Prattles

Ramblings of Anna Pratt, Twin Cities journalist

Archive for June 2009

Did Johnny Northside blog get Jerry Moore fired?

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In my previous post, I wrote about how Jerry Moore, who formerly led North Minneapolis’s Jordan Area Community Council (JACC), is suing blogger John Hoff (a.k.a. Johnny Northside) and commenter Donald Allen, who is the principal of V-Media, along with a handful of John Does, for defamation and biased reporting.

Recently, Moore lost a job with the University of Minnesota’s Urban Research and Outreach Center (UROC), which the complaint alleges that Hoff and Allen had a hand in. It states that the pair acted in “intentional interference with contract, and/or aiding and abetting, over their cooperative effort to get Plaintiff Jerry Moore fired from his job.” A June 21 Johnny Northside blog post, entitled, Former JACC Executive Director Jerry Moore Hired by U of M, Neighborhood Leaders Are All, Like, WTF? is referenced for its discussion of allegations that Moore is tied to a mortgage fraud scheme. The post, it criticizes, continues by saying that any UROC attempts to connect with Jordanites will probably fail until Moore is removed from the University position. Hoff’s post was followed-up with an email from Allen, which was published in the wee hours of June 22, the complaint says, adding that it contained false and defamatory statements concerning Moore’s alleged involvement in mortgage fraud. Later that day, however, UROC terminated Moore, according to the complaint. Also mentioned in the complaint are additional posts from Johnny Northside which seemingly illustrate that the blog was instrumental in the U of M’s action, it states.

What does the U of M have to say? Daniel Wolter, the U of M’s news service director, responded via email that Moore was hired in mid-May “by UROC for what is called a “casual temporary” job. It’s typically used for very short-term work, usually specific to a particular task. His job was reviewing and analyzing newspaper content under the supervision of an academic researcher. His work has been completed and he was given notice on June 22. His leaving University employment was not related to performance issues. The University was unaware of the allegations against Mr. Moore at the time of the hiring and is currently not aware of the details of the allegations — nor are we in a position to comment on them.”

Again, stay tuned for ongoing coverage of this scenario and others.

Written by annapratt

June 30, 2009 at 7:47 pm

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Former JACC ED is now suing bloggers

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In the incredible ongoing saga of the Jordan Area Community Council (JACC), the neighborhood group’s former ED, Jerry Moore, who was fired after pulling punches against neighbors, is now suing blogger John Hoff (a.k.a. Johnny Northside), Donald Allen, principal of V-Media and five John Does for defamation and biased reporting.

The complaint, which was filed in Hennepin County on Friday, June 26, blames Hoff for Moore’s recent letting-go from a job with the University of Minnesota’s Urban Research and Outreach Center (UROC). In the complaint, Moore contends that the influential Hoff isn’t acting as a neutral reporter. Rather, it declares that Hoff is becoming part of the story and so is “disentitled” to First Amendment protections. On his North Minneapolis-centric blog Hoff has been chronicling, in colorful detail, unfolding events that Moore has been a part of, including several pieces of litigation, among other things. For a rundown of the pertinent court cases, see Jordan resident Dottie Titus’ blog post.

It’s clear from Hoff’s blog, which sometimes meanders into satire, that he isn’t necessarily playing the role of a straight-up hard news reporter but that of an opinion writer (or a blend between the two). Yet, the complaint goes on to say that Hoff fails to get the “other side of the story” in JACC affairs, for instance, and screen his personal opinions. Hoff vets comments, it states, allowing some of the site’s visitors to make their mark anonymously. Even though it’s a common practice on websites that allow commenting, the complaint contends that in Hoff’s case it creates a so-called “defamation zone.” Further, it alleges that Hoff is too chummy with city politicians, which classifies him as a private citizen, not a media person, it adds.

Referencing a separate case involving the old versus new leadership of JACC — see linked story at top, a matter that awaits resolution with the courts by the end of the week — the complaint contends that Hoff provided the defense with documentation that Moore received a $5,000 kickback in a mortgage fraud scheme. By doing so, it alleges that Hoff inserted himself into the litigation. The lawsuit makes a request for $50,000 in damages.

