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Updated: 15 min 43 sec ago

Supreme Court overturns indefinite sex-offender commitment

1 hour 46 min ago

The Strib’s Dave Chanen calls it a “significant ruling” … . “[T]he Minnesota Supreme Court overturned the indefinite commitment of a sex offender, saying there was inadequate proof that he was highly likely to reoffend. The court also reversed the case of Cedrick Ince, 24, to allow him to prove that he can be placed in a less restrictive treatment facility than the highly secure state hospital at Moose Lake. … In a concurring opinion to Wednesday’s ruling, Justice Alan Page was highly critical of the Legislature, saying it hasn’t created adequate facilities and treatment programs for those civilly committed as sexually dangerous.”

At MPR, Bob Collins writes, “Under Minnesota law, a person can only be civilly committed as a sexual predator or ‘sexually dangerous person’ if he is ‘highly likely’ to commit more sexual crimes and is unable to control the urges to do so, and if there is no other alternative to confinement. What constitutes ‘highly likely’ has been a problem for courts since the state Supreme Court shifted the burden of proof from the inmate/patient to the authorities in the ’90s.”

The national push for equal pay and workplace rights for women’s Minnesota component is moving forward. The AP says, “Minnesota senators have passed a wide-ranging package of workplace protections for women aimed at leveling pay, accommodating pregnancies and fostering entrepreneurial opportunities.The bill passed 51-14 on Wednesday and sets up a likely negotiation with the House, which passed legislation that goes even further. … Republicans who opposed the measure say it involves too much government interference.”

Legislation that might just as well be called the “Stop Bored Cops from Checking Out Good-Looking TV Gals” bill is also feeling traction. The AP says, “Minnesota lawmakers entered final negotiations Wednesday on a bill intended to stop public employees from snooping in citizens' private data. The potential for abuse of government-held databases was highlighted when a Department of Natural Resources employee was accused of improper driver's license lookups some 19,000 times over several years. In other cases, local governments were sued by citizens over improper lookups.”

Sometimes even love among The Base goes bad … . KFGO’s Mike McFeely reports, “The nastiness has re-ignited between Minnesota state Rep. Mary Franson of Alexandria and the former chairman of the McLeod County Republican Party. Eric Harpel, Franson's ex-boyfriend, has filed a defamation lawsuit against Franson in Douglas County District Court for falsely accusing him of stalking, threatening and spying on her. The lawsuit also accuses Franson of illegally hacking Harpel's e-mail account and failing to pay back money Harpel says he loaned Franson to pay her mortgage and other expenses.” Now kids, let’s remember our family values.

Speaking of The Base, foremost among those who love ‘Murica … . Bill Martens of Wisconsin Public Radio reports, “At the Wisconsin Republican Party’s annual convention next month, members will vote on whether the GOP ‘supports legislation that upholds Wisconsin’s right, under extreme circumstances, to secede.’ ‘Efforts to secede are an effort to overthrow the Constitution of the U.S. and frankly, can be called a traitorous activity,’ said Mordecai Lee, a professor of governmental affairs.” Couldn’t we just fence off 100,000 acres in Nevada and let them all call it “home?”

Speaking of noise you’d like plugged off … . Reed Fischer at City Pages writes, “Last weekend, a new Minneapolis ordinance officially went into effect requiring clubs to provide free earplugs to all patrons and employees. Gimme Noise checked in with several of the 198 establishments affected — Triple Rock Social Club, the Cabooze, Nomad World Pub, Cedar Cultural Center, Mill City Nights, among others— and many had not yet received the dispenser of 3M earplugs offered to them gratis. The plugs are on the way soon, according to Locally Grown, Globally Known's Brian Felsen, whose company is overseeing delivery.”

Uh … no … again in the burglar-killer trial.  Stribber Pam Louwagie, covering the Byron Smith trial in Little Falls, reports, “For the second time in two days, Byron Smith’s lawyers have asked the judge to declare a mistrial. Both requests, which came on breaks in the proceedings, were denied. Before the jury returned from a break Wednesday morning, the defense asked Morrison County Judge Douglas Anderson to declare a mistrial, saying they didn’t know about ballistics notes.”

And he survived … . Says Paul Walsh in the Strib, “A 55-year-old driver was roaring along Olson Hwy. in north Minneapolis at nearly 100 mph and very drunk when he slammed into vehicles stopped at a red light, setting off a late-night chain-reaction crash that killed two people, according to charges filed Wednesday. Philip S. Bertelsen, of Golden Valley, was charged in Hennepin County District Court with criminal vehicular homicide in the Nov. 3 deaths of Melvin Jones, 20, of St. Paul, and Brandy Banks-Sutta, 21, of Minneapolis.”

U.S. middle class wealth no longer richest in the world

6 hours 12 min ago
CC/Flickr/Scorpions and CentaursU.S. median (after tax) income is no longer the highest of the large, rich industrialized nations of the world.

There are a lot of ways to measure the prosperity of a nation. Over the past few years, as the United States made a stronger economic recovery than many of the world's other wealthy nations, especially in Europe, you've no doubt read and heard that the benefits of the recovery have been unevenly distributed.

But we've reached a new tipping point in which the U.S. middle class is no longer the richest in the world.

The concentration of wealth in the United States in the richest 1 percent of households has reached levels not seen since the 1920s. By several measures, 100 percent of recent economic gains have been to the benefit of the already wealthy with poor and middle-class Americans — as a group — basically treading water. That's the old news.

But apparently it was still the case, until recently, that the U.S. median income was the highest in the world. If the average American family is still richer than the average family anywhere else, is it pure class envy to worry about how rich the super-rich are getting? Maybe that's a stupid question (or maybe not) but I raise it to set up a new finding, published Wednesday in The New York Times as part of its analysis of a cache of data comparing wealth and wealth distribution in richest countries of the world.

The big finding of the piece is that the U.S. median (after tax) income is no longer the highest of the large, rich industrialized nations of the world. Canada pulled even with with the United States in 2010 and the Times feels comfortable enough with the trend to announce that median incomes in Canada "now appear to be higher than in the United States."

By the way, not to obsess overmuch on median incomes, the Times' summary table indicates that in several countries — including Canada, the Netherlands, Norway, Austria and Denmark — typical households below the median are better off than comparable households in the United States. That finding is summarized in this table.

The case against right turn on red

6 hours 57 min ago
streets.mn CC/Flickr/Thomas HawkMore than a third of pedestrian/car crashes occur in Minnesota in part because of driver’s failure to yield.

On February 12th of this year a woman was killed in Minneapolis while walking in a crosswalk. She had the right of way. She was hit by a truck taking a right turn on red, which trucks are generally legally allowed to do (although not while a person is in a crosswalk):

“The driver of a vehicle which is stopped as close as practicable at the entrance to the crosswalk . . . in obedience to a red or stop signal, and with the intention of making a right turn may make such right turn, after stopping, unless an official sign has been erected prohibiting such movement, but shall yield the right-of-way to pedestrians and other traffic lawfully proceeding as directed by the signal at said intersection.” Minneapolis Code of Ordinances, Title 18, section 474.630.

Crash data

According to an MPR review of 2007-2011 crash data, more than a third of pedestrian/car crashes occur in Minnesota in part because of driver’s failure to yield. This means that almost 300 people a year are injured due to driver error.

Although specific data on right-turn-on-red crosswalk injuries in Minnesota was not readily available, a quick search revealed somewhat antiquated data pertaining to right-turn-on-red safety issues.

OAS_AD("Middle");

According to a 2002 paper, there were 1,166 crashes involving people on foot or bicyclists in Minnesota and Illinois combined between 1985 and 1998/9 combined. This equals just .04% of all crashes (including vehicle/vehicle crashes) during that time period. This figure is consistent with figures in a 1995 National Highway Traffic Safety Administration report.

Although the percentage of total crashes attributable to right-turn-on-red are low, both of the above-cited reports show that walkers and bicyclists are disproportionately represented in right-turn-on-red accident statistics: about 20% of all right-turn-on-red crashes involve a person on foot or a bicyclist. Compare this to the roughly 6% of total crashes involve people on foot and bicycles (walkers and cyclists, as vulnerable users, constitute about 14% of total traffic fatalities, however).

According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, “[t]he majority of these RTOR crashes involved a driver looking left for a gap in traffic and striking a pedestrian or bicyclist coming from the driver’s right.”

Making vulnerable travelers feel more vulnerable

Even when someone on foot or a cyclist is not hit by right-turning vehicles (an admittedly rare, thought unnecessary, occurrence), right turning vehicles still do a significant disservice to vulnerable users. Right-turning vehicles often pull into the crosswalk so that the driver of the vehicle can actually see oncoming car traffic. As a result, people crossing the intersection on foot lose that small stretch of street that is supposed to be temporarily theirs. That person must then walk around the front or the back of the imposing vehicle.

CC/Flickr/Steven Vanceturning vehicles often pull into the crosswalk so that the driver of the vehicle can actually see oncoming car traffic.

If the person walks in front of the vehicle, he or she must be on guard in case the vehicle attempts to leap into traffic. If the person passes behind the vehicle, he or she must weave between multiple vehicles, any of which could move. Therefore, right turns on red mean that people can never walk across the street, even when they have the right of way, as if they own the space. People on foot must be constantly aware of their vulnerability, can never go on a walk and let their mind wander.

Shouldn’t pedestrians – people – be able to simply be in their community without wearing “light colors” and “retro-reflective materials,” as the State of Minnesota suggests? TheFederal Highway Administration appears to think so: “Prohibiting RTOR should be considered where exclusive pedestrian phases or high pedestrian volumes are present.”

Right-turn-on-red's original rationale

During the oil and energy crises of the 1970s, the U.S. federal government encouragedjurisdictions to allow right turns on red as a fuel saving measure. The Federal Highway Administration estimated that right turns on red would save between 1 and 4.6 seconds for each driver at a red light.

While turning right on red does in fact save fuel for car drivers, the Massachusetts DOT points out that “[t]he best way to reduce fuel use is to drive less.” With 65% of trips under a mile in the U.S. made by car, improving the experience of being a pedestrian or biker, as well as improving actual safety, could result in significant fuel savings by encouraging people to walk and bike more.

Possible solutions

If Minnesota jurisdictions eliminated, or at least reduced, right turns on red, they could improve both actual and perceived safety for cyclists and people on foot. This in turn could potentially encourage more people to travel using their own power. And this result, if it occurred, would produce the outcome right turns on red were initially intended to produce: lowered energy consumption.

As an obvious first step, mayors and council members should ban right turns on red in areas with heavy foot traffic. This would not be a step in a new direction. For example, the City of Minneapolis already has additional safety measures in place in heavy foot travel areas. The Minneapolis Code of Ordinances states “No person shall ride a bicycle upon a sidewalk within a business district.” Title 18, Chapter 490, section 490.140. State statute clarifies that “‘Business district’ means the territory contiguous to and including a highway when 50 percent or more of the frontage thereon for a distance of 300 feet or more is occupied by buildings in use for business.” Minn Stat 169.01 subd. 39.

