They make some discussion about how our choices are real and they will have real consequences if we cannot agree or do not agree to the people of Minnesota. There is an exchange of views on the differences between the two sides.

The Governor and the GOP Legislative Leaders on key elements to funding and policy matters more than likely advocate for their views, to try to change the others views.  But another part of the conciliatory meeting is the inquiry part which is to acquaint and familiarize the other side of their views and to bring to light facts.

The effecting and examination of the differences between Governor and the Leaders are the crucial elements if there will be an agreement or not.  If the Governor and Leaders do this with trustworthiness there can and will be an agreement.  If there is an honest and open exchange as to how they view each others budget and policy proposals this is positive.

Now let's say there is an agreement, there will be discussion as to how to tell the public what they did, but also how to tell the rest of the legislature who will have to vote on it.  Will it be a joint announcement or separate?  The public can tell a lot by that.

A final take which is a very important one.

Will the public have enough time to view the bills and the agreement without it being shot out of a greased cannon and passed without us knowing what it really does?  Will the public be able to review all the documents and data that was used to come to the conclusions of the agreement?  How will this be done?

The public has a right to know, the process used to come to an agreement in secret is a fact of political life, but it does not mean the information or how you came to the conclusions are to remain secret after the fact.

Per my previous post I hope both sides can come out as All-Star Wrestlers and us Minnesotans will cheer em both on.

Thursday, June 23, 2011

Cage Match at the Capitol Sans the Public

The media reported a "lock-in" for the Governor and Legislative Leaders for Friday and Saturday to wrestle with the state budget.  To the public it may be more of a cage match. What is the definition of "cage match."

An event in which wrestlers battle in an enclosed location escaping over the top to win.

In this corner we will have the GOP Legislature, full of vigor, after a swift move to power last year.  Full of volcanic pressure ready to burst with energy to deliver the knock out hold for what they ambitiously want.  It has been more than forty years since the GOP grappler has had full sway and strength at the Capitol.

In the other corner, the DFL Governor, no newcomer as a matman who has gone through several tough matches and has been able to pull through all right.  It has been over twenty years since there has been a DFL tangler in the ring as Governor. The DFL contender with other DFL grizzled veteran wrestlers will try with the dragon sleeper choke to preserve their standing with an ambivalent public of what they have won in other grueling matches.

Where the event may take place is the Reception Room of the Governor's Office.  This is a large room with soft and plush carpets.  One could get a rug burn.  This has been the sight of previous wreck matches over the past four years.  It is ironic if this is the sight for the rassling event because there are scenes of battles facing down on this ring, battle scenes of the Civil War.

One thing though will be absent from this historic match.  There will be no public/audience in the stands watching the grapplers in action.  No referee either.  Will there be sly moves and pins by the participants which the public would not tolerate if they were in the stands?

Will there be a fly cross armbar to the Dayton budget push or can there be an octopus hold stretch to partially to do away with the GOP no tax pull?  The public will not know.

I do not expect this match to be public because the wrestlers are not interested to have the public see their holds, pins, and moves.  The wrestling ways the Governor and Legislative Leaders do to immobilize or lead to a submission of their respective ideas and proposals are not for public view.

So what is the next best thing?, as a woman said to me today, as we were going past the Capitol, "maybe I need to be in that room and straighten them out with a stick" to make sure they come out with a compromise.

A compromise that the opponents can come out of the match, not as a loser or winner, but both as ALL-STAR wrestlers.

The public may not be in the direct stands of the match, so when the cage match is over there will not be the boos or cheers.  But when the doors are "lock-out" from the lock-in, we all will be in the grandstand, and in our own way we will be the referee.

Monday, June 20, 2011

Governor and Legislature: Be More Open on Budget

There is bickering between the Governor and the GOP Legislative Leadership about what has been made public and what has not about budget figures and proposals.  I thought I would offer some advice .

A great number of Minnesotans who I talk with believe state and local government is somewhat or very secretive.  The Governor and GOP leaders have tried to be open and transparent about the numbers and proposals, but it is not resonating or getting to the public.  Each side is playing the politics of disclosure.  I hear from some people that both sides have a slight case of self-righteousness and contemptuous arrogance.  Here are some suggestions:

1. The Governor and GOP Leadership release "all" public data to their approaches to the budget.

2. Release "all" public data that has been exchanged between the Governor and the Legislature, including leadership on the budget issue since end of session.
3.With the Governor and the Legislative Leadership there has been staff work to develop their views, this data should also be made public.
Granted the Legislature is not under the Minnesota Government Data Practices Act as the Governor is, but they should be transparent and open as to how they came to their conclusions.  For the Governor, the office is under Data Practices, but they may have retained a view my understanding is from the previous Governor that electronic communications can be destroyed such as e-mails, memos, position papers, and analysis documents, almost immediately.  I hope this is not true.