It’s worth pointing out here its similarities to a past Dakota County case brought by DFL activist Blois Olson against Republican Michael Brodkorb for alleged defamatory statements on his blog Minnesota Democrats Exposed, also for $50,000 in damages. A judge threw out the allegations in 2007, determining that the blog is covered by the same protections as newspapers against lawsuits by public figures.

Further countering Moore’s case, Minnesota’s Shield Law, “explicitly recognizes the public’s interest in protecting the free flow of information provided by the news media.” It broadly “protects those persons “directly engaged in the gathering, procuring, compiling, editing, or publishing of information” from revealing sources or unpublished information.””

Stay tuned for further updates on this issue, including a chronology of litigation leading to this current lawsuit plus comments from some media law experts.

Written by annapratt

June 29, 2009 at 10:14 pm

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Unallotments have dire consequences for schools

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I worked with Marty Owings from Radio Free America on this piece for KFAI which aired last night about Governor Tim Pawlenty’s planned unallotments. The unallotments hold dire consequences especially for already cash-strapped school districts. To listen, find the headline and player here.

Also, here’s the intro to the piece (below):

Looking at the impact of budget unallotments up close

Governor Tim Pawlenty’s planned unallotments will have broad impact on Local Government Aid, education and health and human services across the state. In this story, reporters Anna Pratt and Marty Owings examine the effects of these cutbacks, especially as it relates to education.

Written by annapratt

June 26, 2009 at 11:42 am

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Longing for nature

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For the June issue of Twin Cities Luxury and Fashion magazine, I wrote about local artist Gregory Euclide who does beautiful relief paintings. Story’s below.

Longing for nature
Gregory Euclide’s romantic relief paintings examine real and imagined landscapes
By Anna Pratt

Gregory Euclide says his fascination with nature — and the way it has been idealized by artists throughout the ages — form the basis of his landscape relief works.

The three-dimensional pieces, which are characterized by earth tones, are torn and crumpled into odd shapes, to stunning effect. From a distance, some might appear to be a jumbled mess, but closer inspection reveals delicate tree branches, power lines and other details. Some pieces even contain pine needles, bark and other artifacts. (In one work, cigarette butts become hay bales on a field.)

Romantic-looking scenes are painted from memory or transferred from photos, but they don’t necessarily represent specific places. They’re an amalgamation of things. Bathed in a summery golden haze, rural settings are marked by graceful, sweeping lines and alternately, faded drippy streaks. In some areas, thick globs of paint spill over into the folds of paper, resembling rivers and streams.

Previously, Euclide did landscape paintings that played with illusionary space, creating vignettes that receded into the work, to varying degrees. Later, he added another dimension because he wanted to go beyond the flat surface, involving more of the senses. “If the paintings were about experience in nature, then I wanted the experience of viewing them to subtly mimic a walk in the forest,” he explains.

Today, our minds are so filled with images of nature — whether from traditional landscape paintings or travel books — Euclide believes we have lost touch with the real thing. That’s not to say that Euclide claims to be some kind of rugged outdoorsman. He has no desire to hunt or fish. Rather, he describes himself as a sort of wanderer who longs for an authentic experience with nature.

Nature inspires him. When Euclide is surrounded by the elements, he’s struck by how easy it is to feel a sense of dominance over the land, yet inferiority at the same time. For example, “I can tear out trees, break twigs and create a path through a dense patch of forest. I can create a bridge over a deep ravine,” he says. But his capabilities are limited. “I cannot change the direction or path of the river. I cannot remove the mountain or stop things from growing,” he stresses.

Exploring those dynamics and more, Euclide pushes the limits of traditional landscape painting. Despite his preoccupation with nature, one might argue that his true subject is the human condition. Whether the terrain is real or imaginary, viewers are lucky to have him as their guide. For more information, visit http://www.gregoryeuclide.com.