A telephone call to the Minneapolis Police Department Chief of Police’s office confirmed that the reason bicycles are not allowed on sidewalks in business districts is because of public safety concerns about crashes between bicycles and people. This public safety concern exists because of particularly high foot traffic in these areas.

If the City of Minneapolis finds it reasonable to limit bicycle traffic in high foot traffic areas for public safety reasons, isn’t it reasonable to place minor limits on car traffic in these same areas?

Minneapolis, along with other jurisdictions, should take this step toward making our communities more walkable places.

This post was written by Sam Rockwell and originally published on streets.mn. Follow streets.mn on Twitter: @streetsmn.

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When children are asked, antidepressants are no more effective than placebo, study finds

6 hours 59 min ago
Creative Commons/martinak15Although the psychiatrists and other clinicians involved in the studies were reporting that the antidepressants were leading to improvements in symptoms, the children themselves were often saying something else.

 

For the past 15 years or so, Glen Spielmans, an associate professor of psychology at Metropolitan State University in St. Paul, has been closely following the clinical-trial literature on antidepressant drugs and their use as a treatment for depressed children and adolescents.

As he read each new study, he noticed that the results that got the attention were those reported by the children’s psychiatrists — not by the children and teens themselves. Some of the studies had self-reports from the young people about how their symptoms fared while they were being treated with an antidepressant (or a placebo), but those reports were almost always downplayed or ignored.

“It didn’t seem to get discussed very often,” said Spielmans in an interview with MinnPost Tuesday, “but I informally noted that there didn’t seem to be any benefit for the drugs over placebo in terms of [the children’s] self-reports of depression and things like quality of life.”

In other words, although the children’s psychiatrists and other clinicians involved in the studies were reporting that the antidepressants were leading to improvements in symptoms, the children themselves were often saying something else.

“An informal observation doesn’t do the world much good,” added Spielmans, “so I decided to delve into it more systematically.”

‘No meaningful benefit’

This month he published that systematic analysis — what is known as a meta-analysis — in the journal Psychotherapy and Psychosomatics. Spielmans found what he had suspected from his earlier reading of the literature: there was a non-significant difference between so-called second-generation antidepressants (drugs such as Prozac, Paxil, Zoloft and Wellbutrin) and placebo in terms of the symptoms reported by the depressed children themselves and their overall well-being.

“We found no evidence that antidepressants offer any sort of clinically meaningful benefit for youth on self-report measures of depression, quality of life, global mental health, or parent reports of autonomy,” write Spielmans and his co-author, Katherine Gerwig, a psychologist at the University of Wisconsin in Madison, in their paper. “The debate around antidepressant efficacy among youth has nearly entirely involved differing opinions of how to interpret small but statistically significant effect sizes on clinician-rated measures of depression severity.”

This finding was true even for fluroxetine (Prozac), which has been cited by some researchers as the most effective antidepressant for children and teens.

“Even in the studies where fluroxetine had a pretty good effect on clinician-rated measures, that didn’t really carry over in terms of things like self-reports and mental health in general,” said Spielmans.

Based on tradition, not evidence

Spielmans acknowledges that his meta-analysis was limited by a small number of clinical trials (eight). But the number was small because few placebo-controlled studies involving antidepressants and children have either asked the children about their symptoms or measured outcomes that reflect the young people’s overall well-being.

Glen Spielmans

“Psychiatry research has traditionally valued clinician-rated measures over self-reports,” he said. “But there really isn’t a lot of great evidence [to support that approach]. It’s based more on tradition than on great evidence that that’s the best way to do things.

“I think it’s valuable to get clinician input,” Spielmans added, “but in the end, it would seem like the opinion of the child or adolescent — or in adult studies, the adult patients — should be pretty valuable.”

Most depressed people — including children and teens — are able to provide accurate ratings of their own mental state, he stressed.

“After all, we’re talking about depression here, not psychosis,” he said.

Not without risks

Although it’s not clear exactly how outcome measures should be weighed in placebo-controlled clinical trials involving antidepressants and children, the results of this new meta-analysis suggest, as Spielmans and Gerwig write, “that the overall benefits of antidepressants in youth have been overstated and that their overall benefit over placebo may be vanishingly small.”

And these drugs are not without their risks. Studies have reported that children, teens, and young adults who take antidepressants for depression are at greater risk of thinking about and attempting suicide than their peers who do not take these drugs to treat their depression. They are also more likely to become agitated and hostile.

The use of antidepressants in the United States has skyrocketed among all age groups during the past two decades. Currently, 3.2 percent of American adolescents, aged 12 to 19, are taking the drugs — the same percentage who take prescription drugs for attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD).

“As somebody who has looked at the evidence base pretty closely and who has compared that pretty unimpressive evidence base to what’s happening in terms of the rates of prescribing, it’s pretty hard to square those two things,” said Spielmans.

You’ll find an abstract of Spielmans’ study on the Psychotherapy and Psychosomatics website. Unfortunately, the study itself is behind a paywall.

(Full disclosure: I teach writing and editing courses at Metro State.)

Southwest LRT municipal consent hearing moved to May 29

7 hours 20 min ago

A hearing on municipal consent for the Southwest LRT project has been moved back two weeks, to May 29.

The joint meeting of the Metropolitan Council and the Hennepin County Regional Railroad Authority, originally scheduled for May 12, was delayed because the Met Council sent incorrect design information to Minneapolis. Due to the re-send, there was not enough advance-notice time before the original hearing.

The Met Council seeks approval from the county and the five cities affected by the proposed $1.68 billion light-rail line between downtown Minneapolis and Eden Prairie.

The two-week delay extends the review process until July 14, even though supporters had been working with a June 30 deadline for getting municipal approval.

The new May 29 hearing time is 6 p.m., at the Hennpin County Government Center, 300 S. 6th St. An open house with information on the project will start at 5 p.m.

Minnesota wins three national 'green schools' awards

7 hours 25 min ago

Two Minnesota schools and a school district received awards this week from the U.S. Department of Education for sustainability efforts.

Green Ribbon School Awards went to 48 schools around the country for their "efforts to reduce environmental impact and utility costs, promote better health, and ensure effective environmental education, including civics and green career pathways."

Two of the 48 were from Minnesota::

  • Five Hawks Elementary School, Prior Lake
  • Chisago Lakes Middle School, Lindstrom

Nine school districts also got District Sustainability Awards, including one in Minnesota:

  • Waconia Independent School District 110

In announcing the awards, U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan said the winners:

"...are modeling a comprehensive approach to being green by encompassing facility, wellness and learning into their daily operations. They are demonstrating ways schools can simultaneously cut costs, improve health, and engage students with hands-on learning that prepares them with the thinking skills necessary to be successful in college and careers."

U 'redlining' report: banks still hurting non-white homebuyers

7 hours 39 min ago

University of Minnesota researchers ran some mortgage numbers, concluding redlining is so bad wealthy minorities are having a tougher time getting mortgages than poor whites.

The report, from the U Law School's Institute on Metropolitan Opportunity (pdf),  asserts that, even after the economic recovery, Wells Fargo and other banks didn't distribute mortgage loans proportionally in diverse areas — in particular, underserved north Minneapolis.

Wells Fargo, the area's largest mortgage lender, disputes the institute's claim.

According to the report:

Though blacks and Hispanics typically have lower incomes than white borrowers, income differences do not explain the disparities — very-high-income blacks and Hispanics were more likely to receive subprime loans than very-low-income whites.

In fact, very high income blacks were 3.8 times more likely to receive subprime loans for home purchases than very low income whites, and 1.9 times more likely to receive subprime refinance loans.

Although income is not the sole determinant of whether applicants obtain loans, it is hard to believe that credit profiles or economic factors other than income could justify differences of this magnitude between very-high-income black applicants and very-low-income white applicants.

Maps: Subprime mortgages and people of color
The first map below shows concentration of subprime mortgage loans by census tract. The second map shows the percentage of the population that are people of color.Sources: Home Mortgage Disclosure Act; U.S. Census Bureau, SF1

The bank responds that the study didn't include government or FHA-back mortgages, leaning heavily on the report's acknowledgement that non-racial factors play a part. (Wells Fargo's full response is at story's end.)

Not unexpectedly, the report has angered those who work with low-income Minnesotans.

"This report shows redlining is alive and well, and in some ways worse than it's ever been. It's not only immoral and unjust, but illegal,” said Anthony Newby, executive director of Neighborhoods Organizing for Change.

Steve Fletcher of Minnesota 2020 explains in a blog post that redlining is a term for when neighborhoods, rather than individuals, are evaluated on credit risk. Declining or risky neighborhoods, he says, tended to be predominantly nonwhite.

Fletcher discusses how the policies caused harm:

For multiple generations in our country, white families with the same household income have been given the opportunity to own property, earn equity, pass it on to their families, and build wealth over generations. Black families, on the other hand, have either been denied access to home loans or given subprime loans that are set up for failure. Even for black families that manage to get stable loans and build equity in their own home, the pattern of geographic discrimination against predominantly nonwhite neighborhoods leaves vacant homes and neglected properties that lower the property value for the whole neighborhood.

Fletcher asserts that biased institutions can say race wasn't a turndown factor, while using location to produce the same effect.

The report, authored by Myron Orfield, outlines how mortgage evaluations should work:

Lenders ... could ensure that loan origination rates are similar for households with similar economic profiles (regardless of race). They could also eliminate practices that currently lead to lower lending rates in diverse and majority-minority neighborhoods than would be expected given household incomes in those areas.

For instance, if the home purchase and refinance loan portfolios of the region’s banks simply reflected the regional distribution of homeowners and the actual mix of household incomes in each neighborhood, more than 13,300 additional loans would have been made in diverse and majority non-white neighborhoods over the four years from 2009 to 2012 (a 55 percent increase).

Some advocates for the poor believe lawsuits against the banks should be considered.

Rev. Kelly Chatman, pastor of Redeemer Lutheran Church in Minneapolis and member of ISAIAH’s clergy caucus, said in a statement:

"The racist practices of banks and mortgage lenders are unacceptable, and our faith calls us to respond. The Bible says, and I believe, that when one part suffers, every part suffers with it. The city needs to take action to end the suffering and make sure the banks repair the harm that has been done."

And Minneapolis City Council Member Cam Gordon said: "Lawsuits have been used in other cities, like Baltimore and Memphis. As we look into this, we'll look into remedies used in other cities."

Wells Fargo's corporate communications office provided this response to Orfield's study:

First, we note that the loans included in the study exclude government or FHA-backed mortgages which represent approximately 20 percent of the loans made during the study period. In addition, the study does not address many key factors besides income that go into a credit decision, such as borrowers’ credit scores and how much debt they have.

