Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Holiday Potpourri

I hope that everyone has had a blessed holiday season thus far.

It's been a somewhat hectic few weeks. Over the course of that time, I've been trying to catalog those stories, observations, and ideas that made for short stops on the bullet train of my attention span.

Like a simmering pot of subtle fragrances designed to provide a pleasant ambiance, these numerous topics of interest have presented themselves to me as a fragrance, an odor, an olfactory metaphor that stimulates the thought process in some way - either memory, contemplation, or an emotional response.

While not all connected to the holiday season (and not all subtle or pleasant), they are no less topical and appropriate to the time of year, as well as our immediate future:

Pine Boughs, Warm Shortbread, Melting Candle Wax

It's been many years since I celebrated Christmas in this area, but it was still good to see luminaria lining Thorn Street in Sewickley as well as adorning other locations. There is a certain comfort to tradition and ceremony, whether as part of a religious community or as someone who exercises their formidable kitchen skills for the benefit of family and stranger alike. Lots of homemade cookies are comforting to the psyche if not the waistline.

As I picked up the spent bags from outside of the house on Christmas morning, I was reminded of the last few years in Colorado, when the luminaria I placed in front of the houses on my block seemed to be a unique addition to the usual holiday decorations. I continue to cherish both the simplicity and profundity of the message that is symbolized by a bag, some sand, and a candle.

Brine and Benzene

A couple of significant developments in the continuing controversy over fracking:
I normally try to resist making comparisons to Colorado and Pennsylvania, especially in terms of government and politics. However, chemicals and groundwater know not what state boundary they are flowing underneath, and contaminated water is just that, no matter where the humans that have to use it happen to reside.

Considering the revelation that the energy industry is employing public relations personnel with a background in military-style counterinsurgency tactics, it's more important than ever to get to the truth, and assure that the government charged with serving citizens understands that truth, and does their job accordingly.

Chalkboard Dust and Musty Textbooks

Back in 2009, I wrote about some of my memories of Mount Gallitzin Academy in Baden, upon the announcement of its closure. Now the sounds of schoolchildren will again fill those tall, old hallways and classrooms, thanks to the recent state approval of the Baden Academy Charter School. It's noteworthy that the school's approval at the state level was unanimous on the part of the charter school appeal board, overturning a unanimous disapproval (twice) by the local school board, Ambridge Area.

I don't know what to think of the whole charter school concept, especially as it relates to the local experience. What I know is what I see - many school districts experiencing much more difficult times in terms of declining enrollment, dwindling tax bases and state subsidies, and constant if not rising infrastructure and personnel costs. Many see merit in the ability to establish a school and receive public money for it, and the government oversight appears to be fairly robust.

Still, some of the methods with which many local charter schools are getting their message out and their faces in the public eye - such as high-profile advertising and corporate-style sponsorship - seem disingenuous to me as both a parent and taxpayer.

Nonetheless, I wish the school and its students the best, along with the ongoing mission of the Sisters of St. Joseph, who will rent their building to the school. As an overview on the school's website states:
The former Mt. Gallitzin facility offers superb classrooms in a safe, serene setting. Decades of successful education attest to the practicality of the facility as a desirable learning environment.
Can't argue with that.

Stale, Moldy Bread in these SOPApillas

It's been heartening to see how much coverage the mainstream media have been giving to controversial legislation of late. One particularly odious bill is the Stop Online Piracy Act, or SOPA. This bill is part of a continuing effort to place restrictions on the flow of information in an effort to combat copyright infringement and the sale of counterfeit goods online.

Proponents of the bill are those whose profits and livelihoods are tied to entertainment product - the MPAA and RIAA, and the AFL-CIO among others. The bill's opponents include the bulk of the Internet community, including Google, Yahoo!, Facebook, and on and on.

The core premise of the bill is to create an Internet blacklist - to facilitate the wholesale censorship of information deemed to "infringe". The bill infringes, all right - not only upon individual liberty, but free enterprise as well. The Electronic Frontier Foundation has an excellent overview of the subject matter, as well as links to take action.

As it happens, Politico reports that corporate support for SOPA and it's Senate counterpart, the Protect IP Act (PIPA) appears to be eroding in the face of continued vocal opposition and at least one boycott of the largest domain name provider.

SOPA puts over-reaching "protection" of a lucrative industry ahead of the fundamental rights of citizens.

New Car Smell

The National Transportation Safety Board has gone on record advocating for a complete ban on cell phone use while driving.

From a personal standpoint, I believe that texting while driving is dangerous. I'm also uncomfortable with trying to manipulate a phone while behind the wheel. This includes trying to hold the phone up to my ear.

I have a Bluetooth headset, and my phone has voice dialing. I believe that I can safely engage in a conversation with both hands on the wheel and eyes facing forward. The vehicle manufacturers that have incorporated Bluetooth hands-free into the sound systems of their cars would appear to feel the same way.

A complete ban on cell phone use while driving seems to me to have the same kind of government over-reach that SOPA does. Enforcement of such a law would also be difficult in my mind, especially if expanded to the entire spectrum of distracted driving.

A CBS News consultant and former NTSB member took this one step further, implying that the current board "missed the boat" by ignoring additional technology advances, such as frontal collision avoidance systems, that could help to mitigate accidents regardless of any inattentive behavior on the part of the driver.

I Love the Smell of Asphalt in the Morning

Sometimes there's nothing that can be done to prevent or protect yourself from life's pitfalls, whether on the roadway or not. One faulty valve on a truck loaded with liquid asphalt can really ruin your day (and your car) if you're in the wrong place at the wrong time.

Now it seems that the Nov. 22 spill along 40 miles of the Turnpike has damaged so many vehicles (including a couple of luxury models totaled) that the insurers are throwing up their hands or attempting to deny coverage, for which they're being sued.The driver of the truck apparently decided to leave the area after the State Police told him to stay so his truck could be inspected - a big boo-boo on top of everything else.

This is another example of how tenuous the nature of travel is - how dependent it is upon due diligence, attentiveness, and an attitude that is rife with a lot of patience - especially around here. This was brought home to me on the way back from work this past Friday, when a flatbed semi loaded with drilling rig assemblies, followed by a large tanker truck full of something (fracking fluid?), passed me inbound on the Parkway East.

Fresh Sausage

Thinking about this topic, I was reminded of the quote that is attributed to German chancellor Otto Von Bismark (1815-1898):
 "There are two things you don’t want to see being made—sausage and legislation."
That being said, it seems that there are similar goings-on in my former home and my current one that warrant some attention. Both have to do with the bumpy road of transition.

It seems that the City Council in Grand Junction, Colorado elected to force the resignation of City Manager Laurie Kadrich...just in time for Christmas. Ms. Kadrich, who held the post for five years, cited  “fundamental philosophical differences between me and City Council" as the reason for her departure.

Ms. Kadrich was a fine City Manager. She was the last one I had the pleasure of working for, and even after my departure from the City's employment she was accessible and straightforward, even in the face of disagreement.

Mayor Tom Kenyon was quoted in the Daily Sentinel story as stating, “The city manager has a lot of authority, but they have to remember they have seven bosses".

When some of those seven bosses change, the dynamics and priorities often change as well. This is something that is about to happen in Leetsdale. With not just the current Borough Manager, but the position itself, under threat of termination by the council members-elect, the future of the borough's day-to-day operational structure remains unclear, even if the stated intent of the incoming council members is not. 

The transition has already begun to impact those operations. Sewickley Patch reported that a sitting Council member questioned one incoming member's request for reimbursement from the borough for classes she and the other three newcomers are taking in preparation for their new duties.

These classes comprise the Newly Elected Officials Course, offered by the Local Government Academy, located on Pittsburgh's North Side. The academy has been in existence for over 25 years, and serves as a clearinghouse for training and information to help those elected and/or employed in the field of local government succeed on behalf of the citizens they serve.

It's a good idea that these incoming council members have this kind of baseline training. I personally don't have a problem with the new Council members requesting reimbursement from the borough - just so that request is accompanied by a copy of a certificate of completion. The course is scheduled to conclude on March 10.

Here's looking forward to that, and for more good tidings into the new year. Until then..

Sunday, December 04, 2011

Public Recordings, Recorders, and Records

All censorship exists to prevent any one from challenging current conceptions and existing institutions. 

All progress is initiated by challenging current conceptions, and executed by supplanting existing institutions. 

Consequently the first condition of progress is the removal of censorship.  
                                                                           - George Bernard Shaw

Over the last 25 years, incidents of local, national, and international significance have been made more so by the increasing availability of portable recording devices.

Whether as part of a mobile phone or other platform, when combined with Internet access and ubiquitous social media networks these compact devices collect and disseminate information in a manner that has literally changed the way the world is perceived and governed.

Most recently, the so-called 'Arab Spring' and the Occupy Wall Street protest and its various offshoots across the country have demonstrated the power of instant messaging and video to document activities and mobilize citizens to action.

Issues have arisen locally and in other parts of the country concerning the recording of public