James Eli Shiffer, the Star Tribune’s watchdog and data editor, digs into data and documents to uncover the news. Reach him at 612-673-4116, james.shiffer@startribune.com or follow him on Twitter at @jameselishiffer. Tell us what to investigate. Send your story tips to whistleblower@startribune.com.

Orono man jailed five days for junky yard

Posted by: James Eli Shiffer Updated: July 22, 2014 - 1:13 PM
The offending junk (photo from Jeff Barth)

The offending junk (photo from Jeff Barth)

James Barth checked in to the Hennepin County workhouse on Saturday for a five-day stay, courtesy of a squabble with the city of Orono over what he was storing in his yard. While the dispute began with a May 2010 inspection, the most recent trouble involved some ladders and logs near a garage, according to his brother, Jeff. 

Imprisoning someone who violates a zoning ordinance is an unusual but not unprecedented use of a city's power to govern what someone does on their property. The city says Barth violated city ordinance 78-1577, which governs "exterior storage" in residential zones. An ordinance violation can be treated as a misdemeanor. 

Barth is an over-the-road trucker who lives with his brother John at 3725 Togo Road, an old house on a leafy lot that's a little more than half an acre. He's actually one of triplets. James, John and Jeff are 49 years old, and they're speaking with one voice about what they see as a city going overboard in punishing a property owner. 

"He shouldn't be going to jail for ladders and firewood," Jeff Barth said. "It's just outrageous."

Soren Mattick, the city attorney for Orono, said that the workhouse sentence was the decision of a judge that followed a missed court date, a bench warrant and a recent inspection that revealed continuing code violations.

"I don't think it just comes down to what's on the lawn," Mattick said. As far as the city prosecuting someone for the upkeep of their property, "those standards are meant to be community standards...  This is how we would like to see the community to look."

The trouble began with a city inspection in May 2010, which revealed Barth was keeping "lumber, scrap metals, ladders, tires, rims, metal shelving, garbage bags, 5-gallon buckets, tarps, furniture, utility trailers, miscellaneous construction debris, junk and a Ford L800 Diesel vehicle with expired registration." After a third inspection, in August 2010, determined that more junk had accumulated ("a wooden gate, an appliance, a battery, and a carpet remnant") the city decided to prosecute. In 2011, Barth pleaded guilty to one count of violating a city ordinance, and received probation.

He got rid of the old truck and much of the other stuff, but after another inspection this spring Barth was back in court. Judge Ivy Bernhardson ordered him to report to the workhouse on July 19 and told him to have the violations eliminated by July 24.

John Barth showed up at the Orono City Council meeting June 23 to plead for help. Mattick said it was in the judge's hands. "Mattick noted James Barth had three years to clean up the violations and that it was not a matter of two ladders.  Mattick stated there were a number of pictures showing violations presented at the hearing and that if James Barth had done what the court ordered three years ago, he would not have served any time in jail," according to the minutes of the meeting.

I'm still waiting to see those pictures, which I've requested from Mattick and the Hennepin district court staff. For now, I offer the photo above, which Jeff Barth emailed to me. 

Jeff Barth said that before last week, his brother got a Bobcat, buried the rotting wood and got rid of the other stuff, so there are no more violations. But that wasn't enough to get the judge to keep James Barth out of jail. 

More about locks, barges and politics

Posted by: James Eli Shiffer Updated: July 21, 2014 - 9:49 AM

Judging from feedback I have received, my Sunday column (linked here, and pasted below) obviously did not answer everyone's questions about the fate of the locks and commercial river traffic in Minneapolis. Here are the ones I can answer:

Why not close the lower two locks, since there are no port facilities in Minneapolis below the city's soon-to-be closed terminal?

Congress only authorized the closure of the Upper St. Anthony Lock and Dam. The lower two locks will still accommodate traffic, although it will likely be recreational craft only.

What will happen to all of the goods currently being shipped by barge in Minneapolis?

Expect more trucks bearing scrap metal and aggregates rolling to and from the North Side.

Would the lock operate for a lone paddler?

Yes, and I speak from experience, having traveled downstream through Lock and Dam #1 (at the Ford Bridge) in a canoe. 