Wells Fargo has always been a leader in fair and responsible lending, and lending in all communities is a focus for our company.  As a result,Wells Fargo is by far the largest mortgage lender in the Twin Cities; overall, in lending to borrowers representing all racial and ethnic groups, and in lending in diverse and minority communities.

• We are dedicated to helping our customers achieve their financial goals through homeownership and we remain committed to making credit accessible to consumers.

• Wells Fargo has always been a leader in implementing policies to ensure fair and responsible lending, and lending in all communities has always been a focus for our company.

• Wells Fargo is by far the largest mortgage lender in the Twin Cities; overall, in lending to borrowers representing all racial and ethnic groups, and in lending in diverse and minority communities. Our market share in lending to minority borrowers and in minority communities is consistent with our overall market share.

• In the 2009-2012 period, Wells Fargo originated more than twice as many loans overall than the second largest lender, as well as more than twice as many loans to African American borrowers, more than three times as many loans to Hispanic borrowers, and more than twice as many loans in predominantly minority neighborhoods.

• In September 2012, we partnered with Minneapolis and St. Paul city leaders and local not-for-profit groups for NeighborhoodLIFT® , a unique program that provides down payment assistance, education, and access to potential homebuyers to purchase properties inside the city limits. The Twin Cities, our NeighborhoodLIFT commitment included $9 million for down payment assistance, locally designed programs to meet housing priorities, and local home buying education and support events. It also included a five-year mortgage lending goal of $1.9 billion.

To address disparity issues, in November 2013 we announced Wells Fargo NeighborhoodLIFT grants totaling $1.15 million focused on directly helping people to improve credit scores, reduce debt, increase savings and gain knowledge to become sustainable homeowners. The nonprofit organizations coordinating the work, with $80,000 grants each are: BuildWealth, Hmong American Partnership, Minneapolis Urban League, Emerge, CLUES, NEDA and Employment Action Center. This work is ongoing during 2014.

In addition, the Minnesota Homeownership Center received a grant of $200,000 for the research study and to implement outreach programs to underserved communities. TPT/ECHO received a $390,000 grant for 2014 focus group analysis, educational programs and documentaries addressing the root causes of financial challenges and opportunities for cultural communities.

• We continue to support ongoing homebuyer education efforts; for example, on Saturday, April 4, we worked with the MN Homeownership Center to organize a homebuyer education workshop that was attended by 90 potential first-time homebuyers and featured presentations in English, Hmong and Spanish.

Hennepin County Commissioner election interview: Ben Schweigert

8 hours 30 min ago

Editor’s note: this is the third of four candidate profiles to succeed Hennepin County Commissioner Gail Dorfman. The primary election for the downtown/southwest Minneapolis and St. Louis Park seat is Tuesday, April 29, with the general election May 13. You can read the Ken Kelash and Anne Mavity profiles; Marion Greene's will appear Thursday.

Ben Schweigert grew up in St. Paul, graduated from Swarthmore College and was settling into East Coast life when he took a course from Wellstone Action.

After the course, he came home as the regional director of the Democratic National Committee’s 2004-election canvassing project. He later worked for the Minnesota House DFL Caucus.

He is on Hennepin County Attorney Mike Freeman's staff,  as a prosecutor and legislative liaison. He is 34.

His law degree is from the University of Michigan, where he also earned a Master’s Degree from the Gerald R. Ford School of Public Policy. He later clerked for the United States Court of Appeals, Second Circuit, which includes New York, Connecticut and Vermont.

MinnPost: What would you have done differently with the Southwest Light Rail Line?

Ben Schweigert: I’m committed to building a transportation future that’s healthier for people and healthier for neighborhoods and healthier for the planet.

I see our light-rail network as a critical part of that, and I want to see it expanded, I want to see it succeed, and that includes the Southwest line. I want to see it built.

Obviously, the process to get where we are now has been very difficult. I think we’ve learned a lot about the importance of getting good data in the early stages of the planning process, and I mean that in terms of engineering data.

I also mean it in terms of good modeling of ridership and projections, about impacts on communities in terms of development potential and in terms of the impact of construction and future impacts of the project.

I think we can learn from this process ... engaging at earlier stages with communities and giving communities a chance to hash over that kind of data.

We’ve also learned the importance of making sure that commitments made with a project like this, to communities and other players are well-understood by everyone involved and reduced to writing, so that people have a shared understanding.

Obviously, there was an agreement regarding the re-location of the freight trains, that people have proven to have had different understandings. I think a lesson we can learn is to avoid such a situation in the future.

MP: The winner of this contest will take office while Hennepin County and the cities along the Southwest Light Rail line are in the process of deciding the question of municipal consent. Minneapolis is at odds with the current plan. What would you do to get them into the fold?

BS: I think it’s critical that we get Minneapolis on board. I don’t think we can afford to see this project fail or significantly delayed. I think it’s time to move forward.

We’re going to have a conversation with Minneapolis about what they need to get on board. Obviously, the deal Minneapolis is being offered right now is not quite the deal they though they agreed to at the beginning. I understand that. I take that seriously.

The question then is how do we make our leaders at Minneapolis City Hall feel good about this project. I think we can do that by focusing on our areas of agreement, making sure we are protecting the lakes, making sure we are minimizing impacts on communities both from construction and the project.

MinnPost photo by Karen BorosBen Schweigert

Then, looking at our transportation future and figuring out the ways we can cooperate going forward and how can we engage constructively with the city doing that.

But as the center of the metro area, Minneapolis — and I say this as somebody who lives in Minneapolis — is invested in a future where people can use cars less and where it’s easy to get around in other ways if we choose to.

I’m a bike and bus commuter myself, my wife and I are a one-car family. That’s a choice we made, partly a lifestyle choice and a choice of values, to live in a more sustainable way. We can do that because of the infrastructure that exists here.

This line, the Southwest line, will connect places in Minneapolis. It will allow people who live downtown or in Cedar-Riverside to transfer from bus lines and get to employers in the western suburbs. It will allow people in the western suburbs to get to their jobs in Minneapolis, which is good for our business community.

There are benefits Minneapolis is going to get out of this line being built. The more we can develop a culture here that understands that we can do things in our daily lives without getting into a car, that is inherently a good thing for Minneapolis and the City of St. Louis Park as well.

MP: Leaders in Minneapolis and St. Paul are dedicated to closing the opportunity gaps that exist between persons of color and those who are white. This was a major issue in the Minneapolis election. What would you do to move Hennepin County in this direction?

BS: Certainly, I was excited to hear those conversations happening in the city elections last year ... in a way I haven’t seen before.

I grew up in an urban community that was, maybe, half-white. I went to a high school that was less than half white but my classes in that high school were mostly white. The divide we see in our community is one that ran right through the middle of my high school. It’s one I’ve been conscious of my whole life.

And one that, for a long time, has been hard to get people to talk about, especially hard to get white people to talk about. I was very heartened to hear that conversation.

From my vantage point, as someone who works at the county, I’ve been very conscious that making progress on these issues is going to require the county, because the bulk of our social service infrastructure is housed at the county. The significance of the county in social services was one of the primary things that motivated me to run for this seat.

It is time for us to think about the infrastructure that exists at the county, that is there to provide help for people who need help, and ask ourselves what is this for and what is the organizing principle and how do we make sure the structure we have is well designed to serve that goal.

[The] organizing principle here is fighting inequity, creating opportunities for people. We should judge our work and judge our structure of government by how well it’s doing that.

I want to see the county’s social service infrastructure as a tool for addressing inequity.

MP: What do you bring to this contest that makes you a better choice for County Commissioner than your opponents?

BS: There are five things that set me apart. One is that I work for the county. In my role as legislative liaison for the County Attorney, I have had the chance to work with people in different county departments. I’ve had a chance to get to know some of the members of the County Board and the County Administrator.

It’s in that role that I got to know Commissioner Dorfman, because I was on a working group on sex trafficking in the County Attorney’s office, which is an issue she has been a leader on at the county level.

I’ve seen what works at the county. I’ve seen what we can improve. That puts me into a position where I’ll be able to come into this role with a base of knowledge that, I think it’s fair to say, sets me apart.

At the same time, I think I have an opportunity to bring a fresh prospective to the board’s work. The County Board is composed of great people who I work with and admire. At the same time, I think it’s an institution that needs a new forward-looking prospective.

I’m coming to this as someone who has had a career in public service, but I’ve never run for office before. I’m coming to this without any legacy of political battle scars, ready to work with everyone on the board and excited to work with the new leadership at Minneapolis City Hall, excited to work with the leaders in St. Louis Park.

Hennepin County

 

And do it all from the prospective, not of the conflicts we’ve had in the past, but what is it we can do together in the future.

I have the skill set to come in and ask those hard questions and hold people accountable, to parcel large bodies of information, and figure out where the problems lie and challenge people on them. That’s what I do as a prosecutor.

I think that skill set will allow me to come in and ask the hard questions that have to be asked and build innovative forward-looking solutions that can prepare our county for new generation of public policy challenges.

MP: The winner in this contest will have to run again in November. If you lose in May will you challenge the winner in November?

BS: I don’t know. I’ve never done anything like this before. Six months ago, I didn’t think I’d be running now. So I just don’t know. And that’s the honest answer.

MP: If you win the election in May, you will not have much time to establish a track record before the November election. What will your number-one priority be, and how will you make that happen?

BS: Obviously, we have to resolve the situation with Southwest Light Rail and that is an externally driven time line we have to be responsive to. That would have to be one of the first things I do.

Some of those larger structural questions are going to define our success going forward. How does our transportation infrastructure work or how can we change our social services structure so that it's an engine to create opportunity for people.

Those are things that are not going to get done in six months, but they are things we can’t wait to get started on, either. 

MP: The Hennepin County Board is sometimes referred to as the invisible government, even though it is second only in size to Minnesota state government. Do you think this is a problem? What do you do to change this image?

BS: The county is not invisible to everyone. A lot of what the county does is help people who need help. It’s not invisible to people who rely on the county for help with food or housing or health care or child care, for people who are victims of crime and rely the county’s public safety structure. It’s not invisible to them.

It’s more invisible to those who are lucky enough, or privileged enough, not to need that sort of help. 

A lot of what the county does interfaces with other units of government. So our county roads, many of them run through our cities and are indistinguishable from our city streets, like Lyndale Avenue, which runs a block from my house. That’s probably a good thing. We want there to be a seamless infrastructure.

As a member of the County Board, you can count on me to be out in the community talking about what the county is doing. I think that’s crucial for accountability. It’s critical that people who represent the county make themselves available to people who live in the communities, listen to people and learn from people.

