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Fitch pleads not guilty to killing police officer

2 hours 40 min ago
Courtesy of the Minnesota Dept. of CorrectionsBrian Fitch, Sr.

He could at least spare us the cost of a trial. The AP says, “The man accused of killing a Mendota Heights police officer has pleaded not guilty to charges. Attorneys for Brian Fitch, Sr. entered the pleas during a hearing Monday in Dakota County District Court. Fitch's lawyers are asking that the defendant's trial be moved out of the Twin Cities because of extensive publicity about the case. The defense also wants statements he made while hospitalized suppressed.” Yeah, the part where he says he did it could make acquittal kind of tough.  

For you debt-o-phobes, a handy chart on Midwest states and their use of municipal bonding over the last 10 years,  from the Strib’s Adam Belz. “The national trend for muni bonding is still downward though, as is the trend in much of the Midwest.” 

I know someone who‘s going to get tracked down and fined. MPR’s Bob Collins has video of yet another big rig truck blowing past a stopped school bus. “Note that the truck is driving in the breakdown lane, inches from where the people were standing.”

Clearly not your classic accident. Says Stribber Paul Walsh, “A woman on Hennepin Avenue in downtown Minneapolis was run over on purpose and dragged by a driver over the weekend, leaving the victim in a coma and a woman in jail, authorities said. … Jailed on suspicion of assault with a dangerous weapon was Vanessa I. Uzong, 24, of Brooklyn Park. Police say Uzong admitted to police officers at the scene that she was the driver. She has yet to be charged. Two witnesses told police that Uzong aimed her car ‘right at [Miera Horton] and veered toward’ the victim even as she tried to get out of harm’s way. Horton was ‘struck … and dragged,’ according to a police report. Uzong then rammed a vehicle from behind, the report read.” Probably for good measure.


More like a Stephen King novel all the time. Walsh (again) writes, “Human remains discovered last week during an improvement project at a lakeside home in east-central Minnesota are most likely from a historical burial site, authorities said Monday. … a statement from the Sheriff’s Office read, ‘but all parties agree that reinterment will follow cultural guidelines’. Authorities have yet to disclose which culture was being referenced.”

What would you say defines 'middle class'? The Strib’s Ricardo Lopez writes, “Republican gubernatorial candidate Jeff Johnson on Sunday proclaimed he'll be a champion of Minnesota's middle class, but stumbled when asked how to define them. … A 2013 Wall Street Journal/NBC News Poll found that nine in 10 Americans believe the top threshold for middle class are families with a total income of $100,000. The tendency, according to this poll, is Americans more often than not believe their own income brackets to be considered middle class.”

Not a shocker. DFLer Steve Simon gets the Strib’s nod for Secretary of State. “Steve Simon, who represents portions of St. Louis Park and Hopkins in the Legislature, is uniquely well suited to succeed Secretary of State Mark Ritchie, who is not seeking a third term. Simon, like Ritchie, is a DFLer. But he has built bipartisan consensus to increase voter participation. As chair of the House Elections Committee, Simon was instrumental in passing the ‘no excuses’ absentee voter law, which starting this election makes it easier for Minnesota voters to cast a ballot, as well as the bill allowing online voter registration.”

FYI astronomical phenomena fans. Says Paul Huttner at MPR, “The ‘blood moon’ total lunar eclipse dazzled onlookers in the early morning sky on Oct. 8. A second  eclipse this month will put on a sky show over most of North America Thursday. This one is a partial solar eclipse, and a rare sunset eclipse for Minnesota and the Mississippi Valley.” 

Couldn’t find the brakes, apparently. For the PiPress, Mara Gottfried reports, “Police cited a 36-year-old woman for driving while impaired after they say she crashed into a St. Paul fire station on Friday night. … Montoya posted a photo of the crash scene on Facebook soon after it happened, writing, ‘My current situation!! (Expletive) cut me off!’ She said Monday that was the main reason for the crash.”

Some amusing shots by Tony Nelson for City Pages of last night’s long, loud and very entertaining Pearl Jam show at the Xcel Center.

Lt. Gov. candidate Kuisle brings ag and transportation expertise to GOP ticket

5 hours 30 min ago

Bill Kuisle may not have much name recognition around the state, but the Republican candidate for Lt. Governor is working to change that, putting thousands of miles on the family's Chevy in his travels to meet voters.

The Rochester-area farmer, selected by GOP gubernatorial candidate Jeff Johnson, is a former state House member and former Olmsted County commissioner. But he's been out of politics since losing his House seat to a DFLer in 2004. Kuisle tried unsuccessfully to regain the seat in 2006 and 2008.

Heather Carlson of the Rochester Post Bulletin says Kuisle is a contrast to his big-city running mate Johnson:

From outward appearances, the two candidates are polar opposites. Johnson is a trim Hennepin County commissioner who usually sports a tie on the campaign trail. Kuisle is stocky with a former wrestler's build who eschews suits in favor of Dockers and button-down shirts. Longtime Kuisle friend and former Rochester GOP state Rep. Fran Bradley said it's easy for people to underestimate Kuisle based on his appearance, but that would be a mistake.

...While Kuisle may not have the traditional look, Bradley said he proved himself to be an extremely effective politician. Bradley recalled having his legislative office next to Kuisle's and watching as all sorts of people sought out his expertise and council on transportation, agriculture and tax issues.

Johnson told the paper that the gender balance issue, so common now in gubernatorial campaigns, was trumped by Kuisle's ag and transportation experience:

"I knew him and I trust him. He is just a really solid, honest, decent, smart guy. That's kind of an important bottom line for me," Johnson said.

University of Minnesota political science professor Kathryn Pearson told the paper that Kuisle's farming background can appeal to rural Republicans:

"I'm sure he is helpful in Greater Minnesota in shoring up the base. He's probably not someone who is necessarily winning over independent voters, but in a midterm election turnout is critically important, and so I think for Republicans who aren't sort of the chamber-of-commerce types, I could see how he would be very appealing."

Gabby Giffords in Minneapolis to speak on protecting women and families from gun violence

7 hours 6 min ago

Former Arizona Congresswoman Gabby Giffords, who has become a national symbol for prevention of gun violence after recovering from a gunshot wound to the head, is in Minneapolis today speaking about ways protect women and families.

Giffords, cofounder of Americans for Responsible Solutions, will be at the Harriet Tubman Center for an invitation-only roundtable. Also attending will be Minneapolis Police Chief Janeé Harteau, local women leaders and domestic violence prevention advocates.

Organizers say the purpose is to "bring women together to discuss what must be done to protect women and their families from gun violence, and heighten awareness of gun violence against women and empower women to reduce gun violence in their communities."

Giffords was shot in 2011 during a public meeting with constituents at a Tucson-area supermarket. Her organization, which has 500,000 members, says its is committed to "finding sensible ways to reduce gun violence and encouraging elected officials to enact responsible firearms policies that protect the Second Amendment."

Rate of mass shootings in U.S. has tripled since 2011, Harvard analysis finds

8 hours 6 min ago

Since 2011, mass shootings in the United States have occurred at a rate three times higher than in the previous three decades, according to a new statistical analysis from researchers at the Harvard School of Public Health.

The analysis shows that between 1982 and 2011, mass shootings occurred in the U.S. every 200 days on average. Since late 2011, that rate has tripled, to every 64 days on average.

Those findings strongly suggest, say the Harvard researchers, that “mass shootings, as of September 2011, are now part of a new, accelerated process.”

The analysis was published last week in Mother Jones magazine. It relies on data compiled by Mother Jones on mass shootings reported in the media. To be included in that database, the mass shooting had to meet three criteria: 1) the shooting had to take place in public, 2) the shooter and the victims had to be generally unrelated and unknown to each other, and 3) four or more people had to have been murdered by the shooter. (In 2013, a new federal law redefined the threshold count for mass killings to three or more from the older threshold of four or more established by the FBI a decade ago.)

The database includes the Accent Signage shooting that occurred in Minneapolis in September 2012.

The Mother Jones database does not include other types of homicides in which four or more people were killed with a gun, such as gang killings and mass murders that are the result of domestic violence and take place in private homes.

Analyzing 'different monsters'

As the Harvard researchers point out, past reports in the media that claim mass shootings have not increased are based primarily on the work of Northeastern University criminologist James Alan Fox, whose studies lump all types of homicides with four or more victims together.

That’s a “misguided approach to studying the problem,” say the Harvard researchers.

