Ramblings of Anna Pratt, Twin Cities journalist

Archive for July 2009

Law and disorder

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Kristi McNeilly, the attorney who has been defending some of the key players mixed up in the incredible ongoing JACC saga is now facing charges for violating a restraining order and domestic assault with intent to inflict bodily harm (both felonies), according to the Washington County sheriff’s roster. This is on top of several other felony charges she recently racked up in Ramsey County, including aggravated first-degree witness tampering, tampering with a witness in the first degree, and terroristic threats, which again, are all felonies.

The charges stem from a situation in which McNeilly hooked up with Trinis Derrelle Edwards, who was her client in a domestic assault case. McNeilly allegedly paid off Edwards’ wife Lori — to either not testify or lie — with housing, alcohol and drugs. But the recent charges have to do with allegations that McNeilly also threatened and assaulted her witnesses, who happen to be her father and brother.

What is the JACC connection? McNeilly represented Ben Myers, the ex-JACC chair in a defamation lawsuit against some Northsiders, for which a judge recently turned down an application for a temporary injunction, siding with the ‘Jordan 3.’ McNeilly also stood up for former JACC ED Jerry Moore in a failed attempt for a restraining order against board member Daniel Rother. Moore, who was fired after pulling punches against neighbors, is currently suing blogger Johnny Northside and commenter Donald Allen for defamation and biased reporting.

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July 21, 2009 at 12:57 pm

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Will Mpls still investigate civil rights?

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Here’s my latest story in the Spokesman (below).

Will Mpls still investigate civil rights complaints?
by Anna Pratt
Minnesota Spokesman-Recorder
Originally posted 7/15/2009

The future of this City function remains uncertain

As a result of huge cutbacks to Local Government Aid to cities statewide, the City of Minneapolis is grappling with a $21 million shortfall for 2010. Every department will be affected, but some people say the Minneapolis Department of Civil Rights (MDCR) is being hit especially hard.

Earlier this year, Mayor R.T. Rybak proposed transferring the department’s Complaint Investigations Unit’s (CIU’s) work to the Minnesota Department of Human Rights, which also investigates discrimination complaints. Since then, there have been some related community forums and demonstrations, while the City has formed a taskforce to study the issue.

Many people are advocating for the CIU to stay put because they say it plays an important role, particularly for minorities, immigrants, and low-income residents. Moving its work to St. Paul could become a barrier for people who don’t have reliable transportation. However, others argue that the unit, which has a 500-plus backlog of cases and takes an average of two years to close a case, would be better off with the State.

This week, the City’s taskforce — which has been rife with problems, including community members being kicked out of a meeting that was supposed to be “open” and differences in opinion about its vision — is wrapping up its work. The final report will be submitted to the city council’s Health, Energy and Environment Committee later this month; the consensus seems to be that the unit should remain with the City, according to its draft recommendations.

Bill Davis, president and CEO of Community Action of Minneapolis, chairs the taskforce. He said that although he’s trying to stay neutral, as someone who formerly served on the department’s commission and previously worked for the State Human Rights Department, “I know the importance of having the unit at the local level.”

The State’s financial picture is even bleaker than the City’s, Davis said. “How it will ramp up to take it [the CIU’s work] on is the crux of the issue. There’s been no monetary commitment from the governor to add more resources… The quality of investigations could suffer as a result.”

Cut deep, or across the board?

Although the CIU may need to be downsized, across-the-board budget reductions would be better than severing any of the civil rights department’s units, the taskforce’s in-progress report states. “There was almost universal concern,” it reads, “that the MDHR would not be able to accommodate the increased workload that would result if they were to absorb the complaints currently filed with and investigated by the CIU.”

Not everyone feels across-the-board cuts are the answer. Kenneth Brown, who serves on the committee and also chairs the Minneapolis Civil Rights Commission, said it would make the department ineffective.

Already, the public is up in arms about how long it takes the department to investigate complaints, Brown said. He has offered up another suggestion: The department’s Civilian Review Authority, which deals with allegations of police misconduct, could be relocated to human resources. That option, however, isn’t currently on the table.

As to whether MDHR is prepared to take on Minneapolis complaints, Communications Director Jeff Holman would only say that the State department “will handle any additional cases if the City of Minneapolis ultimately decided to eliminate the Department of Civil Rights’ investigative role.”

MDHR, which received 871 charges of discrimination in 2008, has whittled away more than half of them. “In addition to having no backlog and consistently investigating charges within the one-year required by the state Human Rights Act, MDHR has been highly successful in obtaining monetary relief for charging parties, as well as changes in policy to prevent future discrimination, when we find there is probable cause to believe the Act has been violated,” Holman said via email recently.

