What we can do about homelessness in Bemidji

The most important moment from the mayoral debate Tuesday came when incumbent mayor Rita Albrecht and challenger Jorge Prince finally got to bring their opinions on Bemidji homelessness into the same room, at the same time.

As Albrecht alluded to during the debate, in Bemidji the mayor doesn’t really have all that much power to respond to specific issues. Since the city manager is the one with direct administrative control over city departments, the mayor only has their voting stake on the City Council to bring to bear, plus a little more power as a symbolic city figurehead to call attention to specific problems. Realistically speaking, the winner of the mayor race will only have slightly more pull on day-to-day operations than the winner of the City Council race between Don Heinonen and Dave Larson.

With that said, one council member’s vote can sometimes mean life or death for a city initiative, and the mayor can do more than any other council member to call the public’s attention to homelessness.

From my point of view, Albrecht’s position was basically this: the city can give money and other resources to nonprofits, but besides that,  it can’t do much directly  on homelessness except through the Bemidji Police Department.

“The city has a small role to play with human services,” she said. “Our police department, part of their strategic plan is ‘assist the community in figuring out this challenge.’ We want to support our public safety folks.”

One might see that and incorrectly assume she means the way to solve homelessness is to have the police department crack down on vagrants. However, she’s actually quite right in saying that one good way to deal with it is through the BPD, and I wish she had taken the time at the forum to elaborate on what she (probably) really meant.

The Bemidji police interact with homeless people very often, arguably as often as the People’s Church, and it’s not to arrest them. Public safety isn’t my beat, but I do read the police blotters from time to time. The blotter entries tell the story, and I invite you to check them yourselves: the police give the homeless rides and referrals, making sure they’re not out in the cold if cops run across them while on patrol. They put them in contact with shelters, shelters that could never afford to send staffers out into the streets to check on the welfare of the people forced to live there. The police department CAN send people, though.

It is the police who are often the first helping hands the homeless encounter. The men and women of the Bemidji Police Department are their true guardians.

We can do even more as taxpayers and as voters. Our voices can prompt the city to do more, too. The city can use the police to study the nature of homelessness in Bemidji, a more efficient and more real study than any reporter or any statistician could come up with. With the proper funding, the proper mandate, the police administration can provide more specific training and procedural rules for how its officers should deal with each homeless person they encounter. That way, police helping the homeless becomes more of an expectation and less of cops simply taking it upon themselves to do the right thing.

During the debate, Prince outlined an interesting funding mechanism to address homelessness: divert profits from the city’s liquor stores and put it towards partnering  with nonprofits. His idea also has some symbolism to it in that alcohol abuse is linked to the homelessness problem here.

That symbolism is nice, and liquor store profits could be used for short-term solutions like emergency shelters or travel vouchers. However, I think there’s enough political will among the people of Bemidji for a new tax that would specifically fund long-term homelessness efforts, like building permanent facilities or the public safety reform I mentioned earlier. I’m not sure whether that would be an increase to the property tax levy or a local-option sales tax. However, I am sure the money is needed and I’m confident the people of Bemidji care enough to support it.

Dessert from two political dinners

The annual Beltrami County Republicans dinner was last week, and their Democrat counterparts held their fundraising banquet Monday. With both stories, I focused on the biggest names at the event– Collin Peterson, Rick Nolan, Torrey Westrom, Stewart Mills. However, the fascinating stuff going on with speakers further down the ballot didn’t make it into my copy since it’s been a very busy two weeks. I thought I might take the chance to talk about those races via bloggin’, now that the dust has settled a bit.

The GOP had two speakers in particular that grabbed my attention: Dan Severson, running for Secretary of State, and Scott Newman, running for Attorney General. With elected “cabinet” positions like these, a common dynamic from both sides is to see some partisan rhetoric, although those positions are supposed to be non-partisan. (For the record, SoS and AG candidates run as part of a party ticket, though).

Newman and Severson both reached out to the Pioneer for interviews, and their answers to my questions were intriguing. When I asked Newman Thursday what he was going to talk about in his speech, he brought up the same pending EPA regulation regarding navigable waters that Stewart Mills and Torrey Westrom brought up in their speeches to the GOP banquet.

“Literally, the federal government will have jurisdictions over all of the surface water in the state of Minnesota,” he said. “Think in terms of water on a farmer’s field, or in their ditches or in their storm tiles. The federal government will literally be able to follow that water right up into the farmstead. The farmers are going to have to get permits and obey federal regulations having to do with surface water. Between you and I, these are regulations that are being written by bureaucrats out in Washington, D.C. and they probably don’t even know what dirt is. They probably figure meat comes out of cellophane.”