What I’m committed to do is show up at neighborhood meetings, labor meetings, nonprofit and faith organization. I don’t think the answer is to expect people to come to us. I don’t think that’s the kind of accountability people expect.

I say this as someone who is active in my neighborhood organization, I say this as someone who is active in my union, who is involved in the community. People are active in all kids of ways in our county, and that is where a lot of important, exciting stuff happens.

I don’t think the best model for the county is to hold more hearings and expect people to show up. I think having people come to the Government Center is probably good, but I think its better for people to be in the their community doing the good work doing rather than spending the day waiting for a hearing to happen at 300 6th St.

MP: Is there a question I haven’t asked or a topic you would like to address?

BS: One of the things that I’ve been talking about in this campaign that I think is important is the way in which the age structure of our economy affects all of the other questions we’ve been discussing, and affects the way in which people need economic assistance.

We live in a time when wages — especially for people at the lower ends of the income distribution — have been stagnant for a long time. And yet we live in a community where rents are going up all of the time.

I want us to be talking about that, not just the help people can get from the county, but the way in which the county can be part of developing economic success in people’s lives. Allowing them to create more prosperity.

This is why I was such an advocate for raising the minimum wage on the state level. It’s why I have called on the county to adopt a living wage at the county level, similar to the efforts of President Obama on the federal level. It’s why I am a supporter of organized labor, and why I’m a supporter of enforcement of our prevailing wage standards.

We need to find whatever mechanism we can to make sure people who are working full time are not living in poverty. This is not a problem Hennepin County is going to solve on its own, but if we’re not looking for ways to be part of the solution, that’s a significant failure on our part.

MP: At a journalism seminar I attended a few years ago we talked about questions that will get people talking about themselves. So here’s the question: What is your favorite childhood memory?

BS: Since we are doing this interview in the context of me running for office, I think about my early political memories.

When I was 10 or 11, going with my Dad to hear Sen. Wellstone speak. He had probably been in office three weeks at that point.

I remember taking the 16 bus from our neighborhood to the U and seeing him speak and being transfixed by him.

When I think about the inspirations I’ve had in my life, working for a society that is fairer, more sustainable, creating more prosperity for more people, for a world that’s more peaceful, I always think about that memory. I think it had a lot to do with the choices I’ve made in my life.

He was an inspiration to me without him even knowing who I was.

But all through my years of growing up, all through college, no matter how bad it got, I could always say ‘at least we’ve got Paul.’

And then all of the sudden we didn’t.

I had never really worked on a political campaign before that point. I think it was feeling that hole that made me decide I needed to do that.

The history of the ‘Nicollet Wall’ and a hamstrung City Hall

8 hours 30 min ago
MinnPost photo by Iric Nathanson36 years after it was built, city planners have drafted a new development blueprint that could lead to the removal of the wall blocking Nicollet Avenue at 29th Street.

Peter Feider was not at all impressed with the new addition to his neighborhood.

“Downtown has its Nicollet Mall. Now, we have the Nicollet Wall,” Feider remarked in 1977, soon after the massive wall was built at 29th Street, just beyond his Town Crier Pancake House.

The concrete obstruction, more than 20 feet tall, cut off direct access to Feider’s restaurant from the south, causing a sharp drop in his business.

The wall was built to close off a key stretch of Nicollet Avenue, two and half miles south of its much-heralded downtown transit mall. Local development officials maintained that the street closing was needed in order to entice Kmart to move into what was then a distressed swath of South Minneapolis. With Nicollet blocked between 29th and Lake, the national discount chain opened its sprawling big box store in 1978. Kmart’s Lake Street site spanned what had been a major north-south thoroughfare.

Now, 36 years later, city planners have drafted a new development blueprint that could lead to the reopening of Nicollet Avenue and the removal of the wall at 29th Street.

The origins of the street closing, now considered a City Hall mistake, extend back to the early 1970s when work began on what came to be known as the Nicollet Lake Development District. This planning effort was launched at a time when federal urban development policy was undergoing a major transformation. Earlier, in the 1950s and ’60s, Minneapolis had received a massive injection of federal urban renewal funds, totaling more than $16 million, to clear and redevelop a blighted section of downtown known as Gateway. But the federal program had lost favor in Washington and federal funds were drying up even as rebuilding was underway in the downtown district.

With the imminent demise of federal urban renewal, city officials knew they needed a find a local source of public funds in order to move ahead with their ambitious efforts to eliminate urban blight in Minneapolis. They found that source by harnessing the city’s property taxing authority and using it as a redevelopment tool. Through a system of tax increment financing, the city identified certain redevelopment target areas known as development districts. Within these districts, the city was able to generate the capital it needed to acquire and clear blighted sites by issuing city-backed bonds. As development occurred, the increased or incremental property taxes generated within the district were earmarked to pay off the city bonds.

The city’s first tax increment project, District #1, encompassed a collection of blighted blocks, extending over to Loring Park, at the south end of the Nicollet Mall. The next project, District #2, created in 1972, covered an eight-block area at Lake and Nicollet.

City officials had ambitious plans for the Nicollet-Lake district. Some said it had the potential to become a mini-Southdale, with a large shopping center surrounded by apartments, offices, restaurants and a movie theater.

Unable to deliver

The concept of tax increment was based on the assumption that new, private real-estate investment would occur within the development districts once the blighted structures were demolished. But at Nicollet-Lake, the city began acquiring sites and clearing them without any firm assurances that development would, in fact, take place. As bulldozers moved through the district in 1974, the city granted redevelopment rights to a local real-estate group, Nicollet Lake Associates. But the Nicollet Lake group was unable to deliver on its investment promises.

By the fall of 1976, a large section of the Nicollet-Lake district had already been cleared, but only a minimal amount of rebuilding had occurred there. That year, the city had to start making payments on the tax increment bonds but lacked the tax increment revenues needed to cover those costs. A shortfall of $371,000 meant that the city had to dip into its general revenue funds to make the Nicollet-Lake bond payments. As a result, all city taxpayers, not just those within the development district, had to share in covering the annual bond payment costs. With development lagging in the Loring Park district, bond payments for both districts were expected to cost city taxpayers about $1.8 million in 1978.

By now, City Council members and their agency staff were getting desperate. Unless they were able to find a developer who would build at Nicollet Lake, District #2 would become a mounting financial and political liability for the city. City Hall breathed a collective sigh of relief when Kmart signaled that it was looking at Nicollet and Lake as a possible site for a new store. But Kmart’s sign off on a Lake Street store came with one major condition: Nicollet Avenue needed to be closed if the national chain was going to build there.

A chain reaction

When area business owners and residents learned about the condition, opposition to the street closing began to build in the nearby neighborhoods. Activists quickly formed a protest group, Keep Nicollet Open (KNO), and began agitating to block the closing. “No one is objecting to the Kmart,” declared Curt Brown, a KNO supporter who owned a Texaco station at 25th and Nicollet. “But we think Kmart could be built without closing Nicollet. Brown and other business owners urged the city to consider a plan, which would have placed the main Kmart store on one side of Nicollet and its auto service center on the other side of the street, but the company rejected that proposal.

The Minneapolis Tribune, the voice of informed downtown opinion, urged the City Council to accede to Kmart’s demands. “Kmart could be the last chance, at least for the foreseeable future, for an anchor for Nicollet Lake,” the Tribune editorialized. “Even if there were other interested stores, there is no assurance that they wouldn’t want to close off Nicollet, too. We think the possible benefits of the Nicollet Lake project far outweigh the disadvantages. Kmart should be welcomed and encouraged to be part of the project.” 

The Tribune’s sister publication, the Minneapolis Star, was more ambivalent about the Kmart development and the street closing. “We share concerns of nearby residents and merchants that Nicollet Avenue traffic once diverted on to Blaisdell or 1st Avenue might never make it back to Nicollet, “ the paper declared. But the paper later acknowledged that there was “no practical choice” but to go along with the closing.

In the end, despite the best efforts of KNO, the City Council voted 10-2 in May of 1976 to approve the Kmart project and authorize the street closing. Later, after the massive one-story chain store was built, the Star’s outspoken Barbara Flanagan was quick to express her disapproval. “There is a new candidate for annual Shambles Award,” she announced in early 1978. “This year the biggest shambles is the new Kmart that blocks Nicollet Avenue. One look and you can’t resist saying ‘what a shambles.’”

In 1978, Kmart did make a modest effort to mollify its critics by contributing $3,000 for a mural on the wall at the back of its building. The mural, installed later that year, showed a figure opening a series of doors that revealed a battleship in the background. More than 35 years later the mural is still there, facing the rubble-strewn termination of Nicollet Avenue at 29th Street.

Waiting for the fall

Earlier this month, a City Council committee approved a new Nicollet-Lake redevelopment plan that reaffirms city support for reopening Nicollet Avenue. The plan also calls for direct access to Interstate 35W from Lake Street, and the creation of a small park along Nicollet at Midtown Greenway. While the 2014 plan provides a development blueprint, it does not include city funding for a future redevelopment at the Kmart site. Most likely, any future development will require a strong city partnership with a for-profit developer.

If a new development partnership does come together at Nicollet and Lake, local business owners and residents will be standing by, ready to applaud when the Nicollet Wall finally comes down.

Cash, not credit: DFLers consider end run around GOP

8 hours 33 min ago

For some DFLers in the Minnesota Legislature, $1 billion isn’t a magic number.

For more than a decade, that’s been the status-quo cap on bonding proposals — even-year construction project packages on the state of Minnesota’s credit card.  As in previous sessions, current GOP and DFL legislative leadership have agreed to a $1 billion biennial cap.  

But with extra money on this year’s bottom line, DFL legislators are finding ways to make that number go up without technically breaking their word.  

House Capital Investment Chairwoman Alice Hausman has introduced a $125 million proposal that pays cash for a handful of construction projects out of the state’s $1.2 billion surplus. That’s on top of the $1 billion bonding cap ($150 million last session, $850 million this year).

Senate Democrats are still crafting their bonding bill, but Majority Leader Tom Bakk says they will pitch even more cash than the House into construction projects. 

Republicans have criticized Democrats for spending more from the surplus rather than returning it in tax breaks. House Minority Leader Kurt Daudt said it’s “possible” the cash bill could get tangled up in broader bonding negotiations, but he plans to wait until he sees the final list of projects. 

Lowering the bar for divisive projects

Using cash is politically tempting because DFL majorities wouldn't need minority acquiescence. 

Traditional bonding bills require a three-fifths majority; the DFL is two votes short in the Senate and eight short in the House. In other words, for borrowing, Dems must lure GOP votes.

Cash projects only require a simple majority, and Democrats have comfortable margins there.

Hausman’s cash bill includes some projects that have clashed philosophically with Republicans. 