Minnesota Senator Ron Latz (DFL-District 44) said that while he didn’t want to weigh in on whether the City’s cases should go to the State, as an employment law attorney and as a member of the senate’s public safety budget committee, his experience with MDHR has been positive.

“The department does a commendable job in handling and investigating charges of discrimination,” said Latz, “especially given the limited resources that are provided them. If the State did absorb Minneapolis cases, I’m confident it would be able to serve all complainants and respondents responsibly.”

Undoing the Minnesota Miracle?

Another taskforce member, Chuck Samuelson, who heads the Minnesota chapter of the ACLU, said none of the options are ideal. “I think people need to put blame where blame belongs, on the governor.”

He also disagrees with across-the-board cuts, believing they should be deep in one area. For some reason, he said, police and fire departments are “sacrosanct.” As a result of State cuts, “The people who are bearing the burden are those who use government services,” he said. “The governor has undone the Minnesota Miracle.”

Political analyst David Schultz, who teaches at Hamline University in St. Paul, expanded on that point. The Minnesota Miracle, he said, has been a partnership between the State, businesses and residents. From the ’70s through the last decade, “The State did a good job investing heavily in basic infrastructure for education and public projects as a way to improve business and the quality of life,” he said.

That investment set this state apart from the rest. By refusing to raise taxes over the past eight years, “Pawlenty has been living off the past, or past investments. Now there’s no more slack. We’re not trimming superfluous stuff, but core functions.”

The result, Schultz added, is that “Certain things aren’t going to get done. While there are some things that the marketplace might be able to do, it’s not going to pick up civil rights. It’s a government function.”

More objections to a CIU transfer

City Council Member Robert Lilligren said his position is that the unit needs to stay in the City. “In Minneapolis, there’s a persistent gap between White people and people of color in terms of income, education and health… One possible cause is racism and discrimination. We need to have a way to complain and express allegations,” he said.

The civil rights department is small and easy to marginalize. “It’s under-resourced, under-accountable and as a result it under-performs… The fact that we’ve long allowed this to under-perform is a symptom of the problem we’re trying to address by having a civil rights department,” Lilligren said.

Lolla Mohammed Nur, an organizer of a July 6 demonstration at city hall who is also a University of Minnesota student, agreed. She has been petitioning on campus in support of the department staying intact, with 500 signatures collected so far.

“We want to raise the issue. We know what’s going on, and we care,” said Nur.

“We think the budget shouldn’t be cut. It should be more than one percent of the City’s budget.”

Peter Nickitas, a local employment law attorney who was a passerby at the protest, said, “I hope the office stays viable and maintains staff at its current levels… Its federal and State counterparts also face severe budget challenges and backlogs.”

The way Nickitas sees it, “We need to have a system to eliminate discrimination, which a City ordinance prohibits. This office represents one of the most important ones in the City.”

Anna Pratt welcomes reader responses to

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July 15, 2009 at 10:47 am

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JACC: Judge sides with ‘Jordan 3’

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Trickling in: Sources close to the action say a judge has dismissed the case of Ben Myers, the former JACC chair who filed a defamation lawsuit against the “Jordan 3,” or several North Side neighbors. Myers has also led a rogue JACC board that claimed to be the real leaders of the neighborhood. A judge sided with the new Jordan leadership on that case, as well, recently.

According to early reports on the judge’s ruling, Myers will have to pay the Jordan 3’s legal fees. The amount is $2,334.50 but it’s unclear whether that includes each of the Jordan 3. To read more about it, check Johnny Northside’s blog for an update this afternoon. (I’ll try to elaborate, too, but won’t get a chance till later tonight.) Also, for more information on the incredible ongoing JACC saga, check out some of my previous posts. This one for starters.

An interesting side note: Myers was being represented by attorney Kristi McNeilly, who has recently been charged with “aggravated first-degree witness tampering, tampering with a witness in the first degree, and terroristic threats, all felonies,” with $100,000 bail, as I wrote in an earlier post.

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July 14, 2009 at 1:25 pm

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Judge rules in favor of new JACC leadership against rogue board

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This just in: A Hennepin County judge has ruled in favor of the newly-elected JACC board as the true leadership of the neighborhood group. It was challenged when a “rogue board,” claiming to be the real JACC, pursued a temporary injunction against them, which has been denied, according to a July 10 document from Judge Charles Porter that I’ve obtained. More on this shortly.