“Such killings are no less awful,” explains Mark Follman, a senior editor at Mother Jones, in an op-ed published Sunday in the L.A. Times, “but they are a different monster in terms of impact on public safety and the complicated policy questions they raise — not least how they might be stopped.”

Fox, however, has repeatedly stated that because his research shows that mass shootings are not increasing in frequency, no significant policy changes are needed.

“We treasure our personal freedoms in America, and unfortunately, occasional mass shootings — as horrific as they are — is one of the prices that we pay for the freedoms that we enjoy,” Fox told CNN anchor Jake Tapper last June. “I don't want to minimize the pain and suffering of the victims and their families and those communities. They're horrific. But it's not an epidemic. Let's not go in a knee-jerk way, and change the society for something that happens very rarely.”

A more effective approach

Critics of the Mother Jones database have said that it cannot be used to make any reliable conclusions about changes in the rate of mass shootings because its number of data points (the number of shootings) is too small. The Harvard researchers reply by pointing out that their method (called statistical process control) of analyzing the time interval between each shooting incident is actually “more effective than counting the annual number of incidents because it is more sensitive to detecting changes in frequency when the number of events per year is small.”

Such a method was “first developed for industry to identify changes in the process underlying a specific problem, so that root causes of that problem could be better assessed,” they explain. “This approach has proved effective in health care, for example, helping to reduce surgical errors. For the method to work, it is crucial to analyze events that are qualitatively similar. In other words, to assess the rate of public mass shootings it is necessary to exclude mass killings that are qualitatively distinct, like those taking place in private homes.”

Findings echo those of FBI

Although Mother Jones’ method for collecting data differs somewhat from that used by the FBI, their data is remarkably similar. And so is the trend identified in their findings. In September, the FBI released a study in which it reported that the frequency of “active shooter” incidents (incidents in which shooters are “actively engaged in killing or attempting to kill people” in a public place, regardless of how many people are killed) is on the rise.

During the first seven years of the FBI study (2000-2006), an average of 6.4 “active shooter” incidents occurred annually in the U.S. During the last seven years of the study (2007-2013), the incidents had risen to an average of 16.4 per year.

“Though we now know that public mass shootings have been occurring more often, the reasons why have yet to be identified,” write the Harvard researchers. It’s unlikely, they say, that the change is due to a sudden increase within the past three years in the prevalence of mental illness.

“As we search for answers with the common goal of diminishing mass shootings, studying them effectively remains key, not least for gauging the success of any policies aimed at reducing the frequency and toll of these events,” they add.

You can read the Harvard researchers' analysis on the Mother Jones website.

Q&A: Madeleine Albright on ISIS, terror recruitment and the frustrations of campaign season

8 hours 14 min ago

What we haven't heard from Mark Dayton and Jeff Johnson

8 hours 40 min ago

The debate between Gov. Mark Dayton and Jeff Johnson at Hamline University on Sunday, courtesy of the UpTake.

In the penultimate governor’s debate of 2014, we learned that Gov. Mark Dayton smoked marijuana, and that his Republican challenger Jeff Johnson has not. We learned that Dayton and Johnson each spanked one of their children; that each owns at least one gun; and that both have a sweet tooth.

Those revelations came at the end of the debate at Hamline University in St. Paul on Sunday morning, preceded by the standard questions on budget, spending, taxes, and health care.  Save Johnson's refusal to define what consititutes the middle class, candidates broke no new ground in their responses.  In fact, their answers, while sincere, varied little in verbiage and tone from earlier debates.

So what kind of questions could have jolted the candidates from the security of talking points, while still being relevant to the issue of how they would govern? What, after four debates, are the questions we still haven't heard the candidates address?  

There are many, of course, but here are four areas that I think deserve more exploration:

The economy

In Sunday’s debate, Dayton opened with the accomplishments of his administration, something he's talked about frequently.  “When I became governor in January of 2011, Minnesota was not in good shape,” he said Sunday. “[Now] unemployment is down to 4.1 percent, we have a budget surpluses rather than deficits.”

But it would be nice to have Dayton address how much control he thinks one governor can really exert over the economics of recession and recovery. If Minnesota rebounded better than other states, how much can be attributed to legislative decisions as opposed to the state’s diverse economic base? 

Job growth

Johnson has tried to punch holes in Dayton’s claim of job growth by using a state report showing that many workers are considered underemployed, that is, overqualified and underpaid. He did so again on Sunday. “It has to do with the fact that we have a tax structure in Minnesota that is not competitive, especially when it comes to small businesses, and we have a regulatory burden,” Johnson said.  “Because of that, the good jobs are being created in other states.”

But a recent report in Forbes.com estimates that 22 million American workers are now considered under-employed.  It would be helpful to hear Johnson explain why he believes Minnesota's tax structure in particular is creating this problem when it seems to be happening all over the country?


Dayton was asked whether there was a circumstance under which he’d raise general fund taxes. He said no, and then segued into his efforts to increase property tax relief.  “Property tax relief has been very successful the last few years, slowing the drastic increase in property taxes over the previous decade,” he said.  “Property taxes had increased by 86 percent in the decade before I took office and now they are relatively stable.”  

But the decade before Dayton took office, from 2000 through 2010, saw one of the biggest increases in real estate values in history. Property taxes followed suit. Then came the recession and property values tanked. Although state aid and credits have blunted some increases, it would be good to hear him more clearly explain why he isn't just taking credit for the lower taxes that resulted from declining values. 

Social issues

Dayton has tried to position Johnson as dodgy on some of the positions he’s taken. He asked Johnson why he asked for the endorsement of the Tea Party and then denied it later. Johnson replied he was looking for the support of activists who would be part of the party endorsement process.  “One of the reasons I was endorsed, and one of the reasons I won the primary is because I have reached out to every faction of our party,” Johnson said Sunday.  “We still have a lot of moderate Republicans around Minnesota.” 

Given that response, how would Johnson resist the temptation to appease the most conservative faction of the Republican Party and avoid divisive social issues? 

The next and final debate is Halloween night on TPT public television.  A tricky question or two might be a treat for viewers.

Silences say so much in Vidar Sundstøl’s tense North Shore thriller, 'Only the Dead'

9 hours 18 min ago

Cold, moody weather. Rocky shorelines. Ski trails through the pines. The surnames on street signs, fish dinners and saunas. There are plenty of little things along Minnesota’s North Shore that feel familiar to visiting or expat Scandinavians, but for the most part, says Norwegian author Vidar Sundstøl, the region feels American — with “a weird Scandinavian flavor to it. Something about the way people speak. And don't speak.”


It’s those silences that say so much in Sundstøl’s tense thriller, “Only the Dead” (University of Minnesota Press), the second volume in his Minnesota Trilogy. These three slim, quietly unsettling novels follow Lance Hansen, a U.S. Forest Service officer who can’t move past a violent murder he discovered in the first installment of the series, “The Land of Dreams.”

In that book, Hansen encounters two Norwegian tourists at Father Baraga’s Cross, a North Shore historical marker near the shoreline of Lake Superior. One has been brutally murdered, and the other is covered in blood and unable to speak more than one word: “Love.” Hansen tries to untangle the story behind this scene, while his interest in local history leaves him contemplating a coincidence: An Ojibwe man was killed a century ago on the same spot. And deeply troubling is one more detail. His brother Andy was near the spot on the day of the murder.

Sundstøl wrote the books while living on the North Shore.

Lived in Two Harbors

“My wife got a job with the Forest Service at the Tofte ranger station. I just tagged along,” says the writer, who married an American and was previously living in Lexington, Kentucky. The setting became a vivid backdrop to his mystery, with many places taken directly from his life and routines. “We lived in Two Harbors for a year. In the very same house that Andy Hansen and his family live in in the books. Then we moved to Lutsen, not far from Isak Hansen's hardware store. In the books, Lance lives on the hill behind the store.”

During his time in Minnesota, Sundstøl became a student of regional and Ojibwe history, and an observer of the unique position federal and state agents hold in the area. “Where we lived they pretty much were the community. A lot of the people up there work for the Forest Service. It was a great community spirit,” he says. But there are tensions, too.

His books touch on regional issues, including mining, hunting, relations between Natives and a white population that is also divided into descendants of Finnish, Swedish, and Norwegian immigrants to create a complex environment in which everyone holds a little something back, and observes each other from opposing positions. Even family ties are tenuous, as the brothers Andy and Lance inch around great unspoken and unspeakable things — while armed. In the riveting end scene, the brothers set out on their annual deer hunt as a storm filters through the darkening woods. 