The public will not be able to see the what?, who?, where?, when?, and why? of how we came to this budget juxtaposition in the first place if documents are destroyed or not released.

Whatever the solutions are for the budget it is important they have the support of the public and we can live with them and "know" how the resolution came about.

Saturday, June 18, 2011

Budget, taxes, Stassen, and my refund

With debate in the media about budgets, shutdown, and taxes, I realized my tax refund from Minnesota had not been placed in the mailbox yet. With the looming shutdown would I get it before July 1st?

I decided to find out. What could I find online with the Department of Revenue.  Looked, reviewed, not interested to do business online. It's the privacy thing I have.  An alternative way is the phone.  I called, got the recording for a process, followed through, then they asked me for my specific refund amount to confirm to the robotic computerized voice that it was the real me.  One thing though I forgot the specific amount, took the gambling guess, no jackpot.  Could not find out the status of my refund.

So what is another alternative.  For me it was to go in person after my jaunt around the Capitol.  Went out the east door of the Capitol, across the street down the stairs behind the Judicial Center, could not get out after going down the stairs, the gate was locked.  Preparing for the shutdown already, huh!  So I climbed over the gate.

Then could not get through directly because of the Light Rail mess which has spent hundreds of millions of dollars for something or nothing.

But there I saw it, the Harold Stassen Building, the home of the Revenue Department.  This is where I can find out the status of my Minnesota tax refund.

With all the budget cuts and lay offs of state workers over the past bienniums I wondered if I would be able to find out about my refund in person.  There has been an emphasis with state government to do more with less, therefore, more on line business doings for services and interaction with people, less personal contact.

I walk in, huge, the lobby is, the desk to the right. I ask, Can I find out about the status of my tax refund?  I expected an answer that I have heard recently in other situations, "You have to go online to find out."  But low and behold, she states, need to see id, showed it, then directed me to key pad to put in my #SSN, I did, no privacy issue here. A few minutes later, I was told it has not been processed yet.  I then asked her if there is a courtesy phone I could use so I could to talk  someone about it.  She said no, but she called the appropriate person.  Told a few minutes later, there will be a person to follow up on it.  Will get the check within the week.

Government is made of people which provides services to us, and that the people that work for government are us.  Part of my refund is going to the Chickadee fund which I do every year which funds a service.  It takes money to fund the services of the state of Minnesota.  We all understand that.

What we do not understand is why our services which we enjoy and need may be not available to us on July 1, 2011?  By the way, I wonder what Harold E. Stassen would think about the current going's on at the State Capitol?

Monday, June 13, 2011

Governor Dayton and the Free Lawyer

It is not unusual for a lawyer to do pro bono work for government.  The classic example, lawyers representing poor defendants in the criminal system. Per US Constitution and our State Constitution, poor people have a right to a lawyer.  Lawyers do so many hours of pro bono work as requirement for licensing or their law firm.

In the case of David Lillehaug, it's a calling as citizen and being asked by the Governor my impression is.  I can understand that. I have given many hours free for voluntary public service, (not a lawyer) maybe not at the request of anyone, but just being a citizen.  There is a difference though between myself and Mr. Lillehaug, he is a lawyer and he is formally serving the Governor as Special Counsel.

Being Special Counsel/lawyer on budget shutdown matters as described in the media and press release bring him into the arena of the public. His role then concerns the public and is of interest to the public.

I give credit to the Governor for issuing the press release announcing his appointment.  It is a transparent thing to do.  But the accountability issue needs to be addressed.

When a person or a private entity does something with or for government their is usually some type of agreement, contract, memo of understanding, or some documentation which outlines their role whether or not it is free or by pay.  Is there one for Mr. Lillehaug?

When a government action such as a government shutdown takes place there is a lot of government data collected. A lot of this data is public.  Will the data created by Mr. Lillehaug under the auspices of serving the Governor and his office be defined as government data under the Minnesota Government Data Practices Act?

Important questions, it gives the public insight as to what the Governor will do, it gives the public the opportunity to see how the Governor performs his job with the Special Counsel on the issue of the budget shutdown.  It gives the public the ability to judge the performance of their Governor.

Thursday, June 9, 2011

Transparency, Rahm Emmanuel, and the Web

I read in the Chicago Tribune that Mayor Emmanuel as part of a campaign promise has put all 34, 000 city employees names, salaries, and positions on the City of Chicago website.  I have to applaud the mayor for doing it.  What was done in Chicago can be an example for St. Paul, Minneapolis, and other government entities.  But is not just salary data to be put on the web.  For example, it is also reports, memos, position papers, and the government e-mail addresses and government phone numbers of directors/coordinators of divisions and units, along with other kinds of data.