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July 10, 2009 at 2:59 pm

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It gets stranger and stranger

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A new twist in the incredible ongoing JACC saga: As if circumstances aren’t already strange enough, attorney Kristi McNeilly, who has been defending some of the key players in JACC affairs — is now being charged with “aggravated first-degree witness tampering, tampering with a witness in the first degree, and terroristic threats, all felonies,” with $100,000 bail — in a separate case, according to a Star Tribune story that went online last night.

Previously, McNeilly represented former JACC ED Jerry Moore in a failed attempt for a restraining order against board member Daniel Rother. Moore, who was fired after pulling punches against neighbors, is currently suing blogger Johnny Northside and commenter Donald Allen for defamation and biased reporting, as I’ve previously noted here and here. Currently, McNeilly is backing up Ben Myers, the ex-JACC chair who is suing some Jordan community members for defamation. I should also point out that there is yet another legal battle pending, in which old JACC board members are challenging the new ones, with a resolution expected soon.

It’s a convoluted tale, but the gist of it is this: McNeilly became romantically-involved with Trinis Derrelle Edwards, who was her client in a domestic assault case concerning his wife Lori. Now she’s facing charges of witness tampering and of paying Lori off, to either not testify or lie, the Strib story states. Payment to Lori supposedly includes housing, alcohol and drugs. Further, McNeilly allegedly threatened her witnesses, who happen to be her father and brother.

More to come soon.

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July 10, 2009 at 12:53 pm

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Do background checks unfairly weed out some volunteers?

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My just-out story in the TC Daily Planet (below).

Do background checks unfairly weed out some volunteers?

By Anna Pratt , TC Daily Planet
July 08, 2009

Due to stricter enforcement of a policy of criminal background checks in Minneapolis parks, some longtime volunteers and staffers have recently been let go. While proponents argue that it’s a necessary move to safeguard children against potentially dangerous people, others say the “systemic bias of the criminal justice system” excludes too many minorities, particularly black men.

Wanda Richardson, who frequents Powderhorn Park, said it has recently lost a couple dedicated workers as a result of background check failures, which the center’s director declined to comment on. At least one person had served the parks for many years, she said. Another recreation center on the city’s North Side, Farview, was hit especially hard, she said, when three baseball coaches failed the background check midway through the season. (Sara Ackmann, recreation district supervisor for the parks, confirmed that, adding replacements were found to complete the season.)

In a letter that Richardson co-wrote with another resident, Linda Vest Klein, and read aloud at the July 1 park board meeting, she said that while everyone agrees that “careful and thorough” background checks are important, “in light of the systemic racial bias in our criminal justice system, how we enforce a policy based solely on data from that system needs careful evaluation.”

Richardson explained that it’s not an attack on what the parks are doing. Rather, she advocates for a process that would more clearly delineate how to cope with certain gray areas. The way she sees, “Some accommodations have to be made. Our neighborhood is racially diverse … Removing non-white people has a detrimental effect,” said Richardson. “It’s not just philosophical. It’s a real-life issue. We have to find a way to include people. We all make mistakes.”

Park board commissioner Scott Vreeland said the subject is complex. “We have a policy that is more protective than what some people would like,” he said. “There may be instances where folks are well-liked. That’s where there’s difficulty. Whether someone is a nice person isn’t something that factors easily in terms of an effective policy,” he said.

Not unique to the parks
The policy, which requires all workers to be screened, has been around for years and isn’t unique to the park system, according to parks general manager Mike Schmidt. “I presuppose that if you look at the form, you’ll see if you don’t qualify. Then you can make decisions about whether you want to continue through the process.”

Regarding the volunteers and staffers who didn’t make the latest cut, he said there had been a “missing check and balance.” While he couldn’t say offhand how many people who had previously been employed were affected, “It’s not in the hundreds or even the 10s,” he said. “I dealt with two that came through my office.”

Park Police Chief Bradley Johnson said the process has been “tightened up this year” in conjunction with other park activities. Previously, the background check results were between the police and the hiring manager. Now, the human resources department is in the loop. Some people got by in the past because either the hiring manager ignored it or results didn’t come in before employees were brought on, he explained. More recently, “The risk manager took a look at the process and made some changes,” he said. “We want to protect people’s safety and protect the parks from liability.”

Although he didn’t have a figure for how many previous park workers have been denied lately, he said that from April through June, the park police conducted 1,200 background checks of people who were new or seasonal. Of those, 46 people failed the check. Six went through the steps of proving they had been rehabilitated and were reinstated, he said.

