Monthly Archives: June 2013

The Macro and Micro of Open Government

In recent days a couple of items posted on the Twin Cities Brigade list have caught my attention and related in the open government category of my mind.  The seemingly disparate notes concern a great YouTube on the history of Open Gov Chicago and the forthcoming Minneapolis gathering of the Property Records Industry Association.

The YouTube post links to a presentation created by Derek Eder, formerly with the City of Chicago now an independent consultant.  It’s an understandable big picture presentation on how and why the city of Chicago is creating a comprehensive approach to public access to public information – “from the outside in.”  It describes succinctly how the system is envisioned, the role of hackers for the public good, how OpenGov Chicago will be sustained, and the role of leadership.  In the presentation the concept of open government is tangible, well explained and applicable in any public setting.

On the same list I learned that the Property Records Industry Association will hold its annual conference in Minneapolis in August.  These are the public officials and businesses that carry out the day-to-day routines of recording and making accessible public data – assessment data, GIS mapping, mortgage recordings, legal descriptions of land records, property ownership and related public records.  The work of the property records managers is vitally important in terms of land ownership, mapping, property rights and legal decisions.  As with every aspect of government, technology is a challenge facing those who maintain the record and assure its accessibility for today, preservation for tomorrow.

The Open Chicago video is the macro, user-based story – the national conference of the record keepers is the micro of what it takes to make open government happen.

Devil in the Details of the Nation’s Democracy

“Less than 48 hours after the Supreme Court struck down Section 4 of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, six of the nine states that had been covered in their entirety under the law’s “preclearance” formula have already taken steps toward restricting voting.”  Joseph Diebold, ThinkProgress, 6/27/13

In the fragile infrastructure of voting rights the devil is inexorably mucking in the details.  The devil of voter suppression is on the prowl not only in those immediately affected states but also throughout the nation, including sacrosanct Minnesota.

And so we gird our loins for the post-Supreme Court blow to the Voting Rights Act.  The pattern of pernicious tactics we saw in the 2012 election is unleashed.  The well-orchestrated and funded drive to suppress the hard-won rights of American citizens marches on its swift and steady course to thwart the will of the people.

An early challenge – and opportunity – is the vigorous campaign to elect a new Secretary of State.  Mark Ritchie who has been unswerving in his commitment to fair and free elections, has announced he will not run again for this complex and powerful position.  The list of announced candidates suggests just how important the office is.

In fact, a critical challenge to voters is to understand the authority of the Minnesota Secretary of State position.   ( Management of elections is just one of a roster of responsibilities of the office.  Still there are countless ways the elections process for which the Secretary of State is responsible can be manipulated intentionally or by benign neglect.

As in every aspect of government, technology is shaping the electoral process. Suppressors, working in concert state to state, would inhibit the process under the devilish guise of efficiency or security. Voters need to pay attention to the ways in which such pernicious Ideas flow with alacrity and momentum through the states.

Minnesotans are justifiably proud of having trounced the Voter ID Amendment to the State Constitution.  Now, complacency is the enemy of the people.  The ID requirement was just one arrow in the quiver of the determined vote suppressors.

Native prairie plantings thrive in Northeast Minneapolis

Decades ago Lady Bird Johnson transformed the highways of the nation with her intrepid support of wildflowers, the perky blooms that continue to beautify the terrain and eliminate costly grooming of the land.  The spirit of Lady Bird lives on in Northeast Minneapolis.

Wednesday, June 26, marked a major event in development of the Blooming Prairie on Central, installation of a prairie landscaping project on the Central Avenue medium.  City Council member Kevin Reich who has spearheaded the project was on hand, along with representatives of the partners including the City, Parks and Rec, neighborhood greenthumbers, the Green Council at Edison High School and Prairie Restoration, Inc., source of the prairie plantings.    Though this busy stretch of Minnesota Highway 65 may be an unexpected site for prairie plantings, the collaboration and the possibilities hold great promise for the community.

The original planted islands were installed in 2004 as part of the Central Avenue reconstruction project.  These first plantings weren’t prepared to stand up to the harsh environment of the street and failed to prosper.  Funds were allocated in 2011 to replace the plantings with a more durable landscape design.

During the fall of 2011 a steering committee from surrounding neighborhoods met to weigh options and select a prairie style landscape for the replacement.  Prairie Restoration began installing the new landscaping in the arid summer of 2012.