Written by annapratt

June 17, 2009 at 7:48 pm

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Marcy landlords seek representation and challenge MHNA

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Here’s my latest story in the now online-only Bridgeland News (below).

Marcy landlords seek representation and challenge MHNA

This map shows non-homesteaded properties in Marcy-Holmes, the owners of which are being excluded from becoming members of the Marcy-Holmes Neighborhood Association (MHNA), claims Marcy Landlord Jason Klohs.

Photo by submitted image

Stakeholders show support for addressing housing issues and improvements

Editor’s note: The cover of the June print issue of The Bridge newspaper carried the “teaser” headline ‘Marcy landlords challenge neighborhood group,’ followed by the words ‘WILL CHANGE.’ This is not only an obvious proofreading error, but is not an entirely accurate explanation of the situation. We apologize for the error.

Because they claim that their voices aren’t being heard, a group of local landlords and a representative of the Minnesota Greek Alumni Association recently banded together to form the University Neighborhood Improvement Association (UNIA).

The UNIA, which has an office at the University Technology Center, 1313 SE Fifth St., is a community group with a focus on housing issues in the University district, according to information from the UNIA. A nine-member board that was elected in April leads the group. Its 60 members — including student-housing providers (rental), homeowners, business owners and U of M officials — come from Southeast Como, Marcy-Holmes and Prospect Park.

Funded through private gifts and donations, UNIA is in the process of incorporation, according to William Wells, its executive director, who also owns a local design firm Wells and Company. Whether it will seek nonprofit status or standing with the city remain open questions, he said. At this early stage, the group is endeavoring to increase membership and develop bylaws. It has started to meet monthly, he said.

One reason the group was formed is that many of its members aren’t able to join the Marcy-Holmes Neighborhood Association (MHNA), the city’s officially designated neighborhood group for the area. According to MHNA bylaws, membership is restricted to Marcy-Holmes residents, Wells explained.

Other channels, such as the Dinkytown Business Association, only draw from a three-mile radius, he said. As a result, non-resident stakeholders don’t have a say when it comes to some publicly funded planning efforts. Such restrictions “build a wall between [us] and the city and U of M. I want to tear down this wall of discrimination,” he said.

By contrast, Wells said, the UNIA doesn’t discriminate. It’s open to anyone who is interested in its mission to collaborate with the city, U of M and University District Alliance (UDA) to ensure that all stakeholders are fairly represented, he said.

The goals of UNIA are to establish true civic collaboration, in hopes of working together to solve the challenges of living, working and owning property around the University of Minnesota (Minneapolis Campus),” according to a prepared statement from UNIA.

Wells said that the group hopes to address problems with landlords who don’t take care of their properties. “It has always been my personal philosophy that change can happen faster through positive peer pressure and positive rewards,” he said. “This is why I fundamentally disagree with [MHNA’s] approach to dealing with landlords, to exclude them from the neighborhood association … In the end, it’s the students that are caught in the middle, which is really unfair.”

While some people see the group as a means to an end, critics fear it has been organized to work against MHNA. Wells responded via email: “If it is the intention of the Marcy-Holmes board to discriminate against, and exclude, the majority of property owners in the neighborhood, and not fairly and equally represent the concerns of the student-residents that live in the neighborhood …. then, yes, I would be working in opposition to that. Because my vision is one of fairness, inclusiveness, equal representation, and democracy,” he said.

Marcy property owner takes legal steps against MHNA

On May 19, Marcy-Holmes property owner Jason Klohs, who serves as the UNIA’s secretary, sent a letter to the MHNA, via his attorney Ryan Ahlberg, expressing his intent to file a grievance against MHNA for excluding some stakeholders from NRP activities and other community development efforts.

The letter states that MHNA’s “past and ongoing activities violate the Citizen Participation Program Guidelines regarding Eligibility and Citizen Participation Services.” The grievance to be filed would address the issues of expenditure of Neighborhood Revitalization Program (NRP) funds; MHNA’s Neighborhood Action plan process; and MHNA’s status as the city’s contracted organization.