Speaking of meat, I’d call that statement some solid red meat for the base. For its part, the EPA’s FAQ page on the proposed rule conflicts with most of the stuff in the above quote.

I also talked to Dan Severson by phone the day after the event, who said current SoS Mark Ritchie is “the most partisan Secretary of State in the history of Minnesota.”

“I think he’s a nice guy… I think he has brought a lot of discredit upon the office, though,” he said.

Severson blamed Minnesota’s voting system for the extremely narrow victory of Al Franken over Norm Coleman in 2008.

“That gave us Obamacare, which now is the single largest disaster in Minnesota for the health care system,” he said.

As long as we’re talking about nonpartisan officeholders doing partisan stuff, I also want to bring up a very awkward moment from the DFL dinner on Monday: at one point, Beltrami DFL chair Steve Nelson pointed out all of the public figures in the audience. The list included Beltrami County Commissioner Tim Sumner, Bemidji Mayor Rita Albrecht and Ninth District Court Judge Paul T. Benshoof.

They did not get up and speak to the crowd while I was there, however, and they did not put themselves in the spotlight other than simply attending the event.

That said, these people all occupy government positions that I think have an even stronger obligation to remain non-partisan than the spots Severson or Newman are running for. It’s not as if they can’t hold personal political beliefs, but they appeared in public at a fundraiser for a political party, where the media (not just me, by the way) was present. Their official titles were laid out for everyone by Steve Nelson. At the very least this could be interpreted to imply endorsement by those offices for the DFL cause. The fault for that moment lies partially with them for attending the event, and partially with Nelson for pointing them out. Regardless, it should not have happened.

Big names in a little race/Mean tweets of the 7th CD

By now, most political observers are aware that northern Minnesota’s two big U.S. congressional races have attracted big national attention/money from outside groups. On election day (less than two months from now)  Peterson/Westrom and Nolan/Mills will be anxiously eyed-over in Washington. It fills me with a mix of pride and dread that places like Brainerd, Detroit Lakes, and Bemidji may be on the lips of hardcore political operatives deep within the bowels of the Beltway over the next few weeks.

If go down one rung in the political scale, you can see a similar effect: low-profile legislators whose races have been abruptly thrust onto a grander political stage. Except in this case, it’s local members of the state Legislature who have been illuminated with a large, well-funded spotlight in the overarching battle for control in St. Paul.

On Tuesday, the Minnesota Jobs Coalition Legislative Fund released a list of “vulnerable” DFLers in greater Minnesota that the statewide conservative group is going to target.

On that list is Rep. Roger Erickson, who unseated incumbent Dave Hancock in 2012. Hancock is running to take back the seat in 2014, and he’s done a good job of connecting his name with that of Republicans higher up on the ballot. For example, he did several events with Stewart Mills in June, including touring northland businesses.  Hancock’s also one of the confirmed speakers at a Beltrami GOP banquet coming up on the 18th, along with Jeff Johnson and Torrey Westrom.

Another thing I’ve been watching this week is the Twitter accounts of the 7th Congressional District GOP and the 7th CD DFL. Based on their activity over the past few days, it appears those two handles mostly exist just to argue with each other rather than promoting their own party/engaging voters. If any of my fellow politicos find themselves dateless on a Saturday night, I encourage them to bust out a bag of popcorn, fire up the Interwebs, and watch the zingers fly.

The two accounts have debated (sometimes for days on end) over education, health care, fundraising, cap and trade, and others.

However, the GOP account may have made a misstep just today by mixing it up with Bluestem Prairie, a liberal blog run by Sally Jo Sorenson. Sorenson called out a CD7 fundraising video that featured snapshots of GOP supporters, because the slideshow didn’t have any women standing by themselves, just as part of families. It’s kind of a petty complaint, but the GOP’s response to it was just baffling:

What the heck is that supposed to imply? That women who speak for themselves don’t love their husbands? That you can’t be liberal and love a man at the same time? I can’t wait to see how Sorenson responds.

On guns, it’s hard to tell Nolan and Mills apart

The MN08 congressional race took an interesting turn last week as Rick Nolan and Stewart Mills sparred over U.S. intervention against ISIS in Iraq. That got me thinking. The two have traded public statements over mining, oil pipelines, tweets, mining again, minimum wage… There’s one issue, though, that has gotten almost no play at all, or at least not enough for voters to decide how the candidates differ.

It’s gun control.

