Monthly Archives: December 2014

ALEC Alert – Follow the money with these timely tools

In recent times I have been gathering a mega-file of references to articles and media exposes of the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC).   Break time is a good time to share the sources with a nonpartisan suggestion that readers of this blog might want to learn what others have had to say about ALEC.

Since ALEC has taken immediate and targeted aim on environmental action — particularly climate change – and since ALEC has the firepower to take action – thoughts of forewarned and constant vigilance leap to mind. Forewarnings of ALEC’s intent and power are abundant.

Basically, ALEC provides a cushy environment for state legislators and corporate lobbyists to craft “model” legislation that individual legislators at the state and federal levels can take home and introduce as their own. More than 98 percent of ALEC’s funding comes from corporations and corporate foundations, the Koch Brothers and their friends. ALEC does not allow journalists to cover their deliberation of issues ranging from voter registration and health care to promotion of fossil fuels and blocking renewable energy initiatives.

At an ALEC sponsored meeting in Washington, DC earlier this month state legislators were advised of the dangers of transparency. As reported in PR Watch elected officials were treated to a session on ”Playing the Shame Game: A Campaign that Threatens Corporate Free Speech.” Elected officials were warned of “an increasing chorus of anti-business activists calling for an end to corporate political participation in the name of ferreting out so-called ‘dark money’.”

The Center for Media and Democracy, a nonprofit nonpartisan organization located in Madison, Wisconsin, maintains a steady eye on the ALEC. CMD is the critical source of updates on all things ALEC, including the widely reported parting of the ways of Microsoft, Facebook, Yahoo, Google and Yelp, all of which have publicly cut their ties with ALEC in recent times.

In her article on an August 2014 ALEC-sponsored meeting of legislators Candice Bernd offers a cautionary note about ALEC’s carefully-crafted next steps, including launch of the American City County Exchange (ACCE), the initiative to apply ALEC’s mindset and techniques to influence elected representatives in city and county position, en route to influencing state initiatives.

A major effort to thwart the power of ALEC was officially launched earlier this month at the annual winter meeting of the Democracy Alliance. The initiative is headed by Nick Rathod who has previously served as President Obama’s liaison to the states. Rathod envisions that SiX will eventually set up a political action committee to be known as SiX PAC.

Where humor reigns  there is hope.

Just a few resources that illuminate the dark recesses of ALEC:














FOIA Machine Lubricates the Wheels of Access

Some holiday time-off-task offers a chance to get back to Poking Around – so where do I start?   With a post about FOIA…. Though I’m eager to poke around a broader sphere, I have been intending to share this newish tool for some time.

Maybe you too have sworn off cookies, shopping, toys that blink and blast, and melodramatic reruns on TV – time to stretch the brain. Admit it, you’ve always wanted to mine the wealth of public information/data — from what’s behind the torture revelations to the fine points of climate change to your personal information trail.

Though widely supported efforts to streamline the Freedom of Information were torpedoed in the waning days of the last Congress, the folks at the Center for Investigative Reporting are pressing on – inviting seekers of government information to participate in the beta test of a promising tool on which they have been working since 2012.

FOIA Machine, a Kickstarted open-source platform, free to the user, offers innovative features that may clear the path to the maze of public records. Initially supported with a John S. and James L.Knight Foundation Prototype grant,with support from the Donald W. Reynolds Journalism Institute, FOIA Machine was put over the top by 2000 contributors to the Kickstarter campaign. In their Kickstarter promo FOIA Machine team leaders describe the project as designed 1) to automate submission of requests, 2) to track FOIA requests, and 3) to aggregate information about FOIA requests themselves.

FOIA Machine was originally designed by and for journalists. Still, the John S. Knight Foundation anticipated that “FOIA Machine will aid journalists and private citizens in accessing millions of important governmental documents around the world that are covered by freedom of information laws which exist in more than 90 countries.”

FOIA Machine allows inquisitive users to

  • Prepare a request under the FOIA or any other Public Records state law from the agencies databases
  • Send requests to a right officer and agency, or schedule it for later sending
  • Track the status of requests
  • Get the records back to their email and FOIA Machine mailbox
  • Create projects from the group of similar requests
  • Use automated request or request letter templates to prepare requests
  • Search for other users’ requests and responsive documents
  • Share their FOIA experience with other users

As with any request, the toughest step is the first one – formulating the information or data need. FOIA Machine offers a couple of options: Users may use the email-like form to select an agency and contact(s) by simply fillinf out the body of the message. If the user knows the contacts and agencies, or can locate that information in the FOIA Machine data base, that is included – if that information is missing, FOIA Machine promises to lend a hand. There’s also a guided “wizard” option to assist in the process.

