The Masons building: let it go, let it go

I was floored this morning when I fired up the Pioneer’s Facebook page and saw some 40 comments on my story about plans for the Masons building to be torn down, just since the story was posted last night. By comparison, most of the stories I do will get maybe three or four comments in a week.

I was also surprised at the amount of negative reactions to the building plans. A lot of people apparently didn’t read the story itself, since they seemed to think some sort of business or tacky parking lot is going into the space. Rather, that couldn’t be further from what Watermark Art Center actually wants to do with the land after the building comes down.  As Watermark director Lori Forshee-Donnay said when I talked to her yesterday, the center aims to turn the plat into a garden where public art can be featured, possibly with some sort of pavilion for public gatherings. It’s a vast improvement over an empty, dilapidated building past that at this point can only suck up utility costs and pose a safety hazard.

We can only speculate as to the motivations of whoever donated the $250,000 for the Masons building to be purchased and demolished, but I have a theory: the person or organization donated the money precisely to save the space from becoming a parking lot or fast food chain location. They donated to Watermark specifically in order to prevent some other developer from coming in and turning the space into something commercial. They probably chose to remain anonymous because they anticipated the legion of haters suddenly throwing rocks at the idea of demo-ing the building just because it happens to be old. Where were all these people last spring, when news first broke of the temple’s condition?

Although it’s an ugly fact that the temple has to go away, it’s still a fact. The future green space is really the best possible outcome that could have happened, considering the amount of money it would have required to renovate the building.

The Masons are satisfied they did all they could to save the building. Why can’t some people in Bemidji be satisfied with a little change?

Open country, open meetings

I’m a bit late to this, but I wanted to put in my two cents to a post from Sally Jo Sorensen’s blog post from last week about the Minnesota Senate’s Rural Task Force. On her Bluestem Prairie blog, Sorensen took the Task Force to task for not recording its meetings via sound files or minutes, and failing to distribute document packets to the public. Although RTF subsequently released minutes from one meeting to her, my guess is it took some prodding. She apparently never got a comment from Saxhaug himself, but she did get a response from Senate Majority Media staffer Amelia Cerling explaining things.

I have heard back from Sen. Saxhaug’s staff and unfortunately don’t have good news to share. Because the Rural Task Force is not an ‘official’ Senate task force there is no audio/video or minutes taken. Likewise there are no digital copies of the documents handed out at the meeting.

 

If you are interested in attending the next meeting, it’s taking place on Dec. 8 at 10 a.m. I apologize for not being more help.

 

Please let me know if there is anything else I can assist with.

As it so happens, the Task Force is chaired by Sen. Tom Saxhaug, DFL-Grand Rapids, who I frequently cover on my beat as a member of the Bemidji-area delegation to the Legislature. He swung by the Pioneer office last week, and I figured I’d cut through all this red tape and just ask him why they weren’t recorded.

To his credit, Saxhaug actually beat me to it, bringing it up himself how “we got a little static from some people” about the lack of recordings. However, when I asked him about why they weren’t recorded, Saxhaug at first handed the question off to staffer Mitch Berggren, who was also at the interview. Berggren said the reason RTF didn’t record the meetings was partly because they didn’t have to and partly because they couldn’t.

“Under Senate rules, these are not official hearings,” he said. “No formal actions are being taken. They do not need to be recorded, there don’t need to be any minutes made public. It’s strictly informational, we’re not in session.  If it was a hearing by a committee, absolutely they have to be recorded and minutes have to be posted. One, (due to) the Capitol renovations… we don’t have cameras right now. So, the technology that everybody has come to rely on isn’t available in the building right now, due to no fault of our own. But the main reason is because, as a task force, not a formal senate committee, there is no requirement of recording them. And, we don’t have the means to get that information out.”

Saxhaug then chimed in.

“We thought that if we came up with some decent ideas, then it might be a reason for one of us to write a bill,” he said. “That’s kind of how we left it.”

Then I asked if there was still an ethical obligation to the taxpayers to record the meetings, even if there wasn’t a legal obligation.

After a pause,  Saxhaug responded.