That statement has two notable exceptions. The first is how Mills got political attention in the first place, before the race had gotten going in earnest. He posted an anti-gun-control speech/ad for Mills Fleet Farm on Youtube.

The second is when Mills and Nolan exchanged shots over the veracity of a political ad that claimed Nolan “has repeatedly voted to take away” Second Amendment rights and highlighted his F grade from the NRA.  As MPR documented in the story I linked to, Nolan wasn’t happy.

In a statement issued by his campaign, Nolan called the ad “dishonest” and said he has long owned guns and supports the right to own them.

MPR pressed the Mills campaign to back up the ad, and the results were telling.

When asked to back up its claims, a campaign spokeswoman pointed to a 1978 vote during Nolan’s first stint in Congress he made on an amendment to an appropriations bill that would have established a computer system to track firearms sales and an amendment vote in this Congress that would have added $20 million in funding for background checks.

Two votes. That’s all the evidence in Nolan’s voting record the Mills camp could find to prove there was any difference between Nolan’s position and their own: barely enough to satisfy the technical definition of the word “repeatedly”.

What’s more, it’s as almost if Nolan wants us to believe he and Mills are in lock-step on guns. Case in point: during the Mills ad,  there’s clipped footage from an old Nolan ad showing him in hunting gear, toting a gun. Mills’ voiceover says “Around election time, Rick’ll put on his hunter’s orange and grab a rifle. But in Washington, he’s repeatedly voted to take away your second amendment rights.”

Here’s Nolan’s first TV ad so far this season:


You called that one, Mills.

Here’s my point: whether you’re for or against gun control, there needs to be more substantive consideration of the issue, beyond political ads and YouTube videos.  Does Nolan support an assault weapons ban now? Where do the candidates stand on a 2014 Minnesota law that takes guns away from domestic abusers? Are background checks an infringement of Second Amendment rights? Does Mills oppose the idea of mandatory government permits for owning/carrying a firearm? Those questions haven’t been asked yet, and they need to be asked.


The loopy ‘loophole’

Minnesota’s senate race has recently taken on Chinese steel as an issue, starting with Mike McFadden’s comment at Farmfest that he’d be cool with using it in the Keystone XL Pipeline if it were cheaper than American steel. The DFL got a huge kick out of the pipeline soundbite, running it right into the ground (both literally and figuratively) with lawn signs that mimic McFadden’s official ones.

The Star Tribune documented a subsequent firefight over the comments where McFadden’s team said Franken had voted for an “loophole” that would allow foreign steel to be used in the pipeline. But Team Franken begged to differ:

Franken spokeswoman Alexandra Fetissoff said there was no such loophole, and that Franken backed an amendment requiring American steel for the pipeline, which could be waived only if domestic steel increased the cost by more than 25 percent. The alternative, Fetissoff said, was a bill with a no buy America requirement.


That 25 percent waiver is the “loophole”  McFadden’s campaign was talking about.  They took an amendment that required American steel and spun it 180 degrees to make it appear as though Franken was being hypocritical.

I saw similar fight play out over Twitter this week as Rep. Carly Melin of Hibbing drew the ire of some conservative operatives.

 Rouleau is director of the Minnesota Jobs Coalition, a conservative group. The images are screenshots of H.F. 548, a bill Melin and Rep. John Persell, DFL-Bemidji were both authors on. The bill ostensibly requires U.S. steel on public projects, but Rouleau highlighted a passage that waives the bill in the event using U.S. steel “would exceed 15 percent of the cost of any other steel products obtainable nationally or internationally”.

Does this mean the American steel would have to be 85 percent cheaper than any foreign option for the law to actually be effective? Or (like the measure Franken backed) does it mean if the cost of American steel exceeds that of the foreign steel by an amount of 15 percent, then the law is waived? I assume the latter, because the law would be pretty much pointless if it was the former.

Anyway, Rouleau and GOP comms guy Andrew Wagner gave Melin grief by implying the waiver meant she was being hypocritical, the same thing the McFadden campaign tried to pull with Franken:

There IS a difference. A 15 percent difference, which depending on the public project could mean thousands and thousands in taxpayer funds.

Waivers are a common part of Democrat-supported American-steel bills. A Rick Nolan bill requiring American steel in crude oil pipelines is waived if there’s a shortage of American steel as determined by Secretary of Transportation. While I agree that waivers diminish the Democrats’ hammering of McFadden somewhat, it does not make them hypocritical. If the positions are as similar as Wagner and Rouleau claim, why doesn’t McFadden back a U.S. steel requirement like Franken or Melin did?  Similar measures have bipartisan support.