Popular in Norway

“The Land of Dreams” won the Riverton Prize for best Norwegian crime novel, and Sundstøl’s work is enormously popular in Norway. Although he speaks English, Tiina Nunally translated the books for English-speaking audiences. “Speaking a language more or less fluently doesn't mean you can write novels in it,” he says. “Tiina Nunally is the best translator there is from Scandinavian languages into English.” [Nunally is best known for her translation of Sigrid Undset’s works; Undset won the Nobel Prize for Literature.]

“Right now is a very good time to be a Norwegian crime writer. Norwegians too are crazy about crime novels. It's The Genre over here right now, at least commercially,” he says. “There is also a very strong tradition here for reading crime fiction during the Easter holiday, and many authors have their mystery books published just before Easter.”

The third book, “The Ravens,” is available now in Norwegian. It comes out here in April 2015 — just around Easter.  But the timing of this release, just before deer hunting season, and just before brutal, beautiful winter covers up all our tracks, is just right.

Do attack ads have to dominate campaign season? They don't in other democracies

9 hours 32 min ago

This the seventh story in a series comparing the U.S. system of politics and elections with other democracies around the world.

Happy October, a month which, in even-numbered years in America, we might call Nastygram Month.

If you watch TV, the commercial breaks teem with political attack ads, 30-second assaults on your emotions, generally designed to bypass your rational mind with anecdotal out-of-context evidence, scary music, shaky cameras, weird bursts of light and deep-voiced narrators warning of terrible consequences you and your loved ones will suffer if Candidate X or Y gets elected or wins another term.

An airline executive once (supposedly) said that if his industry went after its competitors the way U.S. political candidates go after one another, customers would be too scared to fly on any airline.

I’m always a bit stunned that anyone could find these deranged creepshows persuasive. Even if some of the facts border on some weak, technical definition of accuracy, what kind of a lummox would allow so precious a commodity as his or her vote to be influenced by obviously one-sided presentations and insults to the intelligence, each begging far more questions than it answers and omitting a lot of relevant information that you would want to know before making up your mind about the “issue” under “discussion”?

And yet the people in charge of making the ads must think they work. So must the campaigns, which pay ridiculous sums to make and air the nastygrams. And those who contribute the billions needed to air them must buy into the insulting notion that this is what persuasive political discourse looks like in our oh-so-highly-evolved democracy. A big-time presidential or high statewide-office campaign typically spends half or more of its money on ads, sometimes more than 60 percent.

Judging by the amount spent on them, these stink bombs have become the main medium of U.S. political communication.

Does it have to be like this? Is this just the price we must pay for our love of freedom of expression, especially political expression?

U.S. is a huge outlier

Well, no. It basically isn’t like this in the rest of the democratic world. In the context of how democracies handle campaign communications, the United States is a huge outlier.

Most of the democracies of Western Europe (England, France, Germany, Ireland, Belgium, Portugal, Denmark, Norway, Sweden and Switzerland, to name a few) actually ban political advertising from TV.

Yes, that’s right. Ban. Like as in there are laws against it.

Other countries that allow advertising regulate it as to its length and format in an effort to make it more substantive. According to Curtis Gans of the Center for the Study of American Electorate, only two democracies in the world place no meaningful or effective restrictions on political advertising: Finland and the United States.

In place of 30-second attack ads, many of these countries have a tradition called (to use the British term for it) “Party Political Broadcasts.” On a publicly funded broadcasting system (like the BBC in Britain), time for such broadcasts can be provided at no cost to the parties, often parceled out according to a formula designed to, for example, give the major parties more time than the minor ones (although the minor parties will still get some air time, which seldom happens in the United States).

These broadcasts used to be strictly no-frills affairs, featuring the party leader explaining the party’s platform or defending its record in office. In France, the presentations are highly restricted. The French regulations also forbid disparaging your political opponents.  

The French regulations have probably gone too far in the other direction. Emmanuel Saint-Martin, a French journalist based in New York, said the limits on party broadcasts are so strict, requiring presentations so formal and so boring that “nobody watches them.”

On the other hand, the French rules against advertising work. French citizens get much of what they know about the candidates and their positions from actual journalism. Saint-Martin, who lived in the United States through several election cycles, said that although the French obsession with enforced substance and balance can be boring, it seems preferable to the U.S. system.

“The French care about freedom of expression too, you know,” he said. “But I don’t buy the argument that your system is fundamentally about freedom of expression. It’s only freedom of expression for Madison Avenue to express itself by pounding away time and again on some flaw in a candidate’s character or voting record that a poll told you was the best way” to move the numbers. “I don’t see how it helps anyone in getting an informed view on candidates,” Saint-Martin said.

The French system is aimed at striking a balance between freedom and equality, he said. Perhaps the obsession with equality goes too far, leading to those boring, super-regulated broadcasts. But the French would say the U.S. system is out of balance because it allows some wealthy and powerful groups to “use their freedom in such a way that others can’t be heard,” Saint-Martin said.

Brazil’s system

David Samuels, a University of Minnesota comparative political scientist who has studied campaign communications in Brazil, made the Brazilian version of the party broadcast system sound pretty strange.

The broadcast is divided according to a formula that gives parties a share of time equal to the share of seats the party holds in the Chamber of Deputies, which currently is divided among 27 parties. So some of the slots are very small. Within a given party’s share, it can award slots to a candidate that may be as small as a few seconds, barely time for the candidate to show his face and say his name.

Still, no other form of advertising appears on broadcast TV in the Brazil. So every candidate wants to be part of that presentation. And when the political presentation broadcasts are occurring, there is nothing else available to watch on any broadcast channel. A lot of Brazilians can’t afford cable, so if their TV is on, they are getting the political pitches.

Samuels declined to render a judgment as to whether this was, on balance, better or worse than the U.S. version of 30-second spots popping up all over TV. He tells his students that every system has its strengths and weaknesses and it’s worth thinking about alternative systems.

Carleton College professor Steven Schier was in Sweden to observe the most recent elections. He said there were no political ads on Swedish TV but some were shown in movie theaters, where they are apparently legal.

In Britain, ads are also banned. And they also use party broadcasts. But the restrictions on the broadcasts are much looser than in France. The British party broadcasts have moved in the direction of what Americans would think of as TV advertising, but not too far in that direction.

(For an example, here is a Party Political Broadcast by the British Labour Party from 2014, not during a general election campaign but during the run-up to elections for UK seats in the European Parliament. Unlike a typical U.S. ad of 30 seconds, this one is three-minutes long, and also much calmer in tone than the scary stuff we get at election time.)

Ads feel like a documentary

Travis Ridout, a Washington State University political scientist who studies international political communications, says the British ads have the feel of “a three-to-five minute documentary… it gives a political party more time to explain what they’re about, how they would govern differently, to make an argument and give examples of policy differences compared to the sound byte that a typical U.S. campaign spot has to work in because of the 30-second time limit.”

In a case like Britain’s, where the BBC has a large share of the viewing audience, the broadcasts take on added importance that wouldn’t really work on in the United States, where the Public Broadcasting System, for all its great attributes, seldom attracts a large audience.

The United States is not alone, but is among the small minority of democracies that has no system for giving free TV time to the major parties for such presentations. The common European system is also a factor (along with many other factors) that empowers party organizations and party leaders, since they control the broadcast time and the message, whereas the U.S. system empowers individual candidates, individual campaigns and, of course, the “messaging” gurus hired by third-party fundraisers.

Bans on political advertising are common across the democratic world, but political consultants, often brought in from America, are starting to find ways around the bans using TV technology like satellite broadcasting that is beyond the reach of a particular nation’s regulations. In Sweden, for example, where ads are banned from television, viewers can watch Finnish TV, where they are allowed, and some Swedes are definitely starting to see more and more political advertising that way. Satellite broadcasting is harder to regulate and easily crosses national boundaries.

In fact, both major parties in the UK have hired big-name American strategists, with both parties choosing consultants who helped President Obama during his two presidential campaigns. David Axelrod was hired to get the Labour Party ready for elections due in 2015, a hire that was met with skepticism by some British commentators, in part because the specialty of U.S. political mechanics — TV advertising — has so little application in the British context. And Obama’s 2012 campaign manager, Jim Messina, signed up last year as an adviser to the British Prime Minister (and Tory Party leader) David Cameron.

How Minnesota’s highways are poised to become renewable energy generators

9 hours 34 min ago
CC/Flickr/Portland General ElectricRoadside solar projects were pioneered in Oregon.

