Second Ward, Minneapolis

This is the public policy forum of Minneapolis Second Ward (Green) City Council Member Cam Gordon and his staff. We use this space to talk about some of what Cam’s working on, explain his positions, and share a little of what life in City Hall is like. Please feel free to comment on posts, within certain ground rules. See our disclaimer, including ground rules, here:

Thursday, May 29, 2008

Free Speech Press Conference

On Friday, June 6th, the Minneapolis City Council will vote on a resolution which could significantly change the way people assemble and protest on City of Minneapolis sidewalks.

I am organizing a press conference with CM Gary Schiff urging the Mayor and Council to not take these potentially drastic steps to curtail our civil liberties. The press conference is tentatively set for Tuesday, June 3rd at 12:30 in the City Hall rotunda (350 South Fifth Street).

While many things about Ostrow's proposed resolution are fine, I have serious concerns about the following particular aspects that would:

1. Require any person or group planning on holding a public assembly of greater than 50 persons “in a location and in a manner” that will prevent others from using sidewalks to provide notice and obtain plan approval, if they wish to “obtain priority” over other groups.

2. Allow City staff to determine whether an unregistered public assembly prevents other pedestrians from using sidewalks, providing a rationale for enforcement actions against groups that have not received the City’s permission to exercise their First Amendment rights

3. Give registered groups sole claim to public right-of-way, creating a new tool for opponents to preempt demonstrations.

4. Become a permanent policy of the City of Minneapolis, despite being billed as preparation for the Republican National Convention.

I have proposed an alternative approach (in two parts here and here) that uses the best of Ostrow's proposal but addresses its deficiencies.

Friday, May 23, 2008

Three issues to work on next week

Here is some more information on three issues under consideration in City Hall that I want you all to be aware of:

1. Free Speech and the RNC

I continue to oppose the “notice and plan approval” process for “public assemblies,” being brought forward by Council Members Ostrow and Remington. I believe that most protest groups will not participate in a process that says they must provide notice, and I fear that lack of plan approval will become a pretext for unnecessary conflicts between groups and counterproductive involvement of law enforcement during this summer’s Republican National Convention and beyond. My concern only grew larger last week when it became clear that the intention was make a permanent policy change rather than just something for use during the convention as the original name of the resolution indicated.

My concerns include the fact that there is also no way for a person or group to appeal a decision if their plan not approved. Additionally if one group has a plan approved that will effectively keep any other group or individual who is not part of their assembly from using the sidewalk or engaging in protest activities of their own. I am also concerned that we will then be left with a sidewalk closure permit that doesn’t even require the person getting the permit to have the consent of the residents or businesses that rely on those sidewalks for their normal activities. The potential negative, even if unintended, consequences this could have on commerce, labor activities and future protests and rallies far outweigh any potential benefit.

Here is the specific part, as amended, of the Ostrow/Remington resolution I object most strongly to:

“That any person or group planning on holding a public assembly of greater that 50 persons in a location or in a manner that will prevent other pedestrians from using the sidewalks and crosswalks must provide notice of the assembly to City staff and obtain plan approval if the person or group wishes to obtain priority over those person or groups who have failed to register.”

Here the last available version of Ostrow’s proposal

And here is an alternative (in two parts) I have drafted:

This matter will come before the Council on Friday for final approval morning June 6 the regularly a scheduled meeting of the City Council.

2. Lurking and Loitering.
I am moving forward with an effort to repeal the unjust and antiquated Minneapolis “lurking” ordinance. This ordinance disproportionately impacts homeless persons, people of color, and the poor. I believe that we must redirect precious law enforcement resources to behaviors that actually harm someone, and laws that carry meaningful consequences. To accomplish this repeal effort, I will also be adding more behaviors to the loitering ordinance, making it cover crimes related to vandalism and theft. This whole package will came before the Public Service and Regulatory Services Committee on May 21st and the Public Hearing will resume at our next meeting on June 11.

You can see the specific ordinance amendments here:

And get more details on my reasoning behind the repealing the lurking ordinance here:

3. Pre-employment Drug Testing

The Human Resources Department has brought forward a proposal to the Executive Committee last Wednesday to conduct pre-employment drug testing for all City employees. I was the only committee member to oppose this idea.

You more about it here

This issue will come before the Ways and Means Committee on June 2. At it last meeting the committee asked staff to “provide information outlining risk management: a) quantifying liability exposure; insurability issues; asset preservation; as well as a history of these issues; b) a survey of policies in other cities and counties; and c) a legal analysis that would address negligent hiring, noting sensitive and non-sensitive positions.”