Now do you believe that is all going to happen here in St. Paul or Minneapolis?  From where I sit it is not all going to happen because of politics, wanting to keep the public in the dark, and a host of other reasons.  Government institutions have a view that it is their information and they can decide how to give it out.  Minneapolis and St. Paul have made great efforts to get public information on their web sites. Though it is what they select for the public to see.

It depends also who is doing the selection.  A couple of years back at the beginning of our perennial state budget crunches, Mayor Chris Coleman of St. Paul decided to take the lead on budget impact on our city and set up various community meetings to meet with the public.  It was reported in the news that the Mayor's office had a memo detailing what the various cuts he would do and recommend to the City Council for action.  I was interested in getting a copy so that I could be an informed person to ask the Mayor some questions at the public meetings.

I got my copy from the Mayor's office  I suggested to the appropriate people that they should place it on the web for the public to review and to be informed.  This would be good for the public meetings that were coming up in the weeks ahead.  Was the memo put on the web before the first community meeting? No, it was not.

At the first community meeting, I saw the Mayor's staff who I spoke with about the memo and putting it on the web.  I asked the question why is not the budget memo up on the city website for the public to see.  I could not get a direct answer as to why.  My perspective was that they did not want broad dissemination of the memo to the public.  I asked the Mayor at the public meeting would he be willing to put the memo on the Internet. Within a couple of days the public memo was available.

I use this an example to show how government can control the dissemination of public data.  The public can get it if they go down to City Hall, but not on the web.  There are reasons why government will do this kind of behavior.(Issue for another post)

On the other side of the coin though is the following example.  I go to the Ramsey County Court House almost everyday.  One day I was interested to review a report. I was told there was no copy for public review.  I then said, Why is that?  I was told for cost savings they placed it on the government website.  I told them I do not have access to the web(true at the time).  She then said I could go the Library to access the report.  You mean I have to stand in line and wait to get access to the Internet at the library to review the report, I stated. Her response was there is no copy for the public to see.

This example illustrates when a department or a city may go into a whole other direction.  Access to public data is denied and a barrier is placed in front of the citizen.

The Internet is a dynamic and effective means.  Government can and will use it to interact and get information out to the public, but it should not be the only means.  Many people do not have access or do not even own a computer  It is the legal responsibility of government to provide access to public data to people who ask for it, not to suggest "stepping" to the library to use the Internet to read it.

By the way the report I wanted to review I did not go to the library to get access to the Internet to read it.  I was able to review the report at the government office that issued it the next day.

Thursday, June 2, 2011

The Legacy bill and Open Meeting

The last few hours of debate on the floor of the Minnesota House of Representatives on its last night was unique and special for the public to see.  It gave an opportunity for the public to view and hear what accountability and transparency means to the Legislature.

Debate surrounded on the Minnesota Legacy conference committee bill - SF1363.  A great amount of discussion was on the proposal for the Lessard-Sams Heritage Council not to be under the Minnesota Open Meeting Law(OML)which it has been under the past two years since it was created.  The proposal to change the law was a Senate position, the House did not have it in their bill.  The Council is responsible for recommending to the Legislature on projects under the outdoor heritage portion of the Legacy Amendment.  This current bill has about $180 million in projects and spending from this process.

Many Minnesotans would think it is a no brain er not to be under the Minnesota Open Meeting Law.  The public is able to see how decisions are made as to how $180 million of their money may be spent.  The public would be able to have access to the same information that the members of the Heritage Council has at their meetings.  Also there would be thorough procedural notice as to when meetings are.  These elements and others of the OML are guaranteed by law.  It is important to note that all local city councils and county boards also come under this same law.

Well, the proposal on page 31 of the Conference Committee bill was to kill the current law to be under OML, only to be open to the public when decisions are to be made, which would eliminate the public's ability to see and hear discussions about the various projects if no decisions were to be made, known as informational meetings, and also eliminate the requirement to have at meetings of the Council all data available to the public which the Council members have at the same meeting.

Proponents of the proposed change said that the Lessard-Sams group can be under the Legislature Open Meeting rules.  From my perspective, the Legislative Open Meeting process is general, ambiguous, and has a large amount of discretion.

A large number of House members disagreed, led by Representative's Holberg, Paymar, and Rep. Urdahl who was swayed by his peers by their arguments, who was the Chief Author of the House bill.  The bill was overwhelmingly sent back by the House to reconvene the Conference Committee to get the proposed section out, but the Senate refused to do so.

The bill was brought back to the House of Representatives again for reconsideration which then led to more time to debate the open meeting issue and other parts of the Legacy bill until the clock ran out at midnight.  The Legacy bill more than likely will be up in Special Session.