Minnesota’s highways are poised to become green energy generators with up to five 1-megawatt solar panel arrays built on public right-of-way around the state. If the pilot project proceeds as planned it would exceed the total capacity of a solar installation at Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport expected to go online next fall and touted this month as the largest in Minnesota.

The state Department of Transportation is soliciting proposals through Nov. 3 for solar developers to lease land along highways that they would select for the installations. MnDOT, with expertise in pavement and bridges, is leaving most of the solar details to experts in that field.

“We don’t even know how many potential solar sites we have,” said Rick Morey, the agency’s project manager. “We’re looking for a simple landlord-tenant relationship.”

Once sites are suggested, MnDOT would determine only that they had no potential impacts on traffic operation and safety, then negotiate a fair market rental rate required by state law. Leases will extend 20 years, four times longer than most roadside rentals but considered necessary to allow a return on the heavy investment in solar arrays. MSP’s 3-megawatt facility, for example, will cost $25.4 million, but is expected to net $10 million in benefits for the airport over 30 years.

MnDOT recently launched an agency-wide push to increase revenue from roadside rentals, which dipped just below $400,000 in fiscal 2014 from the peak a decade ago of about twice that, said Bonnie McCabe of the agency’s land management office. Most existing leases are for farming or commercial parking, she said. Counties get 30 percent of the money in lieu of property taxes; the rest goes to the state Trunk Highway Fund.

The solar initiative developed separately in response to inquiries from “a couple of companies,” Morey said. They are expected to focus on south-facing highway embankments large enough for a 1-megawatt array, at least one acre. Many highways also are routes for power lines, which solar installations could plug into.

“People can’t do much else with that land,” Morey said. “We can do this and generate some energy and revenue and improve the environment, to boot.”

Similar roadside solar projects have been pioneered in Oregon and Europe. While MnDOT says it will not buy any power generated on its property or guarantee such agreements with utilities, “they likely will be interested in talking to the successful responders,” according to an agency Q&A sheet.

State law requires electric utilities to increase their generation from renewable sources over the next two decades, and Gov. Mark Dayton’s 2011 executive order directs state agencies to take greater steps toward a goal of reducing greenhouse gas emissions 80 percent by 2050.

MnDOT “deserves a pat on the back,” said Mark Andrew, a former Hennepin County commissioner and founder of GreenMark, an environmental marketing firm that is a partner on the just-announced MSP solar arrays atop Metropolitan Airports Commission parking ramps. “Every public agency should be doing solar projects, because now there’s an opportunity to do it at no cost to the taxpayer.”

One challenge the initiative may face, however, is finding sites large enough for a 1-megawatt – 1 million watts – array, Andrew said. Usually that requires 5 acres, not the 1 acre suggested by MnDOT, he added. 

Gubernatorial debate gets personal

11 hours 56 min ago

On Sunday’s gubernatorial debate, MPR’s Tim Pugmire says, “DFL Governor Mark Dayton and Republican challenger Jeff Johnson highlighted their differences on gun control Sunday during the fourth of five scheduled debates of the campaign. … Both candidates said they own guns. They agreed with continuing the policy that allows law-abiding citizens to carry guns inside the state Capitol building.”

For the PiPress, Frederick Melo says, “Asked by panelists whether they had ever spanked their children, Johnson and Dayton said they had done so on one occasion. Asked whether they had ever smoked marijuana, the candidates responded with one-word answers: ‘no’ for Johnson, ‘yes’ for Dayton.”

Daniel Heimpel, who knows something about child protection issues says in a Strib commentary, “The fact is that black and Indian families are disproportionately exposed to ‘child maltreatment risk factors’ in Minnesota and across the country. The DHS’ 2010 Minnesota Child Welfare Disparities Report provided a comparison of maltreatment risk among racial groups. … Citing 2008 data, for example, the DHS determined that Indian children were more likely to be rated as high risk than blacks, whites or Asians, while blacks were more likely to be rated as moderate risk than Indians and whites.”

The Washington Post followed Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren to Minnesota. Paul Kane writes, “Speaking before more than 400 people at Carleton College, Warren repeatedly invoked the spirit of the late Paul Wellstone, the fiery liberal senator who died 12 years ago this month in a plane crash during his reelection campaign. Wellstone remains a revered figure in Minnesota politics, and his brand of populism — out of step in the Clintonian Democratic Party of the 1990s — is now mainstream among leading liberal activists. Warren has become the most prominent public face of that movement, and the Wellstone disciples in this town 40 miles south of Minneapolis gave their approval Saturday. ‘The game is rigged, and the Republicans rigged it,’ Warren said to loud cheers.”

Another course that was not offered at my grade school back in the day. Kim McGuire of the Strib writes, “The students in Kirsten Lunzer’s fourth-grade class watch as Codey the Troll crosses their computer screen, guided by the program they wrote to leap obstacles and collect blue jelly beans. These programming-savvy students in Minnetonka are on the leading edge of a new high-tech era that has Minnesota schools scrambling to respond to student demand for computer science classes that teach them how to develop software, apps, games and websites.”

Losing your home to foreclosure? Would you like a fat check? MPR’s Annie Baxter says, “People forced into foreclosure rarely find a silver lining. They lose their homes and their credit ratings tank. But under the right circumstances, Minnesotans in foreclosure can walk away from the process with tens of thousands of dollars.”

Lacking anything new on Denny Hecker, we offer Amy Senser instead. Dave Chanen of the Strib says, “Less than 2½ years after being sentenced for criminal vehicular homicide in the death of a Minneapolis chef, Amy Senser will be freed Monday. That is, she’ll be on supervised release — able to go home to Edina or another residence of her choosing, but not allowed to drive, and subject to random drug and alcohol tests. … She was one of about 200 offenders in Minnesota approved for it at any given time, according to the Department of Corrections. Historically, fewer than 2 percent commit a new offense while on work release.”

Job creation! Dee DePass of the Strib reports, “Soaring demand for wireless monitoring systems at oil production sites has led Emerson Electric Co. to undertake a $110 million expansion in the Twin Cities’ southwest suburbs. In Shakopee on Tuesday, Emerson will open a $70 million headquarters building for its Rosemount-brand operation. … Emerson also recently completed $40 million in renovations and upgrades to factories in Chanhassen and Eden Prairie. The St. Louis-based company plans to add more than 500 new jobs at the three sites over five years to help fulfill demand for Rosemount instruments.”

Mug shot of the day. WCCO-TV reports, “Mankato officials say a 56-year-old man was arrested after he called 911, saying he’d heard there were bombs placed along the city’s marathon route. Brian Douglas Mechler allegedly called 911 on Friday, saying he got an anonymous call about four bombs that had been placed along the route, city officials said. When police investigated, they found that Mechler never received any such phone call. Officers arrested Mechler on Saturday for probable cause of terroristic threats, and he was booked into the Nicollet County Jail.” He has one of those looks that kinda says, “You know I’ve done something worth arresting me.”

Meanwhile: The AP tells us,A Wisconsin man has been arrested for allegedly urinating on a marked Madison Police Department squad car. A police statement says officers observed the 21-year-old Dodgeville man relieving himself on the squad car late Saturday night near a bar on State Street in downtown Madison. It says several people warned the man that police were approaching, but he didn’t stop.” Didn’t because he couldn’t or wouldn’t?  

Our best hope for education solutions: teachers

12 hours 46 min ago

On Thursday, I gave a speech at the Minnesota Professional Conference to a crowd of teachers working one more extra day to be better for the students who need them most. In that speech, I called on teachers to stand up for their students on the educational issues that matter outside of their rooms.

When I speak to teachers, run trainings, or write about teaching and education, I am often holding a picture in my head of one student. Her name is Arrie’anna, and she is brilliant. She is world-beating brilliant, and among the most natural leaders and most empathetic people I have ever known, but school is often not fair for her. School, on too many days, does not deserve to have her. So, I do my best for her. She keeps me angry and engaged.

She is not the only student I have who need teachers as louder and better advocates, but she is the one that seems buried in my head and heart. I know as I spoke that I was not alone. Teachers, all teachers, have these students, current or former students who we know need us at our best, who we know need us standing beside them, who we know are not getting everything from school that they need.

It is the students who tie together our newest with our most veteran teachers, these same students that we carry with us and who inspire us. In an exhausting and frustrating job, they are our batteries and our compass, and they need us to step out of our rooms.