Thursday, May 15, 2008

Pre-Employment Drug Testing

The Human Resources Department has brought forward a proposal to the Executive Committee last Wednesday to conduct pre-employment drug testing for all City employees. I was the only committee member to oppose this idea (Mayor Rybak and Council Members Benson, Johnson, and Lilligren voted yes).

I have many reasons for opposing this policy. Most importantly, I was unconvinced by the claims made by Human Resources staff for the necessity of this policy. They gave four reasons for adopting this policy: 1) to ensure employees are drug and alcohol free at the time of testing and prior to a final offer of employment being made; 2) to safeguard employees and citizens against the potential risks associated with employees who are chemically dependent; 3) To ensure continued compliance with state and federal laws; and 4) To protect City resources by further reducing the liability associated with negligent hiring cases.

However, they were unable to cite any specific example of a liability case associated with 'negligent hiring' or a case of an employee or citizen being hurt by a 'chemically dependent' employee, making clear that reasons 3 and 4 are not well-founded. They also stated that our current drug testing policies (to test employees who are suspected of being on drugs or alcohol at work) are sufficient to comply with current state and federal laws, undermining reason 4.

That leaves reason 1. I do not believe it is necessary for the City to find that a potential employee is drug and alcohol free at the time a job is offered, for a number of different reasons.

I do not believe that it is the City's business what an employee does on his or her own time, or before he or she is hired. If someone is drunk or high on the job, that is a serious problem - but it's already covered by City policy.

I believe that this sort of action helps entrench and support one of the worst policies of the 20th and 21st Centuries: the War on Drugs. In my opinion, the City should play a role in helping to end this "war," which has resulted in a dramatic increase of violence, addiction, and imprisonment, not work to extend it.

As my colleague Betsy Hodges pointed out, evidence of drugs in someone's body does not indicate chemical dependency. This is a common and, I believe, destructive conflation of these two concepts.

One of the perverse arguments used by Human Resources staff in favor of this policy is that it's relatively easy to pass this sort of test, even if one is drug- or alcohol-dependent, calling the point of the policy into serious question.

I find it problematic that the proposed policy would give so much power to the "Medical Review Officer" (or "MRO") responsible for interpreting the test results. For instance, if someone eats a poppy seed muffin the morning of the test and tests positive for opiates, she or he has an opportunity to explain that to the MRO. It is this person's sole discretion to decide whether the potential employee may be hired or not, and her/his decision cannot be appealed except through the courts. I believe this is far too much authority to give one person.

I am also persuaded by Barbara Ehrenreich's argument in Nickel and Dimed: on Not Getting by in America that pre-employment drug testing is less about the actual risks of chemical dependency, and more about establishing a certain understanding of the employee/employer relationship. Forcing someone to submit to a degrading, possibly physically invasive test in order to get a job sends a not-so-subtle message: we're the ones with power, and you're the one without. We can regulate not only your behavior at work, but what you do with your free time. I do not think that this is a healthy or necessary signal to send, in my opinion.

Interestingly, given the concerns I've heard from my colleagues, I think there might be the votes to block this policy. We'll see.

Lurking and Loitering

Next Wednesday, May 21, there will be a public hearing on an ordinance change I have had on my priority list for a long time: repealing the Lurking ordinance.

Unfortunately, in order to build a Council majority of seven votes, I also have to move to make changes to the Loitering ordinance. You can see these two questions here. The changes will make it so that Loitering covers some of the crimes currently dealt with by Lurking - specifically, anything involving stealing or vandalism.

To be clear, I don't support the Loitering ordinance. I have many of the same problems with Loitering that I have with Lurking: it criminalizes intent and is used predominantly against the poor, persons experiencing homelessness, and people of color. However, I have heard from advocates for the poor and anti-homelessness crusaders that Lurking does more damage than Loitering, for the following reasons:

- Lurking looks worse on arrest records. I hear that potential employers and landlords can countenance hiring or housing someone with a Loitering arrest on his/her record. The popular conception is that homeless persons just get picked up for Loitering. Lurking, on the other hand, sounds scary. It becomes more of an obstacle to folks transitioning out of homelessness by finding work and housing, helping to keep the vicious cycle turning.