When the information/data request is submitted FOIA Machine emails the identified contact(s). It will also send the requester a copy of that information. From that point on the requester and agency staffer are in touch with the requester responsible for follow up. Simultaneously, there is another email address cc’ed by FOIA Machine on every message. FOIA Machine tracks the status of the request and the agency response, then provides a log of each interaction in a central location.

Requesters have a number of options. They may keep the transaction public or private; if it’s public it will appear in FOIA Machine’s listing of public requests. Users may also use the system feature to generate requests if they want to rely on the tool for tracing only. FOIA Machine provides a social support component with an online discussion group and through Twitter @foiamachine.

Clearly, the more users the more robust the pool of shared information. The cumulative knowledge can help users figure out how to improve their chances of getting requests fulfilled. Shared experiences, including the agencies track record, can guide users’ approach – plus the record of past requests may eliminate the user’s need to initiate a time-consuming request.

After this beta testing phase FOIA Machine will be managed by the non-profit  Investigative Reporters and Editors.  Meet the FOIA Machine design team here:




PointerGate points to the imperative of oversight

In another life I was a stooge on the Minnesota News Council. At some point I, as a member in good standing, read in the press that the MNC was to be no more – no explanation, a simple affirmation that the staff person had acquired a safe position at the University of St. Thomas. Because I was too otherwise engaged to explore the roots of a decision I accepted as a done deal, closed that file, and gave complicit assent to a decision I knew was wrong.

Bottom line: Minnesota News Council, thou art needed at this hour.

Though there are many, the efficient cause of my concern is PointerGate, the most ridiculous travesty of press neglect unfolding in recent journalistic days.

Thanks to The UpTake, a community resource of inestimable value that somehow escapes public acclamation, I just viewed a streamed account of the recent discussion of the PointerGate debacle sponsored by the local chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists. (( The conversation offers clear insights that transcend the episode that has been blown far out of proportion by the press and by social media; the video is well worth a view.

The discussion, mostly among journalists, is enlightening. The questions raised by the audience are illustrative of the questions on the minds of many. There are not so many answers as questions. Still, listening/viewing the open discussion helps me to capitalize on an opportunity to learn and to understand the thinking of the individuals who were and are involved in an ongoing explication of the tempest in a teapot that was PointerGate.

The complexity of the issue expands with discussion – racism, gang-bating, the role of cops, the authority of the mayor, the objectivity of the press, the impact of the press on public attitudes….

On the one hand, there is the PointerGate issue – dead in the water as far as I am concerned. What remains is a question about the role of the press, the way in which the public, not only the press, has a role in determining the actions of the media. It matters.

From my perspective, PointerGate – and a host of press/media related issues – argue for resurrection of a Minnesota News Council that is restructured, given the authority and staff capable to meet the challenges of a fiercely competitive digital market of ideas. This is not the first, just the most obvious, need for the MNC.

I regret to this day that I gave silent consent so easily to a decision I knew was not in the interests of the people.

Options Abound for Minnesota Map-o-philes

Estonian President Lennart Meri, a wonderfully quotable politician, once said that, “If geography is prose, maps are iconography.” He would be pleased at the flurry of cartographic interest that has popped up in recent days on Open Twin Cities, where open government hackers gather.

Maptime MSP is a new meetup, scheduled to hold an informal meeting on Saturday, December 13, 3:00-5:00 p.m. at the Washburn Library, 5244 Lyndale Avenue South. The group which has met just once invites newcomers and beginners to grab a laptop and join the fledging network.

This week’s meeting will follow up on discussion of OpenStreetMap (, an open data system in which volunteers share a wide range of resources. Contributors include “enthusiastic mappers, GIS professionals, engineers running the OSM servers, humanitarians mapping disaster-affected areas, and many more.”

Local cartographers will also explore an adjunct resource, Missingmaps ( Missing Maps supports the OSM Humanitarian Team that deals with maps and data necessary to respond to crises in unmapped regions, with a commitment to building and leaving behind local capacity and access.

All of the work of both OpenStreetMap and MissingMaps is free and open. Updates on Twin Cities Brigade (!forum/twin-cities-brigade)

Treat Your Palate to a Mixed Menu of Readings at Eat My Words

If you’ve discovered Eat My Words, you’ve been there often. If not, the next couple of weeks offer a great chance to explore this charming bookstore nestled in the Northeast Minneapolis Arts Area.   Whether you’re a veteran visitor or a newbie you’ll find the agenda of readings during the early holiday season is intriguing, even irresistible.