I have no doubt that teachers, far from the largest problems, are our best hope for solutions.  We need to step out from our rooms, be involved in the work other teachers or other groups are doing. We need to write more, speak more, share more of what we truly see and feel in our schools every day. Teachers need to be activists for better schools. 

The voices are too often getting the conversation wrong, and don’t recognize the complexity of the problems we face. We know that it is often teachers who are being attacked. We know that it is teachers who can often be the most vicious attackers. We need to do better than that. We need to support the voices of all teachers, we need to push for a conversation that is better for our students than the one currently being had. The voices of teachers need to be voices for our students.

Teachers need to stop letting education happen to them. Teachers need to stop letting schools happen to our schools.

Some of the most vigilant, passionate, and productive activists for social justice are teachers.  We know that there are too many stories left untold of the hard battles teachers have fought and won for their students.

But we also know that any time a student comes home with the story of any interaction where they felt attacked or blamed, that expectations were tragically low, that every interaction they felt was sexist, racist, homophobic, or transphobic, that each story that comes home of something damaging that came from our mouths undoes the good stories of the good work we do.

We know this happens in our schools. Teachers know this happens. So what, then, will teachers do to stop it? When strong voices come to us and tell us to worry only about the parts of school we can change, we can tell them there is nothing about schools that teachers can’t change if they work hard enough and work together.

If this is our profession, and it is, then we need to own it. If good schools are made by the work we do, and they are, then we need to work for more of them. We need to admit our failures in order to fix them. We need to celebrate our successes in order to replicate them. We need to work together. We need to let each other be strong.

We need schools that deserve Arrie’anna, schools, all schools everywhere, that deserve the privilege of the kids we carry with us.

Tom Rademacher is the 2014 Minnesota Teacher of the Year.


If you're interested in joining the discussion, add your voice to the Comment section below — or consider writing a letter or a longer-form Community Voices commentary. (For more information about Community Voices, email Susan Albright at salbright@minnpost.com.)

Radio legend Leigh Kamman, the voice of jazz in the night, dies at 92

Sun, 10/19/2014 - 8:44pm

A career jazz broadcaster, historian, supporter and fan, host of MPR’s “The Jazz Image” for 34 years, Leigh Kamman died peacefully Friday at his home in Edina, with his family nearby.

The next day, as phones rang, texts were sent and Facebook postings appeared, themes emerged, and choruses: “Sweet gentleman.” “The kindest person ever.” “A humble giant.” “So gracious.” “That voice.”

For many people, that voice — a perfect radio voice, resonant and intimate — defined decades of Saturday nights. As Gerry Mulligan played and Alice Babs sang in the background, Kamman spun stories full of images, setting a mood: “And here we are, floating down through the night, from London to … wherever you want to go.” In the cities and small towns across Minnesota, people stayed up past their bedtimes to hear where Kamman would take them. (And many misheard his name for years as “Lake Hammond.”)

“To describe jazz in the spoken language of English for me is a challenge,” Kamman once told MPR. Although his language was sometimes florid and his sentences labyrinthine, his narrative, and his love for the music and its makers, lured us in.

Kamman met jazz as an 11-year-old, working a summer job at a resort in central Minnesota. The owners, friends of Kamman’s parents, played old 78s at night, and he’d go to sleep hearing Duke Ellington. As a high school junior in St. Paul, he scored an interview with Ellington at a train station and published it in the school paper. Still in high school, he hosted his first jazz radio show at WMIN. He broadcast live from Minton’s, a jazz club in Mendota Heights, and The Flame in Duluth. Bassist Oscar Pettiford showed up to play the Flame, and he and Kamman became friends. Pettiford later wrote a tune called “Kamman’s A-Comin’.”

Over the next several years, Kamman hosted jazz radio programs for the army during WWII, returned to Minnesota and WLOL, moved to New York for a job at WOV radio in Harlem, and came back to Minnesota, working for KSTP and eventually for MPR, where the first “Jazz Image” was broadcast in 1973. That show began as an all-nighter, starting at 10:30 p.m. Friday and ending Saturday morning at 7. Later, it went to six hours, then four, then three (9 p.m. – midnight), always live until Kamman started winding things down. Many of his shows included interviews he had done with jazz greats over the years.

He often interviewed national artists who came through the Artists’ Quarter, the St. Paul jazz club that closed last December. “He was the most supportive guy ever,” remembered drummer Kenny Horst, who owned the AQ for many years. “If we had someone come into town, he’d call and interview them live on the radio.” Horst recalled that Kamman was especially fond of Lew Tabackin and Mose Allison. “He was nice to everybody, no matter who they were.”

Horst was a wry admirer of Kamman’s way with words. “Once I was making a record with Bob Rockwell, and Leigh wanted to interview me and Bob. We went to this restaurant close to where Leigh lived. The interview was going rather nicely, and at one point Leigh asked a question. He stopped talking, which is how we knew it was a question. I looked at Bob, Bob looked at me, and we both started laughing. Neither one of us had a clue about what Leigh had said, but it was profound as hell.”

The final “Jazz Image” aired Sept. 29, 2007. Kamman began working on a book about jazz broadcasting, and he often went out to hear live music. On August 17 of this year, he attended a birthday party for saxophonist Irv Williams, another nonagenarian, at the Dakota. That was the last time Horst saw him, and again, Kamman made him laugh.

For decades, Horst had jokingly blamed Kamman for wrecking his 1957 Lincoln convertible. Horst was still a teenager on the day he drove his new car down West 7th in St. Paul, listening to Kamman on KSTP, when Kamman played a tune by Rahsaan Roland Kirk. Horst got so excited he rear-ended the car in front of him. At the Dakota in August, Kamman said to Horst, “Sorry about the car.”

“That voice, the language, the things he talked about in the night,” Horst mused. “It was magical.”

A private family funeral will be followed at a later date by a community celebration of Leigh Kamman’s life. Meanwhile, you can hear him in a series of five-minute broadcasts produced by Jazz88 KBEM. They’re available on the Ampers community radio website. Here’s the first episode.

By chance, both Argento's first and latest works to be performed in October

Fri, 10/17/2014 - 2:58pm

“It’s pure serendipity,” said William Schrickel, music director of the Metropolitan Symphony Orchestra, during a rehearsal Tuesday night at Central Lutheran Church in Minneapolis. “I’d love to take credit for it, but I can’t.”

Schrickel was referring to the fact that in a concert Sunday he will lead the orchestra in the premiere of a work by Dominick Argento, “Ode to the West Wind,” subtitled Concerto for Soprano and Orchestra, 58 years after it was written. A week later, to kick off its 46th season, Vocalessence will present a work of Argento’s at Orchestra Hall that the 86-year-old composer says – firmly – will be the last he will ever write, a choral piece titled “Seasons,” a setting of poems by St. Paul poet Pat Solstad.

This conjunction of first and last, early and late, works by Minnesota’s most eminent composer, suggests intricate planning, when, in fact, it’s no more than chance. As Schrickel tells it, Argento approached him at a concert by the musicians of the Minnesota Orchestra last year during the lockout. (Schrickel is the orchestra’s assistant principal bass.)

He asked if Schrickel would be interested in programming his Ode, a setting of the Shelley poem, which he had composed while a graduate student at the Eastman School of Music in Rochester, N.Y. After a school performance in 1957 that featured Argento’s wife, Carolyn, in the solo part, and thoroughly impressed the Eastman faculty, the work was accepted by Argento’s publisher, Boosey & Hawkes, but the manuscript remained on the shelf for decades gathering dust.

Said Schrickel, “When Dominick approached me about doing the piece, “I jumped up and down, saying ‘Are you kidding? You tell me when the parts will be ready, and it will be on the next concert.’”

'A brilliant and dramatic work'

“It’s a brilliant and dramatic work,” said Schrickel. “If one didn’t know the background of the piece, there would be no reason to think it wasn’t composed within the past year rather than 58 years ago.”

Argento gave him a tape of the Eastman concert. “She was tremendous,” Schrickel said of Carolyn Argento’s performance. Only 23 at the time – the Argentos had been married just a year – Carolyn, Argento always said, was her husband’s muse and constant companion. She died in 2006 of an undiagnosed ailment. “When Dominick says that every note in the piece was written with her voice in mind, it’s no surprise when you hear how good the performance is,” Schrickel said.