Crimes that would be grounds for denial are listed in Minnesota state statute 299.c60, including the following: child abuse, manslaughter, felony level assault or any assault crime committed against a minor, kidnapping, arson, criminal sexual conduct, and prostitution-related crimes.

Additionally, any crimes that relate to someone’s potential job duties are disqualifying. For example, someone who has stolen money can’t work in finance. To be clear, “We’re talking about convictions, not arrests,” he said. “I think there are a lot of misconceptions out there, that we’re denying a lot more people than we are.”

According to information that was gathered by the Council on Crime and Justice, the guidelines dictate that the park police consider whether it’s been more than a year since a misdemeanor conviction; more than five years since gross misdemeanor conviction and more than 10 years since felony conviction. Criminal convictions that don’t rise to the level of background check crimes are looked at on a case-by-case basis. Evidence of rehabilitation or non-compliance with court orders is taken into account. “If someone has a string of misdemeanor arrests and convictions, that is a sign that something is wrong,” according to council information.

How race comes into play

Minnesota has one of the highest racial disparities in the criminal justice system in the country, with African Americans comprising roughly 35 percent of prison inmates but only about 4.5 percent of the general population, according to Mark Haase, director of public policy and advocacy for the Council on Crime and Justice. Haase said via email that, for this reason, an EEOC ruling found that irrational barriers for people with criminal records violate part of the Civil Rights Act.

While certain kinds of offenders should be blocked from working with children or vulnerable adults, “I am afraid the Park Police may be eliminating many more individuals,” he said, adding that he doesn’t have enough information about it. “We need men of color, the most likely group to have a record, as well as others who may have had criminal pasts, to be mentors and leaders in order to help stop the cycle of incarceration.”

He recommended that those who are rejected be put through a civilian review process, while the race and disqualifying crimes of those denied employment or volunteer positions should be publicized. “I think the Park Police intent is good, but there needs to be more transparency and some protections put in place for the reasons stated previously. They are of course going to weed out anyone they have concerns about, but many of those people are needed and can be appropriate, not to mention allowing people to volunteer helps them to ‘rehabilitate,’” he said.

Calculating risk

John Wilson said on the Powderhorn Park Forum that a scoring system should be in place “where the length of time since a crime occurred and the security implications of that crime are factored into a mathematical model of the risk that person poses. My guess is that insurance actuaries would be able to come up with a reasonably valid algorithm after studying the issue.”

He continued that “if there was a risk score that predicted that person was a 2 percent risk of hurting someone and a 1 percent risk of theft or property damage, the company HR rep would have something tangible to go on as to whether or not the risk level was acceptable.”

Michael Thompson, who conducts risk assessments for violence and sexual offense recidivism, said that Wilson’s idea would require establishing certain norms while also taking into account the implications of the crime and the job. Even with those things in place, many other challenges remain. For example, what about “offenses that occurred in another state? Another country? Where does one get the official version of criminal history (the “rap sheet”)? What about the guy who claims he didn’t do it? What about charges that are rolled into a plea? What about felonies pled down to gross misdemeanors?”

A point system would need to be followed, without deviating based on personal hunches. Companies should be able to perform dynamic assessment based on their criteria, he said. Luckily, he added, “There are several organizations that are slowly but surely getting the word out that giving a felon an employment chance is not a risky venture.”

Additional community perspectives

Someone who posted anonymously on the Reporter’s Notebook page for this story said it’s about risk management and liability. “Imagine some volunteer working with the Park and Rec does something unspeakable to a child or vulnerable adult – it’s then discovered that this is part of a pattern – they’ve done this before, in a similar situation and were caught.”

“What do the parents do in our sue-happy society (after filing criminal charges against the perp)? Find a lawyer and sue the Park and Rec Dept and/or City (whoever they can hold liable) for allowing the individual to volunteer with them, despite the fact they have a procedure in place to filter out risky individuals. It’s due diligence to figure out what these high risk positions are and what the appropriate requirements should be.”

The commenter cited an example is from a Star Tribune story about a music teacher hired despite a past sexual assault conviction: “Nobody with the district ran a criminal check on Gregory B. Washington before he was hired. District policy requires contractors to complete background checks on their employees and the district reserves the right to review individual employees records.”

Another person, writing under the name of heldt2, wrote on the Reporter’s Notebook page: “Should we wait until someone with a criminal background does something unspeakable before we decide to play by the rules? If you decide to engage in criminal behavior, there is a price to pay. You have just put yourself into a high risk category. Citizens do not want to take that risk. I am shocked that there was not more strict enforcement before now.”