Deer, oil and mussels

DNR Comissioner Tom Landwehr visited Bemidji last Wednesday to meet with the Forestry Affairs Council, and together with MPR’s John Enger and my boss Dennis Doeden, I interviewed Landwehr in the lobby of the new Hampton hotel.

We started out with some relatively softball stuff like the strict deer hunting season ahead and invasive species, but then we moved into more controversial topics like the DNR’s position on Enbridge Energy’s Sandpiper oil line.

Landwehr said the rough winters Minnesota saw last year and the year before have taken a toll on the deer population, leading for the DNR to make this season “the most conservative season we’ve had in two decades.”

I wonder what the tougher limits will do to hunter turnout? Deer hunting isn’t something I’ve dealt with much on my beat so far, but with the Governor’s Deer Opener in Bemidji this year, that’s sure to change.

I HAVE followed the AIS issue quite a bit, though, and Landwehr said something that surprised me. The Legislature appropriated millions of dollars to local anti-AIS initiatives from counties and watershed associations, indirectly helping out the DNR by adding inspectors/educators. However, Landwehr said the DNR did not ask or even anticipate for that money being appropriated. It was “completely out of the blue”, he said.

I understand it was probably the local groups that pushed for that legislation in the first place but wouldn’t it make sense for the Legislature to at least consult more thoroughly with the DNR before they passed that bill? Beltrami County isn’t complaining because we received thousands of dollars for our AIS campaign, but the county and DNR inspectors will be working together, maybe literally side-by-side. If what Landwehr says is accurate, the state should have planned this funding surge a lot better.

Landwehr also talked about invasive carp, praising the recent federal move to close the St. Anthony Falls Lock and Dam as “very good news”. He said the DNR is pushing the Army Corps of Engineers, which runs the dam, to simply not reopen it after they close for winter. This could mean the dam gets closed months earlier than the yearlong deadline the U.S. Congress gave the Army.

Finally, I asked him about the DNR’s position regarding Sandpiper. Landwehr said it was good that the Public Utilities Comission decided to study more routes than just the one Enbridge proposed, saying it wasn’t a “good deliberative process” to just study Enbridge’s route. The DNR and the MPCA have both brought up potential environmental issues associated with the line. The DNR controls permits for whether Sandpiper can cross state lands/waters.

Good news from the Library Board

Thought I’d give a quick follow-up on my previous post about rude library patrons:

Earlier this week I heard library manager Paul Ericsson talk at a board meeting about the overwhelming positive response the staff has received since news of the outbursts broke. He said people have been coming into the library in droves to express support and solidarity- one person even bought pizza for the librarians.

I think that’s the most wonderful thing that could have come out of this, short of all bad patrons suddenly getting a miraculous attitude adjustment all by themselves.

That so many people would radiate positivity in the face of mean-ness renews my faith in Bemidj as a city of mostly good eggs. Things like that make me glad I moved here.

Sadly I’m not in Bemidji at the moment, which is why this post is so short; I’m pecking it out on my phone. Expect a more thorough post on Monday when I get back to the office. I met with DNR Comissioner Tom Landwehr on Wednesday right before I left town and I have some interesting stuff from our interview…



Time to play hardball at the library?

After a long string of posts about MN politics, it’s time to go local.

I reported from yesterday’s city council meeting about a rash of unruly patron incidents at the library.  Bemidji Public Library manager Paul Ericsson’s reports to the council are usually quaint anecdotes about youth reading programs or new local authors. This time, though, he talked about patrons screaming at him and other staff when asked to stop smoking at the library or to turn down their music.

Ericsson also said the incidents aren’t related to the homeless, which I took to mean that the people who cause trouble aren’t homeless- they’re just rude.

A library should not be a place where police need to conduct patrols, like some tenement or row of shady bars at closing time. That’s the unfortunate case with our library.

We need to take a hard line with people who disrupt the library to the degree Ericsson described. He avoided specific incident details but from what he did say, it seemed like I would feel threatened if I were just sitting near the confrontation. Ericsson said library staff have been documenting the incidents, so I think banning repeat offenders from the library is certainly called for in this instance.

I might even go so far as to threaten disruptive people with a call to the police.  If library staff haven’t threatened that already, I would guess it’s because they don’t want to escalate each conflict.  But if we do end up banning people, who else could enforce the ban but police officers?

I can appreciate the negative aspects of calling the police. It might scare people more to see someone get arrested than to see the conflicts take place. It does seem rather ironic that to prevent the necessity of random police patrols, I’m advocating for direct police response. However, I feel that a brief escalation of the issue in the short term will lead to long-term benefits.