Maria Jette, who will sing the Ode in Sunday’s concert, is no stranger to Argento’s work. She has sung many of his songs, and she performed the soprano part in the recording on the Virgin Classics label of Argento’s orchestral work “Mask of Night” with Philip Brunelle conducting. She, too, had heard the Eastman tape and for some years had been suggesting to Argento that he arrange for a public performance of the Ode. Earlier, she had secured from Boosey a score for the work. The publisher had sent her the original manuscript written the old-fashioned way — painstakingly by hand in ink. They never asked for it back.

“Maria actually stole this manuscript,” Argento said, laughing, as he turned the pages of a score he hadn’t seen for more than half a century. The work has now been officially published, both parts and piano reduction, all in the contemporary manner, by computer.

“Actually, I’m not surprised the piece wasn’t done all those years,” Argento said. “A half-hour work for soprano and symphony orchestra isn’t going to be a best-seller.”

He recalled the first performance. “Carolyn spent all of that day at Eastman practicing it over and over. We went out to dinner, after which she ran through it one more time. I said, ‘I’m surprised you have any voice left.’ And yet, at the performance, she was stunning.”

Composed in five weeks

A teacher, noting Argento’s flair for vocal writing, suggested that he set Shelley’s famous Ode to music. He wasn’t enthused about it, but when he learned that Shelley had written the poem while sitting on the banks of the Arno in Florence, where Argento had spent a year on a Fullbright fellowship, he got to work on it and composed it in five weeks. “My teacher, Bernard Rogers, was impressed with the score. He said, ‘There’s your Ph.D. thesis. What do you want to do next?’ I hadn’t thought of it as my thesis.

“Later when the composer Howard Hanson, who had conducted it, finished playing a tape of the performance for my doctoral oral examination committee, he said, ‘Carolyn ought to receive a degree of some sort, too, for her wonderful rendition, perhaps a Ph.T – Putting Hubby Through.’ ”

Photo by R. Kingsley ElderMetropolitan Symphony Orchestra Music Director William Schrickel conducts the group during a rehearsal.

The veteran choral conductor Dale Warland will conduct Argento’s “Seasons” in the concert Oct. 26, a program titled “Made in Minnesota.” Philip Brunelle will conduct the remainder of the program. “Seasons” is dedicated to Warland, who conducted the premiere in Winona in July.

Calling the four-movement a cappella work “a masterpiece,” Warland said, “When I first looked at the piece, I wasn’t sure I could bring it off. It didn’t speak to me as quickly as I had hoped. But as soon as the voices took over in rehearsal, it was just magic. Dominick’s writing sticks in my aural memory like that of no other composer I’ve done for a long time. Weeks after I had rehearsed and performed it, certain phrases were still ringing in my head.”

Solstad retired in 2001 from the School of Music at the University of Minnesota, where she had known Argento for many years. Their friendship had been especially meaningful in the period after Carolyn Argento’s death. “He was so grief-stricken, and I thought he needed some support. But he got through it,” she said.

'Autumn' expanded to 'Seasons'

In 2007, she showed him a poem she had written on “a gloomy autumn day.” She called it, appropriately, “Autumn.” Argento encouraged her to write three more poems and the quartet became “Seasons,” which he set to music. Hearing the performance in Winona was “an absolute thrill,” she said. “To hear my words come to life with that music was really something.”

Solstad plays a ukulele in her spare time, and she has – jokingly – suggested that Argento compose a concerto for ukulele and orchestra. Argento, however, is adamant. “Seasons” will be his last work. Widely considered one of the most important opera composers of his time, a Pulitzer Prize-winner (“From the Diary of Virginia Woolf”) and Grammy-Award winner (“Casa Guidi”), Argento has been a vital force in Twin Cities music for more than 50 years, a co-founder of Minnesota Opera, a composer for many productions at the Guthrie Theater, composer laureate for the Minnesota Orchestra and a respected teacher at the University of Minnesota.

Argento remains a hearty 86-year-old who works out at a gym three times a week. The problem that ails him is his hearing, an inner-ear malfunction that distorts not speech so much as musical sound. “When I sit at the piano improvising, what I hear isn’t exactly what I’m playing,” he said. “When I put notes on paper, they don’t sound right. And there’s no way to treat it, short of implants, and I don’t want to go that route.

“Frankly, I’m happy. I’ll be 87 in a few weeks. Just about every composer I know died before that age. I don’t know how much more I could write. I’ve composed 14 operas.”

'Postcard From Morocco' in Cape Town

His works, of course, live on. A revised version of his “Valentino Dances” was a critical hit for Minnesota Opera last season. Schrickel has programmed “Casa Guidi” for the final concert in the Metropolitan Symphony’s season, and on Oct. 27, the composer's birthday, Brunelle will fly to Cape Town, South Africa, to conduct “Postcard From Morocco,” Argento’s most often-produced opera.

In a conversation after the rehearsal Tuesday, Jette asked Argento, “Let’s say you had five more productive years left, and they could put a thing in your ear and it would help. What then?”

He sighed. “I don’t know. I guess I feel like Rita Shane, who just died. I read her obituary. (Shane, who originated the title role in Argento’s “Miss Havisham’s Fire” at the New York City Opera, was quoted in the New York Times Monday as saying, concerning her early retirement, “Nobody will ever hear me less than I was. I’d rather it said ‘too soon’ than ‘oh, finally!’ ”)

“I’d rather quit now than have people say, ‘Is he still writing?’

“Ode To the West Wind”: Metropolitan Symphony Orchestra, William Schrickel, conductor, Maria Jette, soprano soloist. 4 p.m. Sunday. Central Lutheran Church, 333 S. 12th St., Minneapolis. Free. (Donations accepted) 612-567-6724.

“Seasons.” Vocalessence Ensemble Singers, Dale Warland and Philip Brunelle, conductors. 4 p.m. Oct. 26. Orchestra Hall, 1111 Nicollet Ave., Minneapolis. $10-$40. 612-371-5656, 1-800-292-4141.

Anchor initiatives: Local food means business for local neighborhoods

Fri, 10/17/2014 - 2:56pm

At first glance, the food vendor gathering held last summer at the the University of Minnesota's Coffman Memorial Union felt like a preview of the State Fair. 

You could sample Sweet Science ice cream, a scrumptious product that takes advantage of new food production innovations. Immigrant entrepreneurs proudly displayed mouthwatering Bar-B-Q pork buns from Keefer Court bakery and authentic Mexican tamales from La Loma restaurant. Sunrise Market, founded a century ago in Hibbing, announced its new line of gluten-free pasta.

And you could munch carrots from Stone’s Throw Farms, grown on inner-city vacant lots, and nibble Garden Fresh Farms’ microgreens, grown hydroponically at an old warehouse in St. Paul’s Frogtown neighborhood.

Wait a minute! No one eats root vegetables or microgreens at the State Fair.

True. This event was not geared to fair-goers but rather to food service managers and chefs at nine colleges and seven medical facilities in the Central Corridor between downtown St. Paul and Minneapolis. These anchor institutions together spend more than $25 million annually on food for their 67,000 employees and 115,000 students as well as visitors.

If small companies like these based in the corridor could gain even a small portion of this $25 million business, it would boost their success and the vitality of the communities they call home. One new local job is created for every $140,000 increase in local food consumption, according to a new national study quoted by Ellen Watters of the Central Corridor Anchor Partnership.

“Our goal is to improve economic vitality for both anchor institutions and their communities,” Watters told the crowd as they snacked on chicken tamales, dark chocolate sorbet and, yes, microgreens.

How anchor institutions can strengthen neighborhoods

"Anchor" describes institutions that are rooted in a particular locale, and want to make sure their communities remains stable and safe.

“Colleges and hospitals are embedded in their community and have a real stake in seeing that it thrives,” explains Augsburg College President Paul Pribbenow, who is chair of the Central Corridor Anchor Partnership. “This is not just what we give to the community, it’s about our shared interests and mutual benefits.”

Most colleges and medical centers throughout the 11-mile Central Corridor have come together under the banner of the Central Corridor Anchor Partnership (CCAP) to broaden their collective impact by purchasing more local goods and services, hiring more local people and pursuing other initiatives to strengthen their communities. In June, many of them cooperated on a special transit pass to encourage employees to ride the just-opened Green Line, which runs the length of the corridor. A similar program was launched in early September introducing college students to the advantages of light rail.