That includes $37 million for the Metropolitan Council, some of it for transit, $3 million for the Minneapolis-Hennepin Center for the Arts, $5 million for the St. Paul Ordway Center for the Performing Arts and $6 million for the Historic Palace Theater Renovation in St. Paul.

“We like stuff that doesn’t need paint; concrete, steel, blacktop and infrastructure,” House Capital Investment Republican lead Matt Dean notes.

To lure the Duluth/Iron Range delegation, Hausman’s proposal includes funding for the NorShor Theater redesign, Duluth’s Spirit Mountain Recreation Area and Wade Stadium, the International Falls Airport, and the Lake Superior Poplar River Water District.

Argues Dean, “Those are also dollars that could be going for lots of other good priorities in health and human services and education. It’s a priority decision. We think that we can fund the priorities of the capital investment needs within the $850 million.” 

Despite the bonding-busting debate, proposals are missing full Capitol restoration funding, which Republicans support. The House bill includes a $15 million renovations placeholder, but the Department of Administration says the project needs $126 million this year.

A too-tight borrowing cap?

Hausman says one reason for cash bonding is an out-of-date cap. “There is getting to be a feeling — because of a backlog of projects and because interest rates are coming in low — that it’s still a good year to be a bit more aggressive on bonding, but we have this psychological barrier with $1 billion,” Hausman said. “That psychological barrier is really hurting our state right now.”

There’s some precedent for paying for capital investment projects in cash. 

Sitting on a nearly $2 million budget surplus in 1998, Republican Gov. Arne Carlson proposed the state’s first $1 billion bonding bill. Not only did that bill start the trend of $1 billion bonding packages, legislators also converted it into half-bonds, half-cash. 

Former DFL Senate Majority Leader Roger Moe, who negotiated opposite Carlson, says sometimes projects are too volatile to be pass through traditional borrowing. He offered transit as an example.

“That’s just the political reality,” Moe said. “[Transit] is more of a rural and urban differential than a partisan one, but anything that gets the job done makes sense.”

The debate then was similar to the one lawmakers are having today: Is it better fiscal policy to spend the surplus on one-time projects, or should the money go back into Minnesotans' pockets via tax breaks?

Says current Senate Minority Leader David Hann: “Because there’s a so-called surplus shouldn’t be a license to spend more money. Democrats want to spend every dollar and every penny they can get their hands on.” 

Jay Kiedrowski, a senior fellow at the University of Minnesota’s Humphrey School of Public Affairs, is more on board with one-time spending.  

“Capital improvements are going to last for a long time, and theories suggest you should pay for it over the long term so that this generation isn’t paying for something that’s used by the next generation,” he said. “But clearly, one of the better uses of excess funds — if you aren’t going to put them in the reserve — is on one-time projects. It’s the ongoing spending that gets you in trouble in the next couple of years.” 

Dean acknowledges that it’s common to spend some cash on capital projects that don’t meet bonding requirements. For example, “you can bond for a hockey rink but you can’t bond for a Zamboni,” says the Republican.

Kiedrowski notes the state’s debt policy allows it to pass more than a $1 billion bonding bill. “There’s nothing magic about the billion number,” he said. 

Dayton, who earlier this year unveiled a $986 million bonding proposal on top of 2013's $150 million, has asked DFL leaders to break their handshake agreement with Republicans to not top the $1 billion biennial total. He argues interest rates are low and projects demand is high, making it unnecessary to spend cash.  

“I’ve said to both leaders in the House and Senate that we don’t use cash for bonding bills because that’s the whole purpose of bonding, you put cash down and expand the scope of projects dramatically,” said Dayton. “Putting cash into a bonding bill to me is antithetical to the whole purpose of that enterprise.”

Both Hann and Daudt say they will not bust the $850 million cap.

DFLer-on-DFLer dealmaking 

As this year’s earlier intra-DFL dust-ups demonstrated, the party going alone must sometimes deal-make with itself.

Hausman said the cash bill still needs to represent the whole state to get metro, rural and suburban Democratic votes.

Hausman says the cash list could get larger, especially if other legislators insist on full Capitol restoration funding. Dayton would also like to see full funding for St. Peter security hospital upgrades, which is included in his bill but not the House list of projects. Once the Senate releases its projects, the two chambers will have to work out their differences in conference committee.

“That’s still not going to be quite enough because of these big projects the governor wanted that didn’t fit in our bill,” Hausman said. “We could have even more cash or we could decide to go higher than $850 million in bonding."

Legislative path to preventing heroin deaths paved with tears

8 hours 34 min ago

The 911 Good Samaritan + Naloxone bill — a.k.a. Steve’s Law — has made steady progress through both Minnesota House and Senate committees since it was introduced at the 2014 session's start. Last week, the Senate gave it a unanimous thumbs-up, and its next stop is a House floor vote.

The Senate endorsement was a bittersweet victory for chief author Sen. Chris Eaton, DFL-Brooklyn Center, whose daughter’s fatal heroin overdose is one of many tragedies that form the bill's backdrop.

Ariel Eaton-Willson, just 23 when she died in on May 29, 2007, was with someone when she overdosed and stopped breathing — someone who was too busy hiding the stash and too worried about getting busted to call 911. Alert police officers intervened, and an ambulance was called, but by the time the heroin antidote naloxone (brand-name Narcan) could be administered it was too late to save Eaton-Willson’s life.

One witness after another has tearfully disclosed stories very much like Eaton’s. They include Lexi Reed Holtum, whose fiancé Steve Rummler (for whom the bill is named) died of a heroin overdose on July 1, 2011. Like Ariel, he was with someone when he died, someone who did not call 911 for fear of the consequences. Holtum, vice president of the Steve Rummler Hope Foundation, has worked closely (and tirelessly) with Eaton and State Rep. Dan Schoen, DFL-St. Paul Park, to secure the bill’s passage.

Steve’s Law (S.F. 1900/H.F. 2307) would do two things: grant limited immunity to those who call 911 in good faith to save a life, and make naloxone (an antidote not only to heroin but also to opioid painkillers) more widely available to first responders, physicians, care-providers and even families with loved ones who are heroin addicts.

The proposed law has created unease among some law-enforcement officials and others who don’t want to let users (and maybe even dealers) off the hook. Arguments include unduly burdening already overwhelmed first responders, precluding officers from fully investigating crime scenes, interfering with child-protection protocols and skirting medical oversight.

Arguments for the bill are simple: It saves lives. Furthermore, Holtum argues, states that have passed similar laws find that heroin overdose survivors are providing law-enforcement officers with dealer information and “building relationships where there were none.”

‘I don’t like it’

An audiotape of a House Civil Law Committee hearing last month captures one of the most pivotal and raw moments in the debate (at least on the House side).

Rep. Jim Newberger, R-Becker, a paramedic who said he has “pushed gallons of Narcan in the course of my career,” said that while the bill had his support, he was nevertheless aghast at the need for it.

“It needs to be said that if you have to choose between letting your friend die and not going to jail, well, anyone who would enter that into the equation of their thought process is a pretty sick individual,” he said at the March 19 hearing.

“If all you care about is, ‘Oh my gosh ... I’m not going to call 911 because my sister or my brother or my best friend is overdosing ...  because I don’t want to get in trouble,’ that’s a pure reflection on someone with a very broken moral character. Anyone who’s not willing to make the minimal sacrifice to say, ‘You know, I might get in trouble, but my buddy’s going to live,’ I’ve got a huge issue with that.

“Now that I’ve had my rant, I will support this, but I don’t like it.”

‘One little thing’

About 45 minutes later, after witnesses had had their say and some fine points of the law had been discussed, Rep. Mary Liz Holberg, R-Lakeville, took on her colleague from Becker. “I’m sorry, I’m going to get choked up,” she said. And then she did.

“Representative Newberger, people that are in the throes of chemical dependency and have the highest moral character make really bad decisions because of their illness,” Holberg said through tears. “Probably because this issue is very close to me, the comments that you made I found very offensive. Parents that have kids with these problems, the ability to have just one little tool when you feel so helpless ... is huge.”

Having someone with addiction in the family, she said, is “like ‘Alice in Wonderland.’ You cannot believe all the crazy stuff that goes down. As somebody that attended a group for parents, we used to say that if parents of ‘normal kids’ ever heard us talk about the things that went on in our homes and our families, they wouldn’t believe it. But if you lived it, it’s not an issue of moral character, and it’s not an issue of making good decisions. It is a nasty, horrible illness with consequences that are beyond prediction. And the ability to have one little thing to hang onto I think is huge.”

Hoping for some good

Shortly thereafter, the committee voted to send the bill to the House floor, complete with the immunity clause. More tinkering could be in the works. Eaton said in an interview last week that she has worked out a deal with law enforcement that would exclude first- and second-degree felony offenders from the immunity provisions.

She’ll be glad, she said, when the work is over.

“I’m hoping that ... we get [the bill] passed and start saving lives, so that there’s at least some purpose in Ariel’s death, that there’s something good that comes out of it — other than my tears. And I’m looking forward to not having to talk about it every day. That’s what I’ve done for a year now, and it’s been therapeutic and cathartic in a way, but at the same time it always dredges up [the loss], so it’s always in the forefront of my mind. Ariel died on May 29th, so we’re coming up on the seventh anniversary of her death. And her birthday was April 1st. So this is kind of a crappy time of year for me.”

Did the Kremlin just 'unfriend' the founder of Russia's Facebook?

9 hours 16 min ago

MOSCOW —Russia's version of Mark Zuckerberg, VKontakte founder and CEO Pavel Durov, is out of a job.

After what he describes as a long, under-the-carpet battle with Kremlin-linked forces who tried to force him to turn over user data to Russian secret services, Mr. Durov posted on his personal VKontakte page Monday that he found out from the media that he was fired, and criticized shareholders for not having the "courage" to do it to his face. He added that "complete control" of the mainly Russian-language, Facebook-like social media site is now in the hands of Igor Sechin, the head of the Kremlin-owned oil company Rosneft, and Russia's richest man, metals tycoon Alisher Usmanov.

VKontakte claims to have more than 100 million registered users, primarily in the former Soviet Union, which would make it Europe's biggest social media network.

"Something like this was probably inevitable in Russia, but I am glad that we held out for 7-1/2 years," Durov said. "We accomplished a lot. And some of what we've managed to do cannot be undone."

It's been a long and murky saga.

Durov is a flamboyant and sometimes controversial figure who once threw paper airplanes made of 5,000 ruble notes (about $160) from his office window to see how people in the street would react (it reportedly created pandemonium). About a year ago he was accused in a bizarre hit-and-run incident, in which he allegedly ran over a policeman's foot. He denied it, insisting that he does not even drive a car. While he was under investigation, his partners reportedly sold 48 percent of the company to an investment fund run by a senior executive in the Kremlin oil company Rosneft.

Scrolling down Durov's VKontakte page reveals the milestones of what he says has been his struggle to protect the data of his users.