Kristina Keifer, who lives in St. Paul, commented on Facebook that it comes down to common sense. “I would advocate background checks on all employees and volunteers (not only for parks but any job), but some practical guidelines need to be established-minor theft or juvenile offenses are not necessarily appropriate for exclusion, pedophiles or violent crimes should absolutely be excluded!”

Minneapolis resident Fredda Scoby said via email that, “Background checks shouldn’t be prohibitively expensive for volunteers. We are required to have background checks done on all our ESL teachers (they’re teaching adults) and the cost is only $5 a piece through Minneapolis Public Schools. In my opinion, background checks should be required at the least for those working with anyone vulnerable (youth or elders).”

Anna Pratt is a freelance journalist living and working in Minneapolis. Email

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July 9, 2009 at 11:09 am

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Fresh visions of America

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A July story for Minnesota Women’s Press (below).
Fresh visions of America
Works in progress in the Fresh Ink series
by Anna Pratt

“Too often, women roles are put aside. They’re not at the center,” said Bonnie Morris, producing director at the Illusion. But that’s not true this summer.

Three “in progress” plays, with a woman-focus, will be on stage at the Illusion Theater in July. The plays present stories of Bohemian immigrant experience on the Nebraska prairie in the 18xxs; an African-American family tragedy in Harlem in the 1920s, and a Jewish family’s value struggle in current Midwestern setting. All are filtered through women playwrights, actors, musicians and others, as part of the Fresh Ink Series.

Works in progress

However, admits Morris, the woman-focus is purely coincidental. Adaptations of Willa Cather’s novel, My Antonia, and Toni Morrison’s novel, Jazz, and an original play A Great Miracle Happened Here came to fruition around the same time. “In some ways, they came to us through our relationships,” she said, explaining that many of its key players are familiar faces in the local theater scene.

The idea behind “Fresh Ink” is to give dramatists the opportunity to try out new material continued Morris. Sometimes a play’s ending changes at the last minute and actors read from scripts during a performance. It’s more of a workshop than a polished production. Benefits are twofold: Audiences gain insight into the process, while creators are able to see what does and doesn’t work, Morris explained. Attendees are invited to share their feedback in post-performance discussions.

Different visions

The three plays offer different visions of America in periods of transition, “They tell us about where we come from,” said Morris, adding, “It’s great working with these giants of literature, transforming [their stories] for the theater. It’s challenging and exciting.”

First in the lineup is local playwright Allison Moore’s adaptation of Willa Cather’s novel, My Antonia, with a musical score by composer Roberta Carlson. My Antonia takes the audience back to pioneer days on the Nebraska prairie. During a train ride back to his hometown, narrator Jim Burden reflects on his childhood friend Antonia Shimerda, a Bohemian immigrant girl who taught him important life lessons.

The show contains vivid descriptions of the Midwest landscape. Morris believes it will resonate with modern audiences. “[Cather’s] passion for our landscape sucks me in, with the prairies, feel of the grass and openness of the sky. It’s something that Midwesterners have experienced. This script captures that,” she said, adding, “It has sensual writing and complex characters.”

Next is playwright Jenna Zark’s original play, A Great Miracle Happened Here. The story revolves around an American Jewish couple who fret when their high school-aged son, who is studying in Jerusalem, decides to join the Israeli military. While they wanted him to soak up the language and culture in Israel, they never imagined that he’d take their teachings that far. “It’s the idea that he is putting himself in harm’s way. He takes what they taught him and acts on it. There are repercussions,” said Morris. “It’s a lot to wrestle with.”

Marion McClinton’s adaptation of Toni Morrison’s book Jazz, with music from Sanford Moore, wraps it up the series. Jazz takes theatergoers to 1920s Harlem for a provocative narrative about jilted love. A black man shoots his teenage lover, driving his jealous wife to commit an unspeakable act at the girl’s funeral. “It’s the hopelessness of love that jazz and blues music championed,” said Morris.

The play, Jazz, literally borrows rhythms from jazz, a music genre that is uniquely American. “[This play] isn’t linear … It’s reeling with poetry and passion,” said Morris.

These three works in progress reflect the Illusion Theatre’s mission to use the power of theater as a catalyst for personal and social change. “Plays can be entertaining, inspiring or a release,” said Morris. “We want to illuminate myths and realities of our time.”

If you go:

What: My Antonia

When: July 9-12,

What: A Great Miracle Happened Here

When: July 16-19

What: Jazz

When: July 23-26

Where: Hennepin Center for the Arts, 528 Hennepin Ave., Minneapolis

Cost: $15 per show or $30 for a pass for all three

FFI: 612-339-4944 or

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July 3, 2009 at 2:51 pm

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