Ahlberg said that Klohs’ case and the matter of UNIA are unrelated.

Arvonne Fraser, who leads the MHNA board, said Klohs has “every right to file a grievance … We have a grievance procedure and he’s perfectly welcome to do it, but I want to know on what basis?”

Only residents can become MHNA members, she said.

Fraser supports the UNIA’s formation, however. Depending on how it governs itself, she said a UNIA representative could at some point serve as a voting member on the MHNA board, which currently has seats reserved for a local business association, nearby churches and the university student body.

Too exclusive?

Some UNIA members claim that other neighborhoods aren’t as exclusive as Marcy-Holmes. Bob Cooper, Senior NRP/Citizen Participation Specialist for the city, said neighborhood groups have to provide for the participation of all segments of the community. However, “As far as membership goes, it can be just residents,” he said, noting the requirement that no less than 60 percent of the board be resident-filled.

That reflects a change that the City Council made in 2006 to ensure that residents could participate, he said. Before then, neighborhood groups were open to all community members, according to the city’s citizen participation program guidelines. However, “Neighborhood groups are independent entities that get to shape themselves the way they feel is appropriate, as long as it meets the city’s eligibility criteria and guidelines,” Cooper said.

Cooper said he always encourages groups to be as inclusive as possible. “There are varying degrees for how neighborhoods define membership, from the very inclusive, with anyone who lives, works or owns property in the neighborhood. It runs down to the other end of the spectrum to mean anyone who lives in the neighborhood. Our guidelines set a minimum threshold for neighborhoods,” he said, adding, “Neighborhoods can expand on it.”

NRP Director Bob Miller characterized the scenario as a dispute between one group of stakeholders and another, both of which argue that they have too little say.

Miller praised MHNA’s NRP Phase One planning for getting many different people involved. Meetings were open to everyone, with the results reflecting diverse interests. “But it doesn’t mean those same people have to be involved in the governance of the organization,” he said, adding that a Minnesota statute doesn’t require representation of commercial interests.”

About Klohs’ allegations, Miller said: “I’d be surprised if he had a case.” Miller also questioned the UNIA’s motivations. “It’s one thing if it’s organizing because they don’t like the way MHNA does business,” said Miller. “It’s another thing if they’re trying to do something different,” such as “… trying to get back at the neighborhood” for not supporting certain projects, he said.

Support for UNIA

Ron Lischeid is a representative of the University District Improvement Association (UDIA), a separate group that represents stakeholders on the U of M campus. He said the UNIA doesn’t interfere with his group’s work. Lischeid made the point that if the UNIA is going to represent rental property owners, it needs to make sure that its member landlords’ properties are up to par.
Tim Harmsen, co-founder of the UNIA and owner of Dinkytown Rentals, said that Dinkytown alone has 90 percent non-homesteaded properties. In the neighborhoods surrounding the U of M, there’s an anti-student feeling from permanent residents. “With the area changing so much, there’s a large group of people who aren’t being heard,” he said. The fact that he owns 60 buildings in the area “makes me a neighbor,” he said.

Harmsen said that, historically, there’s been little communication between landlords, residents and MHNA. Over time, things have worsened, he said, citing the Spring Jam riots. “This is an attempt to change that and get rid of the animosity between groups,” said Harmsen.

Stan Masoner, Dinkytown Business Association representative to the UNIA, contractor and business owner, said the UNIA has many shared goals with the University District Alliance (UDA), which he cited as a catalyst for the group’s creation.

Considering the fact that the U of M isn’t building any more off-campus student housing, “We think we’re fulfilling a need,” he said. “But we’ve heard criticisms from neighbors about wrecking the character of the area. I think we’ve made a positive difference.”

UNIA has a long-term goal to hire a private management company to cut the grass, shovel snow and pick up trash for its members. It wants to resolve issues with bad landlords. Other ongoing concerns are blighted properties, over-occupancy and side effects of the Gopher Stadium. “I think some ideas of the alliance are not taking into account future demographic changes,” said Masoner. “It’s not based on the market and economy. That’s the part that we think we can bring.”