One of the nation’s most ambitious anchor initiatives is flourishing in Cleveland, where three new worker-owned cooperatives on the city’s struggling East Side provide services to nearby institutions such as the Cleveland Clinic, Case Western Reserve University and University Hospitals: 1) The Evergreen Cooperative Laundry, which washes more than 10 million pounds of sheets and towels yearly for local hospitals; 2) Ohio Cooperative Solar, which installs solar panels on institutional, commercial and government buildings as well as offering free weatherization programs for low-income residents; and 3) Green City Growers Cooperative, a 3.25-acre greenhouse growing hydroponic lettuce and basil year-round for hospital and college kitchens.

Other notable anchor local food success stories include:

Morris, Minnesota: University of Minnesota-Morris. This 2,000-student campus got a head start with local food beginning in 2001, and now boasts 30 percent of all food sourced regionally (250 miles or less).  “We wanted our purchasing dollars to make a difference in rural economic development,” explains Sandra Olson-Loy, Vice-Chancellor for Student Affairs. “Also we wanted fresher, tastier food. No more eating pink, hard tomatoes in the middle of August when all around us were juicy beautiful ones.”

Fifty percent regional food is now their goal, Olson-Loy says, and eventually 50 percent local, which will mean $250 million a year flowing into Western Minnesota’s economy.

Minneapolis-St. Paul: Minneapolis and St. Paul Public Schools. Two of the state’s largest school districts will feature homegrown lunches once a week throughout the school year on Minnesota Thursdays.  The program debuted Sept. 4 with hot dogs from Cannon Falls, buns from St. Cloud, cucumbers from Northfield, corn on the cob from Apple Valley and watermelon from Elk River. The goal is that most of the food on students’ plates each Thursday will be grown or raised within 75 miles of the Twin Cities. 

Burlington, Vermont: Fletcher Allen Health Care. Forty-two percent of the food budget for this health care system serving one million people in Vermont and neighboring upstate New York goes to producers within a day’s drive.  That amounts to $1.5 million every year. Burlington itself — with winters comparable to Minnesota — is a locavore leader, with 70 percent of food in local schools grown locally during the fall season. That extinguishes the myth that local food only make sense in warm places like California.

Gambier, Ohio: Kenyon College. Thirty-eight percent of food served in dining halls is sourced locally, and during the harvest season 70 percent of produce comes from farms right in the county.

Tackling the challenges head-on

The economic, nutritional and culinary advantages of local food are so apparent that it’s difficult to find anyone opposed to the idea. But the devil is in the details, as food service managers and local food producers attest.

“I’m looking to see what we can do to get some of these local vendors involved,” says Steve Kroeker, operations manager at Regions Hospital/HealthPartners. After an earlier Vendor Fair last February, the hospital’s kitchen added tamales from La Loma, greens from Garden Fresh Farms, and tortillas from La Perla Tortillas to the menu, and serves locally-processed Bergin’s nut mixes at catered events.

It’s a slow process, Kroeker admits. It can take as long as eight to 10 months to negotiate with the vendors, make sure they can produce food in large enough quantities and in time to meet deadlines, then incorporate the vendors into the distribution system of the hospital’s food service company Sodexo, and arrange the proper liability coverage. A few companies Kroeker wants to work with cannot meet the strict liability requirements needed by HealthPartners and Sodexo.

When asked if it’s worth all the trouble, Kroeker answers: “Absolutely. As an organization, we want to do this as much as we can. Our core mission is all about supporting the community in health and education.”

Karen DeVet, district manager for Aramark, the company in charge of producing up to 100,000 meals a week at the UMN Twin Cities campus, expresses the same enthusiasm and experiences the same challenges. “We are seeking local suppliers who have food in the quantity we need at an affordable price. We are committed to increasing our local purchasing in support of community partners.”

Augsburg College sources 20-30 percent of its food locally during harvest season, some of it coming from on-campus gardens, notes Josh Ahrens of A’viands, the Roseville-based company handling food service for the school. A contract with Bix Produce, who works with many hydroponic farms in the region, keeps the supply of some local vegetables continuing throughout winter and spring. 

Even with only 4000 students, Ahrens says, the scale of their food needs can be difficult for small firms. “Not everyone can deliver 200 chickens by the time we need them. ”

But he believes mounting public interest in locally grown foods will overcome the challenges. “This started out as something trendy,” Ahrens observes, “but as more and more people get involved, local food is growing stronger and stronger.”

Clarkfield, Minnesota company tapping wind and solar power to charge devices

Fri, 10/17/2014 - 2:54pm

You just lit a campfire, miles from the nearest wall socket, when an all-too-familiar tone informs you that your phone is dead. A savior may be on the way, though. A native of Iceland working out of a former school building in the small southwestern Minnesota town of Clarkfield plans to revolutionize the way we charge electronic devices.

While running an East Coast investment fund, Einar Agustsson decided to redirect his energy toward developing more efficient generators that use green energy. His company, Skajaquoda, began developing products that allow people to power their phones, tablets, cameras and other devices using wind and solar power—and a successful crowdfunding campaign is helping bring the concepts to market.


The first product, Trinity, is a portable wind turbine. A smaller model ($299) has a 15-watt generator and starts as a 12-inch tube, from which emerge aluminum legs that can be propped up in a tripod configuration. There’s also the larger Trinity 100 ($499), which has a 100-watt generator. It tucks into a 20-inch cylinder when not in use.

Power de-rived from the turbine’s spinning blades charges Trinity’s internal battery. Users can then tap into that charge via one of Trinity’s several inputs. (You can also circumvent Trinity’s internal battery and charge devices directly from wind power, but it’s slower and “less than ideal,” says Agustsson.)

The time it takes to charge Trinity’s battery depends on wind velocity. In a 10 mph breeze, the smaller model would generate enough power in about an hour to charge your phone, Agustsson explains.

Trinity’s Kickstarter campaign drew $75,319 from 339 backers, exceeding its $50,000 goal. Skajaquoda will bring Trinity to market in early 2015 and has received pre-orders, although Agustsson declined to specify how many. The startup is targeting travelers and outdoors enthusiasts, and has received “a lot of interest” from boat owners—but Skajaquoda is eyeing larger versions for homeowners.

Meanwhile, Skajaquoda is developing a similar product that uses solar power. The Sun Strap features a flexible solar panel sewn into fabric, which can be fastened around the strap of any bag (backpacks or golf bags, for example) using Velcro. It, too, has an internal battery and USB output, and can be used to charge electronic devices. At press time, its Kickstarter campaign was funded to 109 percent of the $15,000 goal.

This article is reprinted in partnership with Twin Cities Business.

MN Blog Cabin Roundup, 10/17

Fri, 10/17/2014 - 2:54pm
Exploring the Minnesota side of Interstate Park

from Minnesota Prairie Roots by Audrey Kletscher Helbling

History seems chiseled in stone here, rock carved away by forces of nature to reveal the magnificent St. Croix River gorge that divides Minnesota and Wisconsin.

If you can’t afford health insurance … three ways to get help

from News Day by Mary Turck

Health insurance costs a lot — family coverage costs more than $1300 per month. Most people can’t afford that. In other countries, the government provides health insurance. Not here. So what can you do to get help paying for health insurance?

MNGOP auditor candidate Randy Gilbert spent $43,290 to make this television commercial

from Bluestem Prairie by Sally Jo Sorensen

Endorsed Republican state auditor candidate Randy Gilbert spent $86,482.92 between January 1, 2014 and September 16, 2014, according to the campaign's September Pre-General Election report filed with the state campaign finance board.

Of that expense, $43,290 was spent on the "production and creative" for the ad below…

Will someone explain why the Minnesota state court system cannot make civil filings public?

from Minnesota Litigator by Seth Leventhal

Make no mistake: the problem and the delay with remote access to Minnesota state court records is policy. It is not technology. The problem is not, “How do we keep confidential records confidential?” The problem is, “Do Minnesota judges want Minnesotans to be able to have easy access to public court records?”

The honey wind — remembrance of Grand Marais, Minnesota

from Kristine Holmgren — Drama Queen by Kristine Holmgren

The full moon surprised me.  It always does when I visit Lake Superior's North Shore in autumn. 

I never think of the moon when I'm in the city.  But here,  on the rocks in Grand Marais, it cannot be ignored. 

If you blog and would like your work considered for Minnesota Blog Cabin, please submit our registration form.

Coleman group to spend against Peterson

Fri, 10/17/2014 - 12:07pm

WASHINGTON — Add another national group to those spending on the Collin Peterson-Torrey Westrom race in Minnesota’s 7th District.