- Loitering is more specific, provides clearer direction the police and is less open to constitutional challenges based on how broad or how vague it is. The Lurking ordinance criminalizes "lurking or lying in wait with the intent to commit any crime." It is entirely open to police officers to decide who "intends" to commit a crime, what crime they "intend" to commit, and what evidence there is for that alleged intent. My changes to the Loitering ordinance make very clear what specific behaviors prove intent to commit which specific crimes. If a behavior is covered in the ordinance, the officer can issue a citation. If it is not, he/she cannot. This makes the proposed new Loitering ordinance significantly less of a "blank check" than the Lurking ordinance.

If you believe that our justice system should actually be just, that we should focus precious police resources on actual crime, and that we should focus on fighting the root causes of homelessness and crime rather than throwing money at ineffectually 'managing' these problems, please come to the PS&RS committee on May 21 at 1pm, here in City Hall, to testify. It will be a hard fight, but I hope that the Public Safety and Regulatory Services committee will pass this forward with recommendation, and that the Council will pass it on June 6.

Tuesday, May 13, 2008

Pawlenty Vetoes Phthalate Phase-Out

I was deeply disappointed to read today that Governor Tim Pawlenty has vetoed a bill that would phase out Bisphenol-A and certain phthalates. I sponsored a resolution in support of this bill earlier this year.

The Governor cites "lack of scientific evidence" as a reason for this veto, which is much more likely driven by chemical industry lobbying efforts.

Pawlenty is using the wrong standard, a philosophical template that treats chemicals as if they were persons accused of a crime. In this model, chemicals are "innocent" until proven "guilty" of causing harm to human health or the environment.

The problem is that the diseases caused by these chemicals are rarely directly attributable to a single, provable exposure. For instance, animal studies have shown that phthalates elevate risk of certain cancers. Due to obvious ethical constraints, similar studies in humans have not been conducted. It is logical to assume that phthalates have caused cancer in humans, but it is not possible to 'prove' that a specific person died due to phthalate exposure.

A more appropriate model for assessing the advisability of exposing people to these sorts of chemicals is the precautionary principle, which places the burden of proof on those who wish to expose people to these chemicals, not on those who wish to protect the public from them. Under the precautionary principle, the plastics industry would have to provide compelling evidence that phthalates are safe.

As we do with perscription drugs, appliances, vehicles and a host of different consumer products, we should be ensuring that phthalates are safe for human use. I do not believe that the available science can support this sort of assertion. Pawlenty's argument therefore falls apart completely: it's not the science that's the problem, it's his interpretation.

Thursday, May 08, 2008

Go RT!

I'll be rooting for Mayor RT Rybak Monday morning, when he takes on Ramsey County Commissioner Toni Carter and Star Tribune blogger Jim "Roadguy" Foti in a race we're calling the Great Commuter Challenge. RT will be on his bike, Toni on foot and on transit, and Jim in his car.

The trio will start out in Merriam Park in St. Paul, do exactly the same small errands, and try to end up at the Central Library in Minneapolis between 7:50 and 8:00am. Listen in on the nail-biting action on Jazz 88, and join us for the celebration at about 8am.

Go RT!

Tuesday, May 06, 2008

U Gets Commuter Choice Award

Congratulations to the University of Minnesota for winning the 2007 TMO Commuter Choice Award for Outstanding Promotion by a large organization. The U is being honored for its successful implementation of a transit and transportation response plan after the I-35W bridge collapse.

The Council is hosting a reception before our May 16th Council Meeting to honor the U and Minneapolis’ other winners from 9-9:30am in room 319 of Minneapolis City Hall, across the hall from the Council chambers. We will also be passing an honorary resolution from the City at the beginning of the Council meeting immediately following the reception.

The University did a great job reducing their single-occupancy auto trips into campus after the collapse. I'm hoping we can continue to work together to keep these reductions in place as the new bridge opens.

Monday, May 05, 2008

Public Assembly Permit

CM Ostrow’s latest public assembly permit proposal is now posted and will be considered at the Public Safety and Regulatory Services Committee meeting this Wednesday, May 7 sometime after 1 PM.

Please see the committee agenda for more details.

This proposal still appears to include a mandatory permit for “any person or group planning on holding a public assembly of greater than 50 persons in a location that will prevent other pedestrians from using the sidewalks and crosswalks must provide notice of the assembly to City staff and obtain plan approval.”

Racial Disparities in Minneapolis

With the help of Shawn Lewis from the African American Men's Project who has been working hard to educate me and others in City Hall about the racial disparities in Minneapolis, I have come to recognize this as a critical area where Minneapolis is failing. To get some idea of the problem look at some of the data gathered by Dr. Rosa A. Smith’s in “Black Male Students: Minnesota’s Litmus Test and Opportunity for Public Education" that was presented last year at a meeting of the Minnesota Minority Education Partnership.