Jerry Rinehart, Vice Provost at the U of M, supports the group. “I welcome the involvement of landlords to address student behavior,” he said. “There’s a clear need for something,” like the standard lease, he said, “to influence student decisions.”

Over the past decade, there’s been a huge influx of students who want to live close to the campus. While that helps increase graduation and retention rates, people in the neighborhood want the reverse, Rinehart said. Tension stems from the increase in rental and dwindling homeownership. “We’re struggling with the consequences in terms of how many students there are.”

Further, “What struck me is that, throughout time, we’ve heard complaints from landlords about students. Now, we’re hearing from tenants who are concerned for their safety … No one wants things to get out of control,” Rinehart said, also referencing Spring Jam.

A standard lease is a first step to prevent problems, said Rinehart “We want to make sure it’s transparent and protects the rights of landlords, with a conduct code for students,” he said.

Rinehart said the UNIA should be action-oriented, but he cautioned that the partnership “does not mean that the student affairs office will become a tool for landlords. We’re here to support students and the community and help the community for the students,” he said.

City Council member Cam Gordon, who attended a recent meeting concerning the standard lease provisions, is optimistic about the group’s opportunities to improve the area.
“Maybe they can provide some training on best practices [in property management/ownership],” he said. “It’s an interesting group … They realized that if they were more organized, they would have more influence.”

Written by annapratt

June 15, 2009 at 11:48 am

Posted in Uncategorized

Community members debate the future civil rights dept.

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My most recent story in the Spokesman-Recorder (below):

Community members debate the future civil rights dept
by Anna Pratt
Minnesota Spokesman-Recorder
Originally posted 6/1/2009

Critics say shift from Minneapolis to the State will create a bogged-down system

During a May 21 community meeting at the Urban League in North Minneapolis, a local theater troupe acted out a scenario showing one woman’s struggle to get help with a civil rights complaint. The actors portrayed a system that is too bogged down to adequately address anyone’s needs. Even though the group, called Pedagogy and Theatre of the Oppressed, wasn’t the focus of the meeting, it brought up the issue that was on the minds of attendees.

Earlier this year, Mayor R.T. Rybak proposed transferring the work of the eight-person Complaints Investigations Unit (CIU) to the State human rights department, citing a savings of $400,000 annually, starting in 2010. On top of that, another $180,000 would need to be trimmed from the civil rights department’s 2009 budget.

Rybak characterized the CIU as a “duplication of services” because both the City and State investigate allegations of discrimination. Later the mayor said that it should be phrased another way, since the departments handle separate cases. (They have different processes for evaluating claims, as well.)

Over the past several months, some community members have lobbied for the CIU to stay where it is. They say it provides crucial services, especially to minorities, immigrants and low-income residents. Moving the function elsewhere might hinder its accessibility, especially for non-English speakers or those who don’t have reliable transportation. Right now, complainants usually bring their allegations to the agency that is located in the city where an incident took place.

Further, they say the move sends the message that civil rights aren’t a priority in Minneapolis. Others argue that the CIU, which takes an average of two years to close a case, fails to live up to expectations. Considering an historic backlog of cases, they say it would be better off in the hands of the State.

Unlike its Minneapolis counterpart, the Minnesota Department of Human Rights doesn’t have a backlog. It’s required to close cases within the course of one year. However, it also is strapped for cash.

Even so, department spokesperson Jeff Holman said in March via email, “With respect to your question about our department’s ability to absorb the City of Minneapolis’ investigative functions, the Minnesota Department of Human Rights is dedicated to investigating charges of illegal discrimination in the state…

We will handle any additional cases if the City of Minneapolis ultimately decided to eliminate Department of Civil Rights’ investigative role.”