He says that in March he resisted orders from the Moscow prosecutor to close down a group run by anti-corruption blogger Alexei Navalny. He said he was under "pressure from all sides" to prune Mr. Navalny and his followers from the site, but had held out for weeks. "Neither my team nor I are going to engage in political censorship," he said. "Freedom of information is an inalienable right in post-industrial society."

Last week Durov posted that in December he rebuffed demands from Russia's FSB security service to turn over information about members of the Ukrainian EuroMaidan protest movement who use VKontakte. "To give the personal information about our Ukrainian users to Russian authorities would not merely be against the law. It would be a betrayal of those millions of Ukrainians who trusted us," he wrote.

As a result of FSB pressure, he said, he was forced to sell his remaining 12 percent stake in VKontakte to a Russian telecom giant whose main shareholder is Mr. Usmanov. At the time he insisted that he would stay on as CEO of VKontakte to "watch over" the company.

But about a month ago he reportedly penned a letter of resignation, to take effect on April 1. He subsequently claimed that he withdrew the resignation, insisting that it should be obvious to all that it was "an April fool's prank."

But the directors of VKontakte do not appear to see it that way. In a statement quoted by the independent Interfax agency, they said that "Since the set period of a month has passed and his resignation has not been withdrawn, Pavel Durov's powers as general director of VKontakte have been terminated."

The statement also claimed that Durov had been using the company's resources "to develop his own projects."

According to the technology news site TechCrunch, Durov has left Russia and plans to work on other projects, including a mobile messaging app that encrypts data to protect it from interception.

"I’m out of Russia and have no plans to go back. Unfortunately, the country is incompatible with Internet business at the moment," Durov is quoted as telling TechCrunch on Tuesday. "I’m afraid there is no going back [to VKontakte]. Not after I publicly refused to cooperate with the authorities. They can’t stand me."

Russia's Internet is now wide open to official surveillance, says Anton Nosik, a popular Russian blogger.

"Durov resisted all attempts by special services and Kremlin structures to invade his social network. Without him, it looks like any and all personal information will now be handed over on the first request, without any legal basis," he says. "Durov was our final line of defense, and now he's gone."

What's behind Cameron's embrace of 'Christian Britain'?

9 hours 33 min ago

LONDON — Even the Anglican Church admits that Britons are not exactly known for their regular religious attendance.

So when Prime Minister David Cameron claimed that the UK is a "Christian country" that should be "more evangelical" about its faith, it definitely stood out – and stirred controversy.

Now, Britons have found themselves debating whether they should be "proud" of Christianity, or whether such talk risks sowing "alienation and division" in a more pluralistic society. But Mr. Cameron also appears to be playing politics, to stave off criticism over his government's policies on poverty and shore up his party's vote ahead of next month's European elections.

The controversy arose last week in a commentary Cameron wrote for the Church Times, an Anglican weekly newspaper, saying “I believe we should be more confident about our status as a Christian country, more ambitious about expanding the role of faith-based organisations, and, frankly, more evangelical about a faith that compels us to get out there and make a difference to people’s lives.”

While admitting that he was not a regular church-goer and that he was a "bit vague on some of the more difficult parts of the faith," Cameron said Christianity was "part of who I am."

“Some people feel that in this ever more secular age we shouldn’t talk about these things. I completely disagree," he added.

Although Britain does have a state religion, the Church of England, the question of whether it is a "Christian country" depends on one's perspective. In Britain’s last census in 2011, 33.2 million or 59 percent of the population considered themselves as Christians – a drop of 4 million from 2001.

But according to the Church of England, only around 1.7 million people take part in its services each month. And 11.4 million Britons claim no religion, according to the 2011 census.

Several prominent non-religious figures signed the most high-profile critique of Cameron's remarks, in a joint letter published in Monday’s Daily Telegraph, from a disparate group of 55 broadcasters, humanists, and authors among others. Signatories to the letter – which include authors Philip Pullman and Sir Terry Pratchett, broadcaster Dan Snow, philosopher A.C. Grayling, and human rights activist Peter Tatchell – claimed Cameron risked sowing "alienation and division" in what they claim is a more plural society.

“We wish to object to his repeated mischaracterising of our country as a ‘Christian country’ and the negative consequences for our politics and society that this view engenders," they wrote. “Repeated surveys, polls, and studies show most of us as individuals are not Christian in our beliefs or our religious identities and at a social level, Britain has been shaped for the better by many pre-Christian, non-Christian, and post-Christian forces.

“We are a plural society with citizens with a range of perspectives and a largely non-religious society. To constantly claim otherwise fosters alienation and division in our society,” they warned.

Cameron's commentary has caused some surprise. Elizabeth Oldfield, director of the religion and society think tank Theos, says the article was more "evangelical" than she would expect. And Wyn Grant, a professor of politics at Warwick University, says “It shouldn’t seem unusual for the prime minister of a country with its own religion to speak about it, but it is when it’s done quite candidly."

A political motive?

But Ms. Oldfield also notes that Cameron has recently come under fire from religious leaders – including Anglican bishops – for a reported increase in poverty under his government's leadership, which has seen more than one million people this year turn to food banks for hand-outs. His comments may be an attempt to placate the bishops she says – and perhaps, draw a distinction between himself and his political rivals.

“What he said isn’t a massive departure from what previous prime ministers have said," she points out, noting that Tony Blair played down his faith while in office, and has since become more openly religious. "I think [Cameron] is trying to differentiate himself from the other leaders, Ed Miliband [of Labour] and Nick Clegg [of the Liberal Democrats], who are either a bit vague about their religion or non-believers."

But Mr. Grant notes that Cameron likely has one eye on the anti-Europe right-wing UK Independence Party, or UKIP, ahead of next month’s EU elections.

UKIP, which espouses a "defense of Judeo-Christian culture," has been chipping away at the Conservatives poll numbers over the past year. Grant says that many of UKIP’s supporters are disaffected right-wing Conservatives who Cameron needs to woo back before the May election and next year’s general election.

“There haven’t been any detailed studies, but I suspect more right-wing Tories are also more religious," Grant says. "By appealing to them, Cameron is reaching out to supporters ahead of two important elections.”

Oldfield points out that there may be a political aspect to those criticizing Cameron as well. She notes that several of those signing yesterday’s open letter have critiqued Christianity in the past, and argued they are being disingenuous by claiming they were mainly concerned about community cohesion now.

"Most of them don’t like Cameron as a politician and as an individual,"  she says. "And I think that has as much to do with this letter as their criticism of Christianity.”

40 percent rise in Minneapolis gun incidents

11 hours 15 min ago

Matt McKinney of the Strib reports, “Gun incidents rose 40 percent in Minneapolis last year, the first significant jump in years following a long-term downward trend in gun-related cases. The gun incidents in the city report being released Wednesday include people being shot or shot at, reports of gunshot wounds or a gun used in a crime. Two top law enforcement officials said it’s too soon to say whether the report’s findings signaled the beginning of something new in crime, and pointed instead to the long-term decline.” Violent crime numbers were up 7 percent from 2011 to 2013, but still tracking close to 10-year lows.

Also in hi-tech: warrants … generally a solid democratic concept. Says the Strib's Abby Simons, “A measure requiring cops to get a warrant before using devices to track cell phones overwhelmingly passed the Minnesota Senate 56-1 Tuesday. Sen. Branden Petersen’s bill was authored in response to concern about ‘cellular exploitation devices’ marketed under names like the Kingfish and Stingray, which mimic local phone towers to capture data and location information of cellular phones in a given area. The Minnesota Bureau of Criminal Apprehension has one; so does the Hennepin County Sheriff’s Office." However, the bill was negotiated down from search warrants to tracking warrants that follow you around.

It could come down to docs v. cops. The Forum News Service says, “Minnesotans for Compassionate Care, one of the groups that support access to medical marijuana, unveiled the list of doctors and clergy during a news conference Tuesday at the state Capitol. No physicians attended the news conference, however. … Neil Lynch of the Republican Liberty Caucus expressed his group’s support for the bill. … But Lynch said there ‘are still some struggles’ among Republicans on the issue.”

Speaking of doctors … . Maya Beckstrom and Christopher Snowbeck of the PiPress report, “While Allina Health System plans to suspend water births — underwater deliveries that proponents say help women better cope with labor pain — no other Twin Cities hospitals report they plan to follow suit. Allina announced on its website last week that it would stop allowing women to deliver in water tubs at all its sites … . The decision follows an opinion that water births should be considered experimental, issued this month by two physician groups ... .” 31,000 births later and it’s still “experimental?”

Go north (metro), young man. The Strib's Eric Roper reports central-city officials are griping about revised Met Council forecasts showing metro-edge suburbs with more growth. Developers lobbied for higher population forecasts because there's still land to build out there; city folks say all the trends are pushing in. There's cash at stake, as you may expect. One interesting note: the Council says the metro highway system is essentially built, and now we get to maintain. Also, cool interactive graphic showing big north metro growth.

The broadband expansion idea might possibly get somewhere … except the Senate is silentChristopher Magan of the PiPress writes, “Minnesota needs to make a substantial investment in broadband Internet infrastructure if students and businesses in rural areas are going to compete with the rest of the nation, DFL lawmakers said Tuesday. Speaker Paul Thissen said $25 million in the House's supplemental spending bill would be a down payment on $100 million worth of Internet infrastructure that is needed to better connect Minnesotans.” The money is not in the Senate bill.

Meanwhile, many Minneapolis residents can buy 1-gig Internet ... now. The Strib's Steve Alexander says USI Wireless — which has a lucrative city of Minneapolis wi-fi contract — will soon offer 1-gigabyte fibre-optic service to several thousand city households. It's a rich $99-a-month, but the broadband duopoly, Comcast and CenturyLink, don't offer it. Competition is good, and the state of the market seems to require municipalities help. 

Cat monitoring … . The AP says, “As part of the agreement filed in Ramsey County, The Wildcat Sanctuary in Sandstone must hire an outside monitor for the next two years to improve the way it does business. The agreement filed in court said there was ‘extensive use’ of the sanctuary's credit cards ‘for personal expenses’ by [executive director Tammy] Thies, the Star Tribune reported. Among the items Thies acknowledged spending donated money on included women's underwear, movies, hair removal products and two books by comedian Chelsea Handler.

Protecting grandma's money is long overdue … . Says Tom Webb of the PiPress, “Hoping to stop scammers who prey on the elderly, Minnesota law enforcement officials Tuesday highlighted new rules that encourage financial-services workers to flag and question suspicious transactions, without running afoul of strict bank-privacy laws. ‘When a senior comes in and tries to get a $10,000 advance on a credit card, or tries to wire money to a foreign country’, it's now plainly OK for a teller to report the transaction and for bank officials to check with family members, said Will Phillips, AARP's Minnesota state director.”