Here's the column:

The long-lived dream of river commerce in Minneapolis officially ended a few weeks ago, laid to rest by the stroke of a presidential pen.

Three paragraphs submerged in the Water Resources Reform and Development Act of 2014, signed by President Obama on June 10, order the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to close the Upper St. Anthony Falls Lock within one year.

By next spring, the last barge or pleasure boat will take a 49-foot vertical ride in the concrete channel, exit through the mighty gates and the lock will close forever to river traffic. Local leaders think the extraordinary measure will keep the hated invasive carp from swimming upstream and muscling out our beloved local fishes.

What the closure of the 51-year-old lock won’t do is save much money for taxpayers. The Corps of Engineers, which has beenreshaping the Mississippi River’s only natural waterfall since 1869, is here to stay.

Aaron Snyder, the corps’ district chief of project management, said that the law merely orders the lock closed, but it doesn’t tell the corps what to do with it afterward. So Snyder and his colleagues in the St. Paul District await word from headquarters in Washington on what to do next.

No matter what happens, Minneapolis has finally let go of its vision of a bustling river terminal on the North Side, loading the bounty of the Midwest onto fleets of barges headed for the world downstream.

The idea of Minneapolis becoming a major port was so far-fetched that even the corps, usually an enthusiastic dredger, was dubious. It tried to pull out in the 1950s, saying the project would never pay for itself, but Minneapolis’ obsession pushed it forward.

Workers knocked out a vault in the Stone Arch Bridge and replaced it with an ugly trestle, so ships would have clearance. Then the deepest and most expensive ($38 million) lock system on the Mississippi River opened on Sept. 21, 1963. Politicians celebrated as a towboat pushed a barge full of cast-iron pipes through a red ribbon strung across the lock.

Two hours later, the barge was pushed back downstream to the Minnesota River, because Minneapolis didn’t have any place to unload the plumbing.

The city developed its Upper Harbor Terminal in the late 1960s and early ’70s at a cost of at least $7 million. Driven by coal and grain, the tonnage moving through the lock peaked at 3.1 million in 1976.

These days, it’s mostly sand, gravel, fertilizer and scrap metal on local barges. This season, interrupted by a late thaw and high water, only 202,500 tons had moved through the locks by July 15.

Earlier this year, the City Council voted to stop funding the money-losing Upper Harbor Terminal. The corps cannot do the same with the Upper St. Anthony lock, which cost about $762,000 last year to operate. The Lower St. Anthony Lock and Lock and Dam No. 1 will remain open to traffic, while Upper St. Anthony has to stay operational for flood control.

The corps likely will reassign the four lock operators at Upper St. Anthony to the other locks, leaving one maintenance worker on site.

On July 7, less than a month after Obama signed the law closing the lock, the corps put out a request for bids to replace the lock’s electrical equipment. The anticipated cost: $250,000 to $500,000. Snyder said the need became clear after the sluggish performance of a special flood gate, deployed this year for only the sixth time since the lock opened.

Something beyond jobs and business will be lost when the last towboat chugs with its cargo down the Mississippi next spring.

The spectacle of churning waters lifting a vessel above the falls always attracts a crowd on the Stone Arch Bridge, because they know they’re watching something elemental, the power of metal and concrete and electricity to tame the Mississippi.

A career on the river called to Greg Genz ever since he stepped on his first towboat as a child. Genz, president of the Upper Mississippi Waterway Association, which represents the river industry, thinks that despite its declining traffic, the city could have saved its port. Genz says the interests of riverfront real estate developers won out over the need for a working river.

“I rode the last commercial barge off the St. Croix River,” Genz said. “I guess I’m going to try to ride the last one out of Minneapolis.”

My mystifying journey into the world of FOIA

Posted by: James Eli Shiffer Updated: July 18, 2014 - 5:33 PM

I know a little about state public records laws, having spent my career as a reporter and editor for regional newspapers. It's fair to say that before I started Full Disclosure this spring, I knew squat about the Freedom of Information Act, the federal open government law that's about the same age as me.

Now, a half dozen FOIA requests and many puzzling encounters later, my knowledge of how FOIA works has advanced to squat-plus. Fortunately, our nation is blessed with a community of FOIA experts, who have the paper cuts and bloodshot eyes to prove it. It takes only a tweet with a #FOIA hashtag to bring them to your aid.

