Drugs, Dogs and Documents
There was a small stir in the local news community last week when the City of Minneapolis released another batch of documents in the ongoing investigation of the scandal surrounding former city council member Brian Herron. This second set of files consists of more than 6,600 pages of phone logs, letters, memos, and e-mails from city workers and elected officials; along with the 10,000 pages released early last month, it represents all of the documents subpoenaed by federal investigators.
On October 31, copies of the papers that were delivered to the feds were also made available to the public, and a small corps of reporters spent the morning combing through the correspondence, most of which concerned the city's Licenses and Consumer Services Department. Alas, there wasn't much on Herron, who pleaded guilty in July to taking money from supermarket owner Selwin Ortega. Nor was there much of anything new on Basim Sabri, a local businessman who has been charged with offering bribes to Herron. Within hours, Room 129 in city hall had cleared out; the piles of paper wouldn't immediately be yielding any juicy scoops.
In fact, if the stacks of documents detailing constituent complaints, city ordinances, and convoluted policies reveal anything, it's that it's giving too much credit to elected officials to assume that any of them can command instant action from the city's bureaucrats.
Take drugs, for instance. When a citizen called council president Jackie Cherryhomes's Fifth Ward office in May to complain about drug dealing in the parking lot of a KFC located on West Broadway, it touched off this e-mail exchange between Minneapolis Police Officer Grant Snyder and Patti Marsh, Cherryhomes's assistant. "To the best of my knowledge, we have not received any previous complaints in this regard," Ofcr. Snyder wrote in an e-mail to Marsh, "so I am trying to collect whatever information might be available to assist on the investigation."
To judge by Marsh's reply--less than two hours later--it's pretty difficult for any north sider to miss the problem. "It is 'common knowledge on the street' that this drug activity goes on in KFC's parking lot," Marsh chided. "You can drive by KFC, after it has long since closed for the evening, and you will see 3 or 4 cars sitting in the parking lot, waiting ... and it ain't for chicken.
"Every spring, since coming to work for Jackie, I have taken calls about the drug drop-offs and dealing going on in KFC's parking lot," she continued, noting that this is the fourth summer "busy season" she's witnessed. "Every spring we report them. Sure hope that you can help us find some resolution."
Which is not to say that city employees are soft on crime. On the contrary, Inspector Angela Hugen seems to be quite the crime-fighting pit bull, making countless cameos in the documents. In one memo sent in July, Hugen gloats that she got "a tip" that two enterprising men had set up shop on the corner of Penn Avenue and West Broadway, selling, of all things, "pictures." "I went out last night and caught them in the act," Hugen proclaims. "I wrote them an order to cease this activity until they apply for and receive a Transient Merchant license....I am attaching two photos [to help in] identifying them again. Please pass this onto the roll calls and any other MPD staff that could help abate this."
Hugen displayed a similarly tough stance a month earlier, when she wrote about ticketing a man's van while it was parked in front of his business on Upton Avenue North. "He's now up to three tickets," Hugen wrote, without explaining what the exact violation was. "Next time I go out, I will also tow any vehicles I tag. He should be starting to get the message soon, I hope."
Hugen's enthusiasm apparently is not quite enough to keep those lucrative parking fines rolling in. In May of 1999, Deputy Police Chief Greg Hestness facilitated an e-mail discussion with council members regarding "meter fine revenue," in which he lamented that "20 percent fewer tags written and a 21 percent decrease in income." Council member Paul Ostrow, who represents the city's First Ward, was quick to counter that the decrease in tickets issued may have been related to a recent doubling of the fines. "Makes good cause and effect sense," Hestness answered, apparently assuaged. "Our folks may be just as diligent in looking for violations, but there might be fewer out there."
Nearly every council member has dealt with a dog-bite incident over the past couple years. But the problem of stray and vicious dogs seems to have become more of an, er, pet peeve for Third Ward council member Joe Biernat than for anyone else. Biernat was quite rightly shocked by the April mauling of seven-year-old Sweetflower Vang just outside of his northeast Minneapolis district. Biernat sent an e-mail to state Rep. Andy Dawkins, a St. Paul DFLer, commending him for a piece of legislation calling for the owners of dangerous dogs to pay a $1,000 registration fee, and urging him to toughen the part of the proposed law that would give owners five days to claim impounded animals before they are destroyed.
"I went to the animal impound facility to see these two dogs which were kept with other dangerous dogs," he wrote. "Andy it really is unnerving to see so many dangerous animals (literally trying to attack me from their cage). From my tour, I learned that our officers (formerly called wardens) recently picked up a 100 pound rotttweiler [sic] that was a STRAY!"
Biernat did not let the issue drop when the public furor died down. Throughout the summer he continued to correspond with various individuals about dangerous and stray dogs, and in July he praised bureaucrats working on a new city ordinance. "I really like where we are going on this issue and think we need to move on something before another tragedy; I continue to be amazed at the number of new dogs in the ward I represent."
Biernat doesn't always have answers so readily at his fingertips, however. When a "very upset constituent" contacted Biernat about "an incident" at the Polish National Alliance Hall in Northeast's Sheridan neighborhood last October that "attracted four police cars with arrests made," Biernat spoke with police officers. In February neighbors again complained about the noise issue, this time calling the events "RAVE parties" complete with "underage drinking, violations of fire codes, and...gambling." Biernat was clearly exasperated that he had little solace to offer. "I continue to be greatly concerned," he wrote to a city staffer. "The city council is currently reviewing a new ordinance regulating 'rental halls' but the language writing is still in the attorney's office."
Proclamations by Hennepin County Commissioner and recently trounced Minneapolis mayoral candidate Mark Stenglein notwithstanding, the reams of e-mails do suggest that there's one arena where council members can demand quick action and be reasonably certain they'll get it: litter. One clever constituent e-mailed photos of a particularly trashy street to Biernat, who swiftly contacted just the right folks with the request "Can we get some sweeping action near this address?" The streets were swept the next day.
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