Rob Brown of Prairie Restorations is quick to remind the novice that prairie-style plantings need to be established in stages for an optimal final result.   Still, the result is a sturdy landscape that requires minimal care and tending on an ongoing basis.  The 15,000 native plantings of Indian Grass, Golden Alexander and Yellow Coneflower being planted this summer are hyper local plants grown within 200 miles of their new home, becoming what Brown refers to enthusiastically as “remnant prairie.”  Preservation of the urban prairie will involve some controlled burning during the months to come.

Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board has also planted trees along stretches of Central as part of the overall landscaping upgrade.

Government information – leaks, privacy, more questions than answers

Like most Americans I’m totally befuddled by the Snowden affair.  A confirmed supporter of open government my allegiance to the people’s right to know is in the DNA.  At the same time, I hear the concerns of data privacy advocates.  And in the end, it seems to me that this bifurcation of the issue is a false premise at its core.

The best I can do is to identify, ponder and focus on some basic questions.

  •  Why did Booz-Allen have access to sensitive records of the NSA in the first place?  In our enthusiasm for limited government are we abdicating government authority and responsibility in favor of the lowest bidder or, more likely, the favored consultant agency.
  • What trusted government process allowed for Booz-Allen to place a callow youth with no relevant experience to guard the data hen house?
  • What other clearance do contracted lackeys enjoy?
  • What has been the role of the journalists ostensibly selected by Snowden – Glenn  Greenwald of the Manchester Guardian and Washington Post journalist Barton Gellman.
  • Who/what is the FISA court?  How are members chosen? What exactly is the role of the court?  To whom is FISA accountable?
  • Just how much infringement by the government on individuals is acceptable?
  • Whose responsibility is it to assure that government policies and practices stay ahead of the technology?
  • Is responsibility for policy being relinquished to geeks?
  • How do average Americans know the rules under which our government is operating – intentionally or inadvertently?
  • Is anyone outside the Beltway really informed, engaged, responsible?
  • How can citizens know the scope of this incident? Or, for that matter, how many citizens know the basics of government intelligence – the players, the policies, the decision-making process, the protections?
  • Where is the Fourth Estate in all this?

I’m not as interested in the details of where Snowden’s plane landed or the role of Assange as I am in the Big Picture.  I want to know the Deciders, the game, the players, the rules, the oversight, the accountability of the actors to the American people who not only deserve  the truth but who also pay the generous salaries of these high-placed Insiders.

For all of the inflated language, posturing and finger-pointing, this incident reveals that the business of governing this nation is a human enterprise.  So is the business of investigating, interpreting and informing the public.   Given access to information by and about our government we citizens are capable of understanding and acting responsibly.  We can and will be responsible for the oversight so obviously lacking in the intelligence community and the free press.

Others will and must have other questions – the urgency is to keep on asking till we get some answers.

Voting rights, judicial wrongs and a call to action

Like many American citizens, I am saddened by the Supreme Court’s 5-4 ruling re. the Voting Rights Act.  I haven’t had time to hear the critics who have not had time to think about their response – unless, of course, there’s a leak at the Supreme Court.   My response is that of a concerned citizen who has shuddered from the cold wind of incursion as I have observed the insidious maneuverings with voter rights in recent elections.  The ax fell today when five Justices, led by Chief Justice Roberts, gutted the iconic center of the Voting Rights Act.

One of the arguments  particularly disturbs me, i.e. Chief Justice Roberts’ justification that there is now “parity” between whites and African Americans in voter registration.  The right to vote, access to the polls, involves much more than registration, as we who challenged the Voter ID Constitutional Amendment know all too well.

More chilling is the thought of leaving further explication of the Voting Rights Act to the United States Congress.  The Congress that originally passed the Voting Rights Act in 1965 is not today’s Congress – not only in composition but in motivation, relationship to the voters, commitment to preservation of the tenets of democracy.

The environment is also not the same.  21st Century economic realities, technology possibilities, Influences on the voting public, the power of one citizen’s vote are all very different from the one-man-one-vote world of a half century ago.

What has not changed is that every citizen has a right to register and a right to unfettered access to the voting booth or its modern equivalent.

The fact is, today’s decision affirms the imperative of constant vigilance.  Though the heavy blow dealt by the decision is hard to take, it is also a clarion call to vigilance and action to preserve the inalienable right to vote.  My fear the decision will cast a shadow on the voting process, that it will discourage some who surmise that the system has scant interest in defending a basic right.

We need to pick ourselves up, dust ourselves off, listen to the wisdom of others, move the issue of voter rights to the front burner, polish off our perceptive paranoia, and keep a very close eye on what comes next.