Today, in response to this data and Shawn's urging, the City’s Economic Development staff presented a report on the employment and poverty gaps between white and minority residents to the Health, Energy and Environment committee. The report reveals many good efforts to address poverty and unemployment in Minneapolis, as well as very disturbing racial disparities. For example, we learned that roughly 11% of white people in Minneapolis live in poverty compared to 43% of all black people (including African immigrants), 43% of Asian Americans and nearly 35% of American Indians. The unemployment rate for whites is just over 4%; for blacks it is nearly 14%. Additionally, if we looked more exclusively at unemployment rates for young males in these groups the disparities would likely be even more disturbing.

At the meeting I was proud to move forward a resolution that, if passed by the Council, will create a joint Minneapolis/Hennepin County Racial Disparities Steering Committee that I hope will help us get a handle on this. It is my hope that by building (and building on already existing) partnerships (first with the County but also with the schools, colleges and employers) and focusing on promising demonstration projects we can begin to make inroads on this problem.

I remain convinced that combating poverty and unemployment are key to our success in so many areas in our City. I am hopeful that this new focus will help bring some added resources and energy to help.

Thursday, May 01, 2008

"When Bicyclists Break the Law"

KSTP aired an interesting "investigative news" piece earlier this week about bicyclists breaking the law. To subject yourself to it, go here.

Unfortunately, they didn't get the basic facts right. The worst factual inaccuracy in the piece is the assertion credited to “police in both St. Paul and Minneapolis” that “about half the time,” accidents between bicyclists and drivers are caused by bicyclists failure to yield. This is just not the case.

I've looked through the 2006 bike/car crash data collected by the City of Minneapolis, and found that 120 of the 200 crashes (or 60%) for which fault can be determined were caused by drivers, while only 80 (or 40%) were caused by cyclists. This is far from close to “about half.” Rather, it is a clear indication that driver error and violation of law is a significantly greater threat to bicyclist safety than bicyclist error and violation of law. I have asked KSTP to correct this misstatement of fact on the air, but I'm not holding my breath.

The story exhibited an intriguing sort of willful blindness about violations by drivers of exactly the same laws that they ‘caught’ bicyclists violating. For instance, in a video clip of a bicyclist running a stop sign and “cutting off” the driver behind him, the driver does not come to a complete stop at the stop sign. Rolling through a stop sign in an automobile is just as illegal as doing so on a bicycle, but for some reason KSTP did not find this worth mentioning. As or more forceful a case could be made for drivers’ “laughing at the rules of the road,” as a very, very small percentage of drivers come to the legally-required full stop at stop signs. An even smaller percentage of drivers follow the law by yielding right of way to pedestrians seeking to cross at crosswalks where there are no traffic control devices. For some reason, these facts did not rise to the level of notice by KSTP, despite the fact that they are a) more prevalent and b) more dangerous.

Stories like this make clear that the conflict between drivers and cyclists will increase as we increase bike mode share, and that stop signs are a flashpoint for this conflict. Interestingly,
other states are addressing this problem in an innovative and progressive way: by rewriting the rules for cyclists to perfectly mirror the safe and conscientious operation of a bicycle. For example, here is the relevant section of the traffic code in Idaho, of all places:

  1. A person operating a bicycle or human-powered vehicle approaching a stop sign shall slow down and, if required for safety, stop before entering the intersection. After slowing to a reasonable speed or stopping, the person shall yield the right-of-way to any vehicle in the intersection or approaching on another highway so closely as to constitute an immediate hazard during the time the person is moving across or within the intersection or junction of highways, except that a person after slowing to a reasonable speed and yielding the right-of-way if required, may cautiously make a turn or proceed through the intersection without stopping.
  2. A person operating a bicycle or human-powered vehicle approaching a steady red traffic-control signal shall stop before entering the intersection, except that a person after slowing to a reasonable speed and yielding the right-of-way if required, may cautiously make a right-hand turn without stopping or may cautiously make a left-hand turn onto a one-way highway without stopping.

I've heard this referred to as "functional yield," because it basically makes stop signs into yield signs for cyclists, and red lights into stop signs. This is how the majority of cyclists, including me, operate on the street. It's safe, courteous, and predictable. The current law, in my opinion, creates an expectation on the part of drivers that every cyclist will come to a complete stop at every stop sign, something that I don't think will ever happen. In cases where expectation and reality are irreconcilable, it's usually the expectation that should change.