Whatever my armchair general’s opinion is, I have full confidence in Ericsson’s ability to deal with the problem. He and library staff are the closest to the situation- it’s them that the people are cursing out. What didn’t make it into the article is that Ericsson is considering the implementation of some ideas laid out in the book “Black Belt Librarian” written by a library security consultant (yes, those are both real things). It’ll be interesting to see how that plays out, and you can be sure I’ll be following up in my regular Pioneer coverage.

The biofuel bifurcation

I saw a nice piece on the governor primary today from Don Davis of Forum News Service’s Capitol Bureau. Davis is technically my co-worker since we work for the same media company, Forum Communications.

In a race defined by how similar the four candidates are, Davis has just found an immense policy difference on an issue that directly affects Greater Minnesota: biofuels.

Seifert, a Marshall resident and former state representative, said the state has created thousands of jobs and the state should not change the requirement that gasoline include 10 percent ethanol.

“I see this as the status quo for now,” he said, not jumping on a bandwagon to increase ethanol percentages…..

Zellers, raised on a North Dakota farm and now a Maple Grove resident, said he wants to look into increasing the ethanol mandate to 15 percent, but needs more information before fully supporting it. At minimum, he said, he wants to keep existing mandates in place.

Johnson, who grew up in Detroit Lakes and lives in Plymouth, said he favors eliminating mandates from state law, including those affecting biofuels…

“Government has created somewhat of a dependency,” Johnson said, adding that eliminating biofuel mandates is not a priority and that he would like to phase them out.

There is none of that waiting for Honour.

“I would try to push away from mandates as quickly as possible,” Honour said. “My view is that the less government is trying to influence a free market, the better.”

While many Minnesota politicians and government agencies trumpet the fact that their vehicles use biofuels grown in Minnesota, Honour takes a different approach.

“In energy, we ought to be moving to taking advantage of resources that are sitting right next door in North Dakota, with natural gas, and Montana and Wyoming with coal,” he said, emphasizing that the Ford F-350 pickup truck that he drives uses natural gas.


Not only is their position on the fuel mandate different, you have exact opposites at play: Seifert and Zellers want to maintain/increase it, but Johnson and Honour want to reduce or eliminate it.

Corn for ethanol isn’t grown much in Beltrami County, but its effects on prices– both for  gasoline and for other ag commodities– matter to everyone.

The GOP line this year has been all about “affordable energy options” (read: fossil fuels) so it’s very refreshing to see some candidates support ethanol. I know the ethanol refining process has taken some flak recently for not being emissions-efficient, but hey, I’ll take what I can get.


The oddest auditor’s race of our time

This week I got the chance to interview both sides of the DFL state auditor’s primary, Matt Entenza and Rebecca Otto. This primary has arguably been been more intense so far han any of the GOP primaries in the state. Although the GOP candidates for governor have finally started to let the gloves come off, you don’t see them bringing official campaign complaints against each other. The fact that even the Miami Herald picked up the story is evidence this is bringing Minnesota DFL nationwide attention, and it’s not the good kind.

The main dynamic in the race is this: Otto claims Entenza is a “perennial candidate with a lot of money” simply grandstanding for a future run at the governor’s office, whereas Entenza claims Otto is too nebbish and the office of auditor could stand to be a lot more active in deciding policy rather than just crunching numbers.

I can kind of buy into the notion that Entenza is an opportunistic rich guy running for office just because he can. He’s run for statewide office twice before,  and he showed up to our interview at the Bemidji airport Tuesday… in the Cirrus SR-22 turboprop he borrowed from the flying club he belongs to.  (The 2014 models cost upwards of $600,000, per Wikipedia)

However, Otto is not as blameless for the negative tone as she claims in my story. You choose how you respond to attacks from your opponent and questions from the media. By going ad hominem against Entenza with the “perennial candidate” comment, Otto proves she’s taking his challenge personally when she really shouldn’t.

I honestly think these two could start burning down the chances of other Democrats if they don’t shape up before the primary. It’s a distinct possibility there could be a major gaffe by one of them that draws still more attention away from the other races.  When Otto asked for an interview after she saw my Entenza story, she emailed me personally through our reader comment submission form, so at first I thought I was being trolled by someone pretending to be her. Before the Entenza interview, I had a number of awkward, fumbling calls from his press guy switching the time around. I had to run around the airport campus looking for Entenza because Random PR Dude didn’t bother to make it clear where specifically we were supposed to meet, or that Entenza would be flying in by himself.

We’ll just have to wait and see until August 12, when the primary puts this race out of its misery.