Start this week, with a talk by Aaron Isaacs, author of Twin Ports by Trolley: The Streetcar Era in Duluth-Superior.   Sounds like a tome well-suited for a community pondering the possibilities of a streetcar serving Northeast. Isaacs’ talk is Wednesday, December 10, 7:00 p.m. at the bookstore.

Then, on Saturday, December 13, return to Eat My Words for the launch of Festival in Crime, the newest anthology from the Twin Cities Sisters in Crime! The spell-binder will fill the stocking of the best-read mystery fan on your shopping list. The launch is set for 7:00 p.m. but come early so you have plenty of time to browse the book-laden shelves.

On Sunday, December 14, 2:00 p.m. children’s book author Alison McGhee will read from Star Bright: A Christmas Story, described as “a perfectly angelic – and perfectly charming – Christmas story that offers a creative twist on the classic tale of the Nativity” for children ages 4-8.

For a change of pace, drop in on Tuesday, December 17, at 7:00-ish for First Case of Beers, featuring P.M. LaRose, known locally to readers of the PiPress. “Beers” is actually the nickname for the protagonist, James Alfred Biersovich, head of security at LaScala, a trendy Minneapolis department store (aren’t they all trendy?) It’s a holiday thriller, complete with Santa and the Scalabrino clan.

Rounding out the week is a Spoken Word Showcase on Saturday, December 20, 7:00 p.m. Local authors and spoken word artists Thressa Johnson, Lewis Mundt, Taylor Seaberg and Chava Gabrielle Davis will share their recent work, showcasing several media formats and various approaches to their art.

Eat My Words is at 1228 2nd Street Northeast in the Northeast Minneapolis Arts Area (picture close to the iconic Grainbelt Brewery – one of many in the NEMAA neighborhood),, (651) 243 – 1756

A weekend to think about this nation at war and at risk

The coming weekend marks not one but significant dates in American history. Sunday, December 7, is familiar to many Americans as the anniversary of Pearl Harbor, the efficient cause of the Second World War. Since 1994 that global tragedy has been officially designated as National Pearl Harbor Remembrance Day, a date that FDR correctly predicted would live in infamy. (See earlier post)

Less heralded is the preceding day, December 6, the historic date on which slavery in this nation was abolished. It was on that day in 1865 that the 13th Amendment to the Constitution, passed by the Congress on January 31, 1865, was ratified by the states.

The Amendment is as unequivocal as it is brief:

Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment or crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction.”

The story that led up to final ratification of the 13th Amendment is a rich saga of politics, war and presidential power. In 1863 President Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation declaring, “All persons held as slaves within any State, or designated part of a State, the people whereof shall then be in rebellion against the United States, shall be then, thenceforward, and forever free.” Lincoln actually used his War Powers (a fascinating story in itself) to declare the ban on slavery; still, his power was limited to the Confederate-controlled states.

Thus, the Emancipation Proclamation did not end slavery. Rather, it had to be followed by the Constitutional Amendment that was not forthcoming until late in 1865. Ratification came when Georgia, the 27th state to do so, cast the vote that gave the Amendment the three-fourths of the states necessary for ratification.

On December 8, 1865 this notice appeared in the Lowell Daily Citizen and News, Lowell, Massachusetts:

Georgia—the twenty-seventh state – has adopted the constitutional amendment abolishing slavery. We have in reserve the states of California and Oregon and the embryo state of Colorado. The legislature of California is now in session, and initial steps for adopting the amendment are already reported. The sublime but noiseless work of prohibition by the supreme law is so nearly consummated, that we may very soon look for the proclamation announcing the accomplished fact. What a grand climax to the process of great historic events which mark our recent history!

At the end of December 1865, following ratification of the 13th Amendment, this newspaper article was published with the title “What Is a Man?”

It is very evident; therefore, from this stand point of the matter, that character makes the man, and not color. And if character is the standard of manhood, we cannot see any just reason for withholding the titles to manhood from any one on account of his physical nature. It is not because a person is six feet high and he is a ‘man’, nor because he has a big brow and thick straight hair, but because he has the moral qualifications of a man. Why then exclude a person form this position because he has a black face. If he displays the character, the moral character of a man with a white face, who, in the judgment of his fellows, is deserving of the title ‘man’ in its fullest sense, common sense and justice, we surely think demands that he receive the same honorable distinction. (published in The Colored American, Augusta Georgia, December 20, 1865

The story of the abolition of slavery is much more complex – and human – than the textbooks suggest.   The relationship of the commemorations on December 6 and December 7 give pause, particularly at this moment in time, perhaps.

There are countless books devoted to both Pearl Harbor and the 13th Amendment. Since time is short, there are also relevant and instructive resources online, many from government sources, that offer immense collections of digitized primary documents, video interviews, guides, newspapers, guides to other resources and more. Examples include: