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Police group that opposed medical cannabis still struggling to find its place in politics

The state's Violent Crimes Coordinating Council is having a hard time obeying the rules.

You may remember that these were the guys who, in January, jumped unexpectedly into the medical cannabis debate by sending a letter of "strong opposition" to key legislators. The problem was that no one asked for the council's opinion, and by providing one, its members overstepped their boundaries.

See also:
Does a police advisory council have any business in the medical marijuana debate?

The council rose, back in 2010, out of the ashes of the disgraced Metro Gang Strike Force, as advisers to the Minnesota Department of Public Safety. It was tasked with finding ways to lessen the influence of gangs and drugs. There was nothing in the law prohibiting the council from lobbying legislators, but then again lobbying had never been the point.

So in response to the letter, State Rep. Michael Paymar (D-St. Paul) the chairman of the public safety finance and policy committee who oversaw the creation of the council, expressed frustration, as did State Rep. Carly Melin (D-Hibbing). In April, Paymar countered by attaching an amendment to a public safety bill that would have made it clear: the VCCC could not lobby any government figures except the commissioner of public safety.

Paymar's amendment did not make it into the final public safety bill. However, at a June 11 meeting, the VCCC acknowledged the complaint and agreed that it would be best to limit its own power, so that members could approach the legislature only when asked for an opinion.

Hardly had the air cleared, though, before Dodge County Sheriff Jim Jensen dropped this curious line: "It seems like the legislature wants to take the freedom of speech away from the committee, but we still have our own freedom of speech." Instead of taking out a group policy position, he suggested, "we can formulate and send individual letters" from "inside our (law enforcement) associations."

Ken Reed, executive commander of St. Paul police, assured the sheriff, "There's a way to do it, and I think we're on that path without being challenging, and that's what we have to take into account."

In one minute, members went from approving a new rule to considering a way to get around it. You can hear the conversation for yourself in the video on the next page. A data practice activist -- practivist? -- sent it along with the request that we not name our source.

 

Staff at the council acknowledged our request for comment Thursday, but did not respond.

Paymar, on the other hand, was unaware of the council's decision to rewrite its own rules when we called him, but this time he expressed support. Still, he worried about other "highly questionable" moves by the VCCC, including an emphasis on creating a "centralized intelligence gathering" database, which shows up in an October 2013 strategic report.

Paymar is retiring next January, and so one of his last moves of the last session was contacting the state auditor with a request to look into the oversight of the VCCC, or lack thereof -- which is what plagued the council's previous incarnation.

"There has to be some sort of legislative oversight," he says. "Otherwise we're recreating the past again. That's what my fear is."

View the exchange between Jensen and Reed here:

-- Send story tips to the author or follow him on Twitter @marxjesse

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