Monday, July 23, 2012

"Underbelly" of school tax levy, the consultant

I was quite interested in a story I read in the Highland Villager about the St Paul School District paying nearly $30,000 to Springsted Incorporated for consultation services on this fall's District tax levy referendum. Springsted describes itself as "a public sector advisor with services spanning every stage of your community’s life cycle."  Or as some members of the public may perceive in this case as a "political consultant."  Should public $$$ go towards consultations on political questions by having a survey/poll done for the St Paul School District?

I decided to seek out information that would help me understand this new phenom I had not seen before.  By searching the "NewsBank" I ran across several mentions of Springsted from consulting with Ramsey County on financing the Arden Hills site to serving as an administrator for a "borrowing pool sponsored by the Minnesota School Boards Association."  The pool by the way in 2010 borrowed to school districts more than $300 million.

There was a mention where the Rochester School District was thinking of hiring Springsted for $20,000 to conduct a survey of Rochester residents similar to St Paul did but chose not to do it and had a "community committee" instead.  This was in 2010.  On the other hand, Springsted was used as consultant on the bond issue with survey and all the trimmings for Forest Lake Area Schools in 2010.

Every company has to make money and provide services in order to survive and be successful, no problem with that. But should public $$$ go to a company to "consult" and survey for a political question that the public votes on?  It does not meet my "smell" test and it may be the case with other members of the public also.

I made a Minnesota Government Data Practices request to the St Paul School District for the survey questions, the contract with Springsted, and the breakdown of the survey.  I also asked for all government data related to communication between Springsted Inc and the Superintendent of Schools on this matter.  I was told,  "There was no communication between the Superintendent and Springsted regarding the survey."

The contract between Springsted Incorporated and the St Paul School District was written by the consultant themselves.  The basic reason for the the services of Springsted as per the Summary of Need in the contract:

"The St Paul Public Schools is conducting an operating referendum in November 2012 and desires consultation and planning assistance from Springsted."

The $29,460 that the District is paying for also includes "post-survey planning consultation."

As I stated in the beginning of this post it was the first time I saw public monies going to consultants to do a survey on a political question.  Public $$$ are used for surveys by public entities for marketing and satisfaction feedback all the time, but should public dollars be used to support or not support a rationale for why elected school board members should put on the ballot a tax levy referendum.

I thought elected officials particularly school board members decide such issues on the basis of their conscience and feedback from the community they represent, not based on a taxpayer funded consultant and survey.

Thursday, July 12, 2012

Minnesota cops high-tech vacuum cleaners

In my decades of interaction with law enforcement officials and street officers the one thing they continuously crave for is information.  It is a part of their need to solve crime and to get the bad people that do harm in our community.  I and many people know that law enforcement needs to get "the right information to the right person at the right time."

The challenge is how to do this with accountability and transparency, but also that it does not affect or impact on our civil liberties and privacy in a negative way.

With some aspects of Minnesota law enforcement there is an attitude "just let us do our job" and do not bog us down with rules and laws that are not necessary, "trust us."  On the other hand, there are people in law enforcement who know there is great skepticism and suspicion how law enforcement does its duties by the public.

In Minnesota law enforcement today a major realignment of police information gathering is happening.  A very heavy reliance on public and private databases.  For example, St Paul Police Department has access to the CLEAR databases and Accurint databases among others.  Hennepin County in the past has had access to Coplink and Choicepoint databases.

The issue of how law enforcement use these vast databases, public and private, and their accountability to the public is another issue we will not discuss here today.

But the new technical data gatherer (vacuum cleaner) on the law enforcement block is the Automatic License Plate Recognition(ALPR).  In Minnesota, a number of law enforcement agencies are getting these through a Minnesota Department of Commerce grant program.  Hennepin County and Washington County Sheriffs were recipients of grants to buy ALPR's  among several other agencies.  Minneapolis, St Paul, and Maplewood are among several communities that have had these tech tools for a bit.

So what's the problem?  In general:

a. It is the "vacuuming" of data of every vehicle the plate scanner eye focuses on.  Per a data practices request I just received these cameras can "scan" up to 1800 plates a minute. 

b. It is the retention of law abiding people's whereabouts from 14 days to forever in local, state, and national databases. 

c. It is the straying away for what the ALPR's mission supposedly were: to focus on stolen cars, missing persons, and AMBER alerts. Mission creep has come as per example, a Washington County Sheriffs document which states that "ALPRs may also be used to gather information related to active warrants, homeland security, electronic surveillance, suspect interdiction and stolen property recovery."

d. And lastly, the implementation of this new tool for law enforcement is being done without public discussion and the public generally not knowing how it is being used, the kind of data being collected, and on whom, and how long it is being kept for.

What is the data being collected by these new "sweeper" toys?

Depending on the vendor and product a database can store images, plate #, date, time, and gps data.  What vehicles are in use, where it has been, and where it is going are some of the inferences that can be made from the data collected.  The license plate can tell where a person could be or where the person has been based on who the plate is registered to.  The data collected by the readers can be stored, linked for other applications and uses, or compared to information in other databases.

The Electronic Privacy Information Center suggests several questions to be asked:

Does the ALPR system monitor all motor vehicles and retain license plate identification information on all citizens?

Is information collected by the ALPR system saved? Is it retained? For how what duration?

Does the system include controls over who has access to license plate information?

Are binding laws in place, rather than departmental policies, governing how such information may be used?

These suggested questions are among many that need to be answered and addressed by the Minnesota Legislature and public as Minnesota law enforcement agencies begin to get these "moppers" and keep track of where people go.

NOTE:  I also did a previous post on this subject.