Exploring the options

Right now, the public is being asked to weigh in at various community-input sessions about whether the City should keep CIU intact or go with an alternate solution (dates are to be announced). Among the other options, the department could be reduced across the board, or another division could be relegated to the State, for instance.

Separately, the City has convened a taskforce to look into the issue. Community activist Kenneth Brown, chair and a taskforce member of the civil rights commission, an oversight body to the department, expressed frustration at Thursday’s meeting, which was organized independently from the City.

Even though the City and State divisions were established by the same federal legislation in the 1960s, “It’s not a duplication of services,” he said.

On top of that, he said City officials haven’t followed through on related responsibilities. As a recent example, “The mayor said he was going to control community engagement, but it has been dropped on the commission,” which he said is challenging, considering the time frame. The original deadline for input was early June.

Louisa Hext, who is also a civil rights commissioner, chimed in. “My frustration is as a layperson and volunteer who believes in justice. This isn’t about money… People aren’t stepping up to the plate,” she said. To preserve the unit, “We need to continue to mobilize.”

Over the years, she’s seen more and more cases come to resolution, she said, adding, “I’ve seen the department do an exceptional job of catching up, with better investigations.”

In defense of MDCR

When someone asked how many cases in Minneapolis get resolved and how many are thrown out, presenter Taneeza Islam, an investigator with MDCR, answered that she didn’t have those stats at her fingertips.

Islam, who said that her being at the May 21 meeting was “borderline a conflict of interest,” touted that the CIU’s investigators, all of whom are attorneys and minorities, have made significant progress in whittling away the backlog of cases. However, MSR previously reported that some sources who are close to the action claimed that investigators have been pressured to finish cases too quickly, with little quality control. (See MSR’s previous two-part story, “Civil Rights takes a budget beating.”)

Said Islam, “The department has chosen not to publicize the positive things that have been done.” She added that it’s “been doing a lot of great things for the community,” referencing a recent settlement in an undisclosed case for $130,000 while another complainant recently returned to his or her former position.

To keep the unit going, Islam suggested that community members broaden their efforts. On a national level, civil rights departments are being downsized. As such, “You might consider making it a national movement… That could be another strategy,” she said.

Another department employee, Johnny Burns, who leads the Contracts and Compliance Unit (CCU), echoed that people tend to remember negative things, such as his unit’s past problems enforcing affirmative action requirements. He said that the department has taken steps to resolve that, with penalties invoked for companies that don’t meet standards.

“When strides are made, the public doesn’t know about it,” Burns said. He also defended his unit, saying, “If most complaints are already in employment, if our unit isn’t there, complaints will go up.”

Community organizing

The Urban League’s Cheryl Morgan Spencer said that she and many others want CIU to remain local. Looking at the roomful of less than a dozen attendees, she remarked, “I’m disappointed that there’s such a small group here, but I hope everyone will speak up. We need to look at creative ways to raise revenue to keep the unit intact.”

Later, she added that this isn’t exclusively a minority issue. “This issue is really large. It gets clouded with issues of race… We must build ground-level momentum.”

Roger Banks, a researcher from the Council on Black Minnesotans, made the point that the department’s history couldn’t be ignored on this topic. The department’s budget has been cut to the quick. Its 2009 budget is $2.5 million, down from $2.8 million in 2008, according to City information. From 2003-04, its budget was reduced by 40 percent. In Banks’ view, the department, which the City created in 1967, “was set up to fail, to undermine civil rights progress.”
Another attendee, Rose Brewer, raised the question, “How can you stay committed to a department that’s not working?”

Vivian Jenkins Nelsen, co-president of the League of Women Voters of Minnesota, commented that it’s a sad state of affairs. “This hits home for me… I understand what it can look like if resources are not committed. We could be going back there,” she said. “This is a quality-of-life issue. What other cities of the same size don’t have civil rights departments? What will it mean if [the unit’s work] goes to [the State]?”

Anna Pratt welcomes reader responses to annaprattjournalist@gmail.com.

Written by annapratt

June 1, 2009 at 4:30 pm

Posted in Uncategorized