Really? Bullying as a political rallying cry? Catharine Richert of MPR says, “Democrats say they're focusing on the [new anti-bullying law] to underscore their party's priorities, while Republicans are focusing on the law to fire-up the party faithful and to highlight their conservative credentials. … Republicans argue it is an unfunded example of government overreach. They also say that the new law threatens religious freedom, for instance if a student who opposes homosexuality based on his faith is accused of bullying.” Never let a good wedge opportunity go unexploited.

With ample taxpayer support … . Kim McGuire of the Strib tells us, “Edina High School is the best in Minnesota, according to U.S. News and World Report. On Tuesday, the publication released its 2014 rankings of American high schools, identifying the best based on Advanced Placement (AP) and International Baccalaureate exams and other criteria. In Minnesota, Mahtomedi and Houston High Schools were ranked second and third.”

Students 'dying' for straight As need to rethink the dangers of ‘study drug’

11 hours 45 min ago
CC/Flickr/tracer.caA National Institutes of Health study showed that, among college students, nonmedical users of prescription drugs are more likely to have lower GPAs than other groups.

Because grades directly affect their career prospects, college students will do anything they can to achieve the highest GPAs. In the words of one classmate: “We can die for all-As.”

Sirikan Rojanasarot

One option to boost concentration and stay up all night is a “study drug” known as Adderall.

Adderall is a medication used in the treatment of attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). It is the prescription stimulant most commonly used by college students for nonmedical purposes. More than half of nonmedical users ages 12 or older receive prescription drugs from their friends for free. In addition, 62 percent of college students with ADHD report giving away their prescription drugs.   

In the fall of 2013, there were 51,526 students enrolled in the University of Minnesota-Twin Cities. According to Boynton Health Service’s student health survey, 5 percent had a diagnosis of ADHD. Assuming that student numbers remain steady and that the other national trends hold true, there could be as many as 2,576 U of M students who are carrying Adderall, and as many as 1,591 who are passing it on to their friends.

Anything but ’safe’

Those who turn to Adderall as a study aid believe that it is safer than street drugs and expect that it will improve their focus and academic performance. However, a National Institutes of Health study showed that, among college students, nonmedical users of prescription drugs are more likely to have lower GPAs than other groups.

Additionally, college students who are nonmedical users of Adderall are more likely to establish other high risk and unhealthy behaviors [PDF]:

  • 90 percent of those who used Adderall nonmedically in the past year were binge drinkers, and more than 50 percent were heavy drinkers.
  • These college students were five times more likely to be nonmedical users of prescription painkillers.

The potential adverse effects of Adderall include heart attack and sudden cardiac death. Though these consequences are rare, their rates of occurrence increase when alcohol is used concurrently. A Medscape case report has shown that heart attack can afflict users as young as in their early 20s.

An incomplete strategy

In 2012, the Minnesota Department of Health Services developed the Minnesota Substance Abuse Strategy to address nonmedical use of prescription drugs in Minnesota. The strategy was designed to educate and train physicians about prescription opiates and heroin abuse and to increase provider participation in the Prescription Monitoring Program.

OAS_AD("Middle");

However, the strategy does not specifically address the use of Adderall among Minnesota college students. Further, it does not challenge misconceptions about the “safety” of using prescription drugs for nonmedical reasons.

Policy makers and college administrators would do well to promote a change in attitude toward the drug. College students need to better understand the risks of nonmedical use of Adderall and other prescription drugs, and, equally important, those with ADHD need to understand the importance of using prescription medications as directed for their own health.

Sirikan Rojanasarot is a first-year student in the Social and Administrative Pharmacy Graduate Program at the University of Minnesota.

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Saying knife at school was 'honest mistake,' Wells family argues expulsion is too severe

Tue, 04/22/2014 - 3:16pm

Last week, Alyssa Drescher was planning to do a little tanning in preparation for prom. The 17-year-old United South Central student from Wells had some perfume and lotion in her purse, which likely was what caused the drug dog to target her purse during a schoolwide lock down and drug search last Tuesday. Unfortunately, Drescher also had a knife in her purse – a gift from her father that she had used the previous weekend to help cut hay bales at her boyfriend’s family’s farm. Now, Drescher faces expulsion, according to a story by Sarah Stultz in the Austin Daily Herald. Wells police Chief Jim Ratelle indicated the search was routine and said no drugs were found. Her father, Rick Drescher, said the school could have given her a three- to five-day suspension, but now she faces a 12-month expulsion. “She has never had detention. She’s never been scolded. She’s as perfect of a student as you can get,” he said. Alyssa is on the honor roll, is on the school’s varsity volleyball team and has also played softball. “Last week at this time, we were making a plan of which colleges we were going to visit, and now we’re sitting here thinking she may not even be able to go to college,” Rick said.

During a scuffle last weekend at the Kato Ballroom, tempers flared, shots were fired, one man is dead and several were wounded. Police made some arrests, but without being able to charge anyone, they are now free to go, reports Dan Nienaber of the Mankato Free Press. “Dilang Nhial Dat, 20, and Kim Tong Yik Doluony, both of Omaha, Neb., were released Monday afternoon. A Mankato woman, Nyeyoup David Gach, 18, also has been released. … Dolouony was arrested for carrying a weapon without a permit. Dat and Gach were arrested for obstruction of the legal process. … ‘We still don't know who did what to whom,’ said Pat McDermott, assistant Blue Earth County attorney,” Nienaber wrote. The victim hasn’t been positively identified, but a friend says it’s Poth Acouth, 22, of Omaha. Mawut "Ater" Mayen said he and Acouth both left Sudan for refugee camps when they were about 5 years old and grew up together in Omaha. "I was there," Mayen told Nienaber. "I was the one shot in the foot. [Acouth] wasn't even part of the altercation. When we were walking out, everything was already happening. He was shot in the back." The event at the Kato Ballroom was to raise money for people in South Sudan. "That's the thing people don't get about this," Mayen told Nienaber. "Everyone was thinking this was about gangs. We all had no idea what was going on. The fundraiser was our way of saying we're not about that. We want to help people."

The Winona Daily News has announced the winner of its second annual poetry contest. Chris Kendall’s poem “Silver Skin” took the prize and can be read at the link above. This year’s theme was bridges. The paper and The Book Shelf sponsored the contest, and The Book Shelf will host a party at 7 p.m. tonight where the winner, finalists, Winona’s poet laureates past and present and all who entered the contest can recite their work. Other poems are available here

St. Louis County was well-represented in a statewide heroin bust last week, reports the Duluth News Tribune. “Operation Exile” involved local, state and federal agencies from Duluth, Rochester and the Twin Cities metro area and resulted in “more than 150 warrants issued statewide, with 41 charged in St. Louis County, a news release from the county attorney’s office said.” The story noted the huge influx of heroin in the state and its effects: In Duluth alone, the number of people admitted for treatment of heroin addiction went from 23 in 2009 to more than 400 in 2013. County Attorney Mark Rubin spoke of the ripple effect of the drug: “The ugly reality of the heroin use and trafficking in our area is not just the individual addictive nature of the drug but the consequences — including increased property crimes and heightened dangers for children in homes where the drug was used,” he said.

While homelessness has trended downward in southwest Minnesota, it’s still a problem, writes Anna Haecherl-Smith of the Marshall Independent. Justin Vorbach, with the Southwest Minnesota Housing Partnership, said homelessness went up from 2009 to 2012, likely caused by the economic crisis and federal funding cutbacks. The situation has gotten better since then, but as Haecherl-Smith points out, “The Refuge, a shelter in Marshall, opened in February 2010. Its six rooms have been consistently full for the last four years, with a waiting list.” Each year, the Minnesota Housing Partnership conducts a homeless count. This year’s took place on Jan. 22. In the 18 counties of southwest Minnesota, there 8 percent fewer homeless households than in 2013 and 32 percent fewer homeless households than in 2012. However, that tabulates to “115 homeless households, 75 of which included children. Of the 290 homeless individuals counted inside those households, 143 were under the age of 18, and eight of those were unaccompanied youth. … ‘People picture a homeless person as a guy with a big beard pushing a shopping cart,’ Vorbach said. ‘Only 10 to 20 percent of homeless people are chronically homeless and living outdoors. The other 80 to 90 percent are families with kids, the situational homeless who lost their job, got behind on rent or their car broke down and they couldn't keep up.' "

There’s big trouble in Hermantown after the school board agreed with the activities director to cut the cheerleader program, writes Jana Hollingsworth of the Duluth News Tribune.  The school board, facing lower enrollment and higher costs, was looking for a way to cut more than $250,000. Eliminating cheerleading will save about $2,500. “Superintendent Brad Johnson said the recommendation came from activities director Beth Clark, who was ‘adamant’ about the decision, he said, because of the amount of supervision required of the students. Clark did not return calls Monday.” Cheer supporters said the adviser has resigned but an assistant was ready to take on the responsibilities, and parents said if money was an issue, the board could simply cut funding and they’d find a way to fund cheerleading themselves. After hearing from parents, board members appeared to be open to their suggestions.

A judge in Moorhead is in hot water. Emily Welker of the Fargo Forum had the story. Clay County District Court Judge Steven Cahill “has been reprimanded by the Minnesota Board on Judicial Standards after its investigation revealed a string of failures to follow the law, chronic lateness to court hearings and other problems with the judge’s conduct. … (In one case), Cahill helped a defendant avoid a firearms conviction after the defendant pleaded guilty to violating a restraining order. Cahill did so because a firearms conviction could have cost the defendant his employment with the Minnesota National Guard, the board found, even though it was in violation of settled law, and over the prosecutor’s objections. … On Thanksgiving Day 2012, Cahill spontaneously decided to grant an inmate a 24-hour furlough, the board found. Cahill went to the courthouse, personally typed up the furlough and delivered it to the jail himself, with no notice to the prosecutor or to jail officials. The prisoner, who had not requested the furlough, assumed it was mistake and turned it down. … The board also found Cahill exhibited a pattern of extensive tardiness to court and related matters over the period from August 2012 to January 2013. Those events included arriving … late for court 18 or more times in a single five-week period in fall 2012. Electronic key card records showed Cahill was late 20 or more times during December 2013, which was almost every single court day that month.” The board recommended Cahill find a mentor who will report to the board six months after the reprimand.

Northland Community & Technical College students and staff will be flying drone aircraft over the skies of Roseau County, reports the Grand Forks Herald. The college announced Tuesday that the Federal Aviation Administration approved its application for a certificate of authorization, which gives the college permission to fly drones over agricultural areas in Roseau County as long as they have the permission of the landowners, fly lower than 500 feet and fly within sight of the operator. The college and landowners will use the information collected by the drones to help determine crop health and pest detection.