I had to get this off my chest before I move on to learn more, be on guard, and keep a keen eye on the prize.


Big Joy, the James Broughton documentary, coming to the Walker

Big Joy is coming to the Twin Cities — seriously, Big Joy, the documentary.  And the August 22 screening of Big Joy: The Adventures of James Broughton at the Walker is a joyous event.

Big Joy is the story of poet and filmmaker Broughton produced by Stephen Silha whose Minnesota roots run deep.   The feature-length film captures the spirit of the enigmatic Broughton (1913-1999), known for personal mantra  “follow your weird” – which he did with great aplomb.

To put it mildly, Broughton engaged in and relished life!  In his autobiography Broughton described a time when, as a toddler, his life was transformed by a visit from his muse Hermy who assured him that he would always be a poet, “even if I tried not to be.”  The Muse also advised Broughton that “despite what I might hear to the contrary the world was not a miserable prison, it was a playground for a nonstop tournament between stupidity and imagination. If I followed the game sharply enough, I could be a useful spokesman for Big Joy.”(Coming Unbuttoned, 1993)

Writing in the Bright Lights Film Journal critic Gary Morris offers a gentle caveat: “Broughton is simply too individual for categorization, even when the evidence for labeling him this or that is overwhelming.”  Morris suggests that Broughton be seen as a “ poet, avant-garde film artist, and Dionysian gay sage.”

Not one to hold back, Broughton expressed his passion in film, poetry and his own lifestyle.  He created 23 films and an equal number of books of poetry.  He was a founding member of the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence, a queer service organization, and a leader of the Radical Faeries, a counter-cultural movement that advocated spirituality as a way to redefine gay identity. In recognition of his open lifestyle Broughton was grand marshal of the San Francisco Pride Festival in 1988.

Broughton played a significant role in creating some of this country’s most famous movements, including the Beats.  “Adventure, not predicament” shaped Broughton’s  life choices.

Stephen Silha who is  producer, co-director  and promoter of the documentary, is a journalist and filmmaker who lives now in Port Vachon, Washington.  And yes, he is a member of the Minneapolis family. He is the son of Otto Silha, well known as Chair of the Board of Cowles Media and generous benefactor with his wife Helen of the Silha Center for the Study of Media Ethics and Law and the University of Minnesota.  Like his parents and Broughton, Stephen Silha is a “big thinker.”

Big Joy has been on tour at festivals including Tribeca, South x Southwest, the Seattle International, Hong Kong and Florida Film Festivals..

Let this be early notice of what promises to be a major community event.  Word has it that Rain Taxi is planning a Big Joy reading/writing event before the screening at the Walker Cafe.  There will be more.

For those who are unfamiliar with the films and poetry of James Broughton, there is much to learn about Broughton and about the film.  The good news – time and resources are on the side of the learner.  Some portals to the wonderful world of weird adventure: is it, a sample of Broughton’s film productions

All: A James Broughton Reader, edited by Jack Foley, White Crane Books, 2007

The Blame Game Puts Us All to Shame

Eons ago when I was in the single parent role, I would come home from work to hear the strident tones of my younger son protesting from the upstairs, “NMF!”   Even in the pre-acronym age, I knew that meant “not my fault.”

I still wave the “NMF” defense at times.  I appreciate the artful use of a knee-jerk defensive screen.  After all, I tell myself, NMF affects only the self-determined innocent accused.  By hoisting his NMF defense Steve impugned no one and did no real harm to another.  It remained to the potential accuser – me — to nab the miscreant.  In other words, he deflected but did not blame.

Today the nation is paralyzed by a far greater evil, the pervasive and pernicious plague of Blame.  Not content with a simple NMF defense, politicians, corporate giants, the media, the clergy, bankers, educators and too many mere mortals go on the offense by hurling Blame with abandon.

Blame is a charge that resists certain confirmation with the added power that it diverts the attention of the accuser.

Our litigious and political systems exist on Blame – that’s where the profit is, that’s where the votes reside.  While most of us are content with an NMF posture, the Deciders deftly use Blame to shape our perceptions.  Well-orchestrated Blame can basically rewrite the narrative.

Still, Blame serves no particular purpose other than to deflect, even abnegate, responsibility for decisions and actions.

Whether it’s weariness, apathy or a feeling of powerlessness,  We the People fret from the sidelines as the Deciders play an endless Blame game – a pervasive and pernicious plague on the nation.  Clearly, it’s NMF, so who can we blame for our collective complicity?