The Congressional Leadership Fund, a super PAC chaired by former Sen. Norm Coleman, announced Friday that it will spend $500,000 against Peterson, including television ads in Minneapolis during the last week of the campaign. CLF’s sister group, the American Action Network, had previously planned to spend $750,000 against Democratic Rep. Rick Nolan, and it’s a veteran of 2012’s 8th District race, but neither group has spent in Peterson’s district before. The Peterson buy is part of a new $3 million spending spree on Democratic districts nationwide.

Minnesota’s 7th District race has become a hotbed for outside money this cycle. The Democratic and Republican campaign committees are spending on ads against Westrom and Peterson, respectively, and the House Majority PAC is working to protect Peterson, a 12-term incumbent. Even before Coleman’s group announced its plans in the district, outside groups had spent nearly $5.4 million on the race, according to the Center for Responsive Politics, good for ninth most among U.S. House races nationally.

Devin Henry can be reached at dhenry@minnpost.com.

Give to the Max Day 2014

Fri, 10/17/2014 - 12:05pm
11/13/2014 (All day)

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Join us for our sixth annual charitable giving event. We’ll be rallying all Minnesotans to cheer on their favorite cause during our 24-hour extravaganza of generosity.

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Sex offenders running for office in Moose Lake

Fri, 10/17/2014 - 12:01pm

Some people are interested in this election: Glenn Howatt and Chris Serres of the Strib report, “Sex offenders at a treatment center in northern Minnesota, fed up with political gridlock over their controversial program, are taking matters into their own hands: They are running for elected office. … Their goal is to elect sex offenders to as many as eight city and county offices, where they can push for more freedoms and reintegration into the community. ” 

Toss another lobster on the grill. KSTP-TV’s Tom Hauser reports, “In our exclusive new KSTP/SurveyUSA poll, Republican challenger Stewart Mills leads incumbent Democrat Congressman Rick Nolan 47 percent to 39 percent. Another 4 percent support Green Party candidate Ray Sandman, and 11 percent are undecided. ‘This is a shocking poll and may suggest we have Oberstar all over again,’ said University of Minnesota political scientist Larry Jacobs, referring to longtime Democratic incumbent Jim Oberstar's loss to Chip Cravaack in 2010. ... Jacobs says the 8th District is changing as the population shifts from the more liberal Iron Range part of the district to more conservative northern suburbs of the Twin Cities. Recent re-districting also moved some voters from the conservative 6th District represented by Michele Bachmann to the 8th.”

Speaking of: Emma Dumain at Roll Call tells us, “In a speech and brief question-and-answer session Wednesday morning at the Heritage Foundation — billed as one of her last public speaking engagements as a member of the House of Representatives — [Michelle Bachman] refreshed her audience on the history of the tea party movement and made a case for continuing the fight against higher taxes and bigger government. … she cited an overhaul of the tax code as a top priority. ‘You change it now. Immediately. And you either go with the flat tax, or you go with the national consumption tax. You figure it out,’ Bachmann said. ‘I'll lead the debate. You want someone to lead the debate? I'll lead the debate. Lead the debate and do it because guess what, folks? This isn't working.’" 

Voter ID, rejected by more voters in 2012 than tighter restrictions on gay marriage, still has appeal, at least GOP Secretary of State candidate Dan Severson thinks so. MPR’s Tim Pugmire reports, “Severson campaigned heavily [in 2010] on requiring people to show a photo ID to vote, and he still supports it. But he's changed his approach since Minnesota voters rejected a Republican-backed photo ID constitutional amendment in 2012. He's now advocating for a voluntary photo ID system that would put those voters in a faster line at the polling place. Many experts say it's not a big problem, but Severson remains convinced that the current election system is vulnerable to voter fraud.”

Thank god! A mid-to-upscale dining option in Edina. In the Strib, Don Jacobson reports, “Parasole Restaurant Holdings plans a 242-seat seafood eatery on the west side of France Avenue, north of Minnesota Drive. The still-untitled spot would join Salut Bar Americain, Pittsburgh Blue, the Good Earth and Mozza Mia Pizza Pie in the restaurateur’s headquarters city. …  Parasole … is touting [it] as ‘Minnesota’s next great seafood restaurant.’” Edina. No longer a culinary wasteland.

Collateral damage.  The AP reports, “Two top administrators at a Catholic school in Austin have been fired after a high school teacher was charged with having sex with a minor student. The Diocese of Winona, which includes Austin, says Pacelli Catholic Schools President Jim Hamburge and Principal Mary Holtorf were fired after being put on leave last week. Former math teacher Mary Gilles was charged with six counts of third-degree criminal sexual conduct with a 17-year-old student earlier this month. The Diocese had said the administrators' leave didn't have to do with the charges against the 28-year-old.” Of course.

It’s rarely good when the feds investigate. Sarah Horner of the PiPress writes, “Maplewood City Hall is the subject of a federal investigation. On Thursday, Maplewood officials declined to comment about the specifics of the FBI inquiry, other than to say the city requested the probe. ‘You want to have some investigative integrity ... so we are not going to talk about the scope or what this is, but there is an investigation that we requested,’ said Maplewood Police Chief Paul Schnell. … Maplewood Mayor Nora Slawik said the FBI is conducting the investigation and that it involves city operations "in some capacity."

The dark hole (and bags) of photoshopping. City Pages Aaron Rupar devotes a piece to partisan complaints about shocking, shocking! things campaigns are doing to the other guys’ pictures. “A number of local Republicans got in touch with us in recent days to express dismay about photoshopped images of MNGOP candidates that the DFL has included in attack mailers put together by the party. We were sent a DFL mailer that goes after Kirk Stensrud, a former legislator and MNGOP House candidate in an Eden Prairie-area district that should be closely contested next month. In one image, bags under Stensrud's eyes appear to be digitally enhanced. A horror movie poster mockup also included in the mailer features an evil-looking Stensrud wielding a crowbar in a menacing manner, while a third image makes him look like a burglar.”

October Economic Update brings mixed news for the state budget

Fri, 10/17/2014 - 10:29am
Minnesota Budget Bites CC/Flickr/noshaWhile revenues for the first quarter of Fiscal Year 2015 are down, Minnesota finished the prior budget year even better than originally reported.

Minnesota’s most recent revenue collections are about 1 percent below projections, but the overall picture isn’t so bad, according to information in the Minnesota Management and Budget’s October Economic Update.

The economic update looks at state revenues for July to September 2014, which make up the first quarter of Fiscal Year 2015, and compares them to what was projected in the February Forecast, adjusted for actions taken in the 2014 Legislative Session. It finds that state revenues came in $46 million lower than earlier projections. This was mostly due to lower income tax and cigarette and tobacco tax collections and the timing of a health care surcharge. The health care surcharge accounted for a $31 million shortfall, which is expected to be reversed in the future. Corporate tax collections came in higher than projections.

While revenues for the first quarter of Fiscal Year 2015 are down, Minnesota finished the prior budget year even better than originally reported. State revenues for the 2014 fiscal year came in $186 million higher than previously projected. And that’s even an improvement from what was originally reported in the July Economic Update.

While there’s mixed news for state revenues, the national economy shows signs for “solid growth in the second half of 2014,” and this growth is expected to continue until at least next year. While this is good news, current projections for economic growth are lower than projected in the February forecast. The current outlook for the economy is dependent on several factors, including improving labor force growth and smooth policy changes by the Federal Reserve.

The economic forecasters are relatively confident in their projections, and they assign a 70 percent probability to their baseline economic forecast. They give a 15 percent chance for a more pessimistic scenario in which the national economy stalls and the U.S. barely avoids a recession, and a 15 percent chance that the economy will be stronger than the baseline prediction.

This update reminds us that the economy can take unexpected turns. It’s important for the state to prepare for the inevitable ups and downs, and the increase to the budget reserve made in the 2014 Legislative Session is an example of the kind of sound planning that policymakers can undertake so that Minnesota can best meet the needs of its residents in good times and in bad.

These quarterly economic updates are helpful in tracking our state’s revenues, but they give only part of the story. For the full picture, we’ll have to wait for the November Economic Forecast to be released on December 4, which will include estimates for both state revenues and spending. We will see then how the combination of higher than expected revenues in FY 2014 and slower economic growth projections may affect the state’s forecasted surplus for the coming biennium. Those November forecast figures will be the baseline against which the Governor will create his recommendations for the next two-year budget.

This post was written by Clark Biegler and originally published on Minnesota Budget Bites. Follow the Minnesota Budget Project on Twitter: @mnbudgetproject.

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