At the risk of scaring my few readers away from this blog, I'm declaring on this FOIA Friday (a weekly event created by this ragtag community) that I will use this space to bear witness to my fumbling efforts to get records from our federal government using its officially approved process.

Today, I want to share my experience attempting to get records from the Department of the Army about an individual who was "debarred," or put on a blacklist that prevents him from getting government contracts. I'm not mentioning his name here, because I honestly don't know whether this is newsworthy or not. It took me a week or two to find out where to send my request, but a helpful Army FOIA program analyst gave me the correct email address. I emailed my request on May 20. I'm thinking this is fairly simple, because there's probably a standard order that's sent to any debarred contractor.

I got a letter back June 5 from the program analyst, indicating he had forwarded my FOIA request to the keeper of those records: the U.S. Army Legal Services Agency at the U.S. Army Court of Criminal Appeals, Fort Belvoir, Virginia.

After hearing nothing for six weeks, I have repeatedly called the phone number listed on the FOIA response. No one answers this phone. The voicemail, not surprisingly, is full.

Next stop: the Army's FOIA Liaison!

Sex offense conviction would end chiropractor's career

Posted by: James Eli Shiffer Updated: July 17, 2014 - 4:31 PM

The arrest last week of a Little Canada chiropractor on charges of sexually assaulting a patient followed a long disciplinary record with the Minnesota Board of Chiropractic Examiners, my colleague Chao Xiong reported. The records showed that Paul D. Thompson had a history of improper touching patients, and an evaluator for the board reported in 2004 that Thompson had "interpersonal and sexual behavior problems." While the board had taken disciplinary action, Thompson had never faced any criminal charges.

If Thompson is convicted of a sex offense, the board will not be allowed to give him his license back. That wasn't always the case. In 2010, the Star Tribune reported how a chiropractor went back into practice after serving time in jail for assaulting patients. The board said it was required to do so under state law that encourages the rehabilitation of ex-offenders.

With the support of the Minnesota Chiropractic Association, the Legislature voted that year to require the board to withhold licenses from anyone convicted of most sex offenses. The Board of Medical Practice, which licenses doctors, already has that policy. This year, the Legislature extended a similar ban to the Board of Nursing, which licenses the largest number of health professionals in Minnesota, after a Star Tribune investigative series revealed that some nurses were convicted sex offenders.

Lawmakers considered at one time extending the ban to all health licensing boards, But for now, they seem content to restrict professions one at a time after revelations that sex offenders are once again trusted with patients.

St. Paul refuses license to taxi driver who used meth to stay awake

Posted by: James Eli Shiffer Updated: July 16, 2014 - 12:50 PM

Taxi driver Patrick Murphy's trouble with the city of St. Paul began with an encounter with police in a Super America station at Snelling and Englewood last October. The police, who were watching the station, nabbed a guy they suspected of buying a dime bag of marijuana inside Murphy's taxi. A judge's ruling lays out what happened after police approached Murphy, here called the "Licensee":

Licensee admitted to police, following notice of his Miranda rights, that he had sold marijuana to a particular man inside Licensee’s taxicab and that he had previously sold marijuana to that man. Licensee admitted that he had additional marijuana in his taxi cab as well as “meth.” Licensee advised the police that he did not sell “meth,” but rather used it himself to help with long hours driving his taxicab.

Despite what appeared to be a full confession, Murphy was never booked or prosecuted for any crime. Still, the city found out about the situation and sent him a letter May 9 indicated it intended to revoke his license, saying his actions violated city ordinances.

Murphy appealed the case to the Office of Administrative Hearings. On July 3, Administrative Law Judge Jim Mortenson recommended upholding the city's decision. Mortenson noted that Murphy refused to stipulate to the facts, but did not challenge them with specifics or offer a different story.

"The city of St. Paul, and the public in general, are entitled to be safe from the potential violence often associated with illegal drug trafficking and impaired driving," the judge wrote. "The revocation of the license, in this case, is a logical remedy to mitigate the risks associated with the Licensee’s admitted illegal activities in his taxicab."

I could not reach Murphy for comment. He no longer lives at the residence where his revocation order was sent.

Here's the ruling:

 

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