Here’s an item in the police blotter of the Albert Lea Tribune that cries out for more detail: “Car hits pig on I-35 ramp: A police report said a loose pig was hit while on the on-ramp for Exit 11 of Interstate 35 at 8:15 p.m. Thursday.”

Meanwhile, up in Bemidji, the City Council said no to a kickboxing event to be hosted by downtown sports bar Toasty Beavers in May. The bar’s owners wanted to block off part of Third Street and serve alcohol at the event.  “Mayor Rita Albrecht cited ‘numerous’ police calls and complaints regarding Toasty Beavers during regular operations as the likely reason the council was opposed to the request,” the Bemidji Pioneer story said.

The Spring Flood Run, in which motorcyclists mark the first day of motorcycling season with a drive from Hastings to Winona and the corresponding route on the Wisconsin side of the Mississippi River, drew between 20,000 and 30,000 riders last weekend, officials estimated in a story by Brett Boese of the Rochester Post-Bulletin. Money raised from this year’s event went to Gillette Children's Hospital in St. Paul. The Flood Run is held on the third Saturdays of April and September. Those set dates may have played a role in reduced numbers this spring because it fell on Easter weekend.

MPR: Archbishop hid abusive-priest information

Tue, 04/22/2014 - 1:15pm

As expected … . Madeleine Baran of MPR reports, “Archbishop John Nienstedt acknowledged in sworn testimony that he took steps to hide information on abusive priests and never provided complete files to police, according to a transcript released today. Nienstedt said he had followed a subordinate's advice that he keep no written notes of certain discussions, in case those notes should later become public in legal proceedings. He said he didn't publicly disclose which priests were being monitored, and that he relied on others to keep parish trustees informed.” Surely, it is what Jesus would have done.

The jury heard the vivid, live audio Byron Smith recorded of his twin killings. Pam Louwagie of the Strib writes, “The crystal clear audio included the gun shots that killed 17-year-old Nick Brady and, minutes later, 18-year-old Haile Kifer as they descended the stairs to Smith’s basement on Thanksgiving Day in 2012.  … The audio continued with the sound of a gun reloading, then more deep breaths. In a quiet, low voice several minutes later, a female mumbles ‘Nick.’ Gun shots are heard again, as well as the sound of Haile Kifer falling.” That's just the start of it.

“More than twice” the national average? Elizabeth Mohr of the PiPress says, “If you're black in Minnesota, you're six times more likely to be arrested for marijuana possession than your white counterparts, even though drug use rates are similar, according to a report released Monday. The report by MN2020, which looked at FBI arrest data for 2011, showed that the racial disparity in marijuana possession arrests in Minnesota was more than twice the national average.”

A group of doctors wants to stop bills allowing nurse anesthetists to administer spinal injections. The Northland's NewsCenter in Duluth says, “The doctors visited Duluth Monday to share their concerns over two bills in the Minnesota legislature that would allow nurse anesthetists to administer complex and complicated interventional pain procedures without the direct supervision of a doctor.  The doctors say they are not properly trained. Physicians who practice interventional pain medicine point out they go through 14 years of training...compared with seven years of training for certified registered nurse anesthetists. The doctors say patient safety is their primary concern.” Two questions: Is there an outbreak of malpractice on the part of the nurses? And, do they charge at a different rate?

That’ll be … $8 million … they say.  An AP story says, “Minnesota lawmakers are being told they'll have to come up with millions of dollars if they want to shut down the sales of electronic lottery tickets. The potential $8 million cost is attributable to lost sales and vendor contracts that would be breached if the Legislature prohibits the Minnesota Lottery from continuing with online games.”

The New York Times likes Al Franken’s chances for reelection. Its new post-Nate Silver data site, The Upshot, Minnesota’s Senate race is rated the “Likely Democratic” with a 4 percent chance of a GOP victory. “In addition to the latest polls, it incorporates the candidates’ political experience, fund-raising, a state’s past election results and national polling.” But then these things are always mere “snapshots.”

Coincidentally … . The AP tells us, “Anoka Republican Jim Abeler says he won't seek re-election to his House seat as he focuses on running for U.S. Senate. Abeler, 59, a chiropractor by trade, is among several Republicans seeking to unseat Democratic Sen. Al Franken.” MinnPost's Cyndy Brucato offers her take here.

This does not cover a kitchen populated with teenage boys … .  Says the AP: “The citizens board that oversees the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency ... is expected to vote Tuesday on whether to drop a requirement for large feedlots to have water quality permits under the federal National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System if they don't discharge manure into public waters. These operations would still be regulated via state permits under the State Disposal System.”

Oh! That Bill Cooper! At City Pages Aaron Rupar was among those wondering why a certain Bill Cooper of Wayzata, railing against taxes, wasn’t identified by the Strib as the Bill Cooper, you know, of CEO/TCF fame? Rupar called Strib editorial page editor Scott Gillespie: “... who acknowledged the decision as to whether or not to mention Cooper's job was ‘borderline.’ ‘He had a right to write it as a private citizen,’ Gillespie says. ‘It didn't have anything to do with TCF and his job except that he makes a lot of money out of it’."

GOP U.S. Senate hopeful Abeler vows to stay in race

Tue, 04/22/2014 - 12:33pm

State Rep. Jim Abeler ended speculation that he would abandon his U.S. Senate campaign and run again for his Anoka-Ramsey seat. Instead, he introduced his potential successor Tuesday and pledged he is “fully committed” to winning the Republican nomination to challenge DFL Sen. Al Franken in November.

The new Republican name in Abeler's increasingly swing district is Abigail Whelan, a former legislative assistant.

“It’s the right step to take,” Abeler said of his decision to seek the Republican U.S. Senate endorsement although “more likely than not I would run in a primary.”

According MinnPost’s Campaign Finance Dashboard, Abeler has just under $14,000 cash on hand — well below all of his GOP rivals except Julianne Ortman, who has not reported her campaign’s cash on hand.

Fundraising is always a concern, Abeler said, but predicted “pure money will not be successful,” perhaps a reference to millionaire GOP rival Mike McFadden.

Abeler added that his advantage over Republican competition is that “the problems of our time are the deficit, debt and health care. My experience and expertise is in those areas.”

Abeler said that 57 legislative colleagues asked to him to run for re-election to his House seat, an acknowledgement of that expertise — and the risk of losing a newly open, competitive district.

Minneapolis schools lauded for equity impact assessments

Tue, 04/22/2014 - 10:25am
A video from Race Forward describes the process of getting Minneapolis Public Schools to use Racial Equity Impact Assessments.

Today Your Humble Blogger confesses to being perpetually behind.

To wit: Last fall, the Minneapolis School Board took the landmark step of voting to require an equity impact assessment be performed on every program and policy created in the district. This is huge.

Think of it as the race- and poverty-focused equivalent of an environmental impact statement. You know, like the studies that have been done on the proposed PolyMet copper and nickel mine in northern Minnesota.

The Minneapolis Public Schools (MPS) assessments seek to ensure that decisions are made by diverse groups of stakeholders and that the initiatives contemplated support the district’s focus on equity. It’s a simple process that, taken seriously, could have a profound impact.

So far, staff seems to be struggling with the concept that the board means business in this department, and the board seems willing to cheerfully and sweetly remind them of its importance. And they’re not accepting any of these “We’ll clean the groundwater for 500 years, honest” promises, either.

But on to the point of this post: The policy and its roots have gotten some well-deserved national attention from the nonprofit Race Forward, which has offices in Oakland, Chicago and New York City. The group is showcasing the effort as a success story and is offering other communities the tools to replicate it.

To that end, Race Forward, which publishes the excellent Colorlines, has produced a 12-minute video that features Minneapolitans talking about the evolution of the equity impact assessments. If you are at all interested in equity in education or the power of community organizing, it’s worth a watch.

The nutshell version: In the run-up to its 2008 referendum, MPS backers asked various minority communities to vote yes on the levy. Unconvinced the district was committed to their interests, leaders of the groups turned to the Organizing Apprenticeship Project, which formed a coalition that assessed the impact passage of the levy would have on people of color.

The group came out of the process convinced the referendum was badly needed if the district was to honor its commitments, and it was communities of color that delivered the vote.

The following spring, the group turned the process — five simple questions — into a pocket guide to budgeting equity that could be used by cities, counties or any other policymaking entity.

Later that year MPS asked the group to assess the potential impact of a high-profile move to change school attendance boundaries. This time, the organizers said no, the district needs to learn to do this. Et voila.

And so I deliver you, Dear Reader, into Race Forward’s capable hands.

The unraveling of the link between diet and cancer

Tue, 04/22/2014 - 10:17am
Creative Commons/Lara604Science writer George Johnson: "There were new hints that coffee may lower the risk of some cancers and more about the possible benefits of vitamin D. Beyond that there wasn’t much to say.”

 

The idea that there are “superfoods” or even "super diets" — ones loaded with antioxidants and other nutrients that offer protection against cancer — has been slowly unraveling over the past decade, science writer George Johnson points out in his “Raw Data” column published online Monday in the New York Times.

Johnson, whose books include “The Cancer Chronicles: Unlocking Medicine’s Deepest Mystery,” has just returned from the mammoth (18,000-plus participants) annual meeting of the American Association for Cancer Research, where, he notes, “the latest results about diet and cancer were relegated to a single poster session and a few scattered presentations."

"There were new hints that coffee may lower the risk of some cancers and more about the possible benefits of vitamin D," Johnson adds. "Beyond that there wasn’t much to say.”

That’s a massive turnaround from 1997, when the cancer research community believed that getting people to eat more fruits and vegetables might lower the incidence of cancer by as much as 20 percent.

“Whatever is true for other diseases,” writes Johnson, “when it comes to cancer there [is] little evidence that fruits and vegetables are protective or that fatty foods are bad. About all that can be said with any assurance is that controlling obesity is important, as it also is for heart disease, Type 2 diabetes, hypertension, stroke and other threats to life. Avoiding an excess of alcohol has clear benefits. But unless a person is seriously malnourished, the influence of specific foods is so weak that the signal is easily swamped by noise.”

As happens repeatedly in medicine, the shift in attitudes is the result of more rigorously designed studies, which have almost universally failed to find convincing evidence linking diet with cancer.

As Johnson explains, even with the more rigorous studies “it is hard to adjust for what epidemiologists call confounding factors: Assiduous eaters of fruits and vegetables probably weigh less, exercise more often and are vigilant about their health in other ways. Some of this can be sorted out with randomized controlled trials, with two large groups of people arbitrarily assigned different diets. But such studies are expensive, and the rules are hard to enforce in the short term — and probably impossible over the many years it can take for cancer to develop.”

Scientists haven’t given up entirely on searching for links between diet and cancer, but, as one leading expert noted at the meeting (a bit ruefully, says Johnson), such research “has turned out to be more complex and challenging than any of us expected.”

You can read Johnson’s column on the NYTimes website.