“I think that it’s something that’s worthy enough of attention…there was plenty of people that attended, and… I didn’t feel like we were operating in a vacuum,” he said finally.

Driving all the way to St. Paul shouldn’t have been the only recourse for people wanting to be informed about RTF’s activities. I understand the task force is a new idea and the Senate is still trying to work out the kinks, but “we don’t have cameras right now” isn’t a valid excuse in the era of smart phones. At the very least, they could have posted audio on the senate website. Hopefully the upcoming meeting in December will be more open.

Bemidji’s socially tinged ripple in the 2014 Red Wave

Now that the dust has settled on 2014, it’s time to try and understand why Dave Hancock retook his House 2A seat from DFL Rep. Roger Erickson.

I read an excellent analysis piece by MinnPost’s Briana Bierschbach the other day on how the Republicans took control of the Minnesota House of Representatives by unseating DFLers in rural districts, a trend in which Hancock was at the center.  They used the rural vs. metro dynamic, Bierschbach says, in that they claimed the incumbents had voted with St. Paul over their own constituents. The main wedge they used to drive that divide was the new Senate office building, which Bierschbach calls “the perfect symbol for that message” and a “gift from the DFL”. She goes on to quote Marty Seifert:

“The House Democrats could lay the senate office building at [Senate Majority Leader] Tom Bakk’s feet and say, ‘You helped crystallize wasteful spending,’” says former House Minority leader and gubernatorial candidate Marty Seifert. “They raised taxes to help pay for stuff like this, while your area gets nothing and the roads are falling apart. It was so easy for the Republicans to exploit that.”

The MinnPost piece also analyzes what role, if any, same-sex marriage played during the election, using Jeff Backer’s ouster of Jay McNamar as an example:

Yet many strategists do believe that gay marriage helped Republicans in at least five “deep rural” seats in the Minnesota House. GOP Rep.-elect Jeff Backer said he didn’t bring the issue up at the doors in his race for House District 12A, but voters did. “It came up at the door,” he said. “The people who are passionate about it are very passionate about it.” Backer ended up beating DFL Rep. Jay McNamar, who voted to legalize gay marriage, by about 4 points.

Hancock talked about the office building a few times but it was his constant refrain of social issues that really syncs up with Bierschbach’s article. Rather than claiming it was voters who brought up gay marriage like Backer did, Hancock would unabashedly bring it up unprompted himself time and and time again. While Erickson would usually address social issues if only directly asked about it, Hancock made a conscious, consistent effort to cast himself as a defender of “traditional” marriage and other conservative social values. Hancock played the St. Paul vs. rural card, but rather than focusing only on the SOB or gay marriage, he added another issue that seemingly pits St. Paul against the locals: the anti-bullying law intended in part to protect LGBTQ students against harassment.  In fact, Hancock devoted part of his closing statement at the last debate of the season to the law, which passed earlier this year.

“It’s not going to prevent bullying,” Hancock said. “I think what it’s doing is changing education from acquiring knowledge and skills to a social endorsement of…any type of sexual behavior being normal.”

Earlier in the debate season, he also brought up the anti-bullying law when I asked about the Minnesota State High School League’s proposed transgender policy at a televised debate Oct. 14:

“I think it’s a continuation of the…it’s the same groups that are pushing the anti-bullying bill,” he said. “The anti-bullying bill, in my estimation, has been forced upon the districts with the idea that it is going to protect students from bullying, that it’s going to annul that issue. What it’s really doing is saying that students and even the community should affirm and celebrate the idea that any sexual behavior is normal, and any opposition to that view would be viewed as being a violation of the bulling policy. To me, it goes against freedom of speech, it goes against freedom of religion.”

I’m not suggesting Hancock won only because of his stances on social issues, but I am saying Hancock thought they would help him win. Personally, I think most people in the North are of the same mind as Erickson: for better or for worse, they only talk about social issues when they’re confronted with them directly. No matter what your stance is on LGBTQ  issues, perhaps Hancock making a point out of them may lead to a productive conversation with his constituents over the next two years he’s at the Legislature.

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:

watch?v=Ghp2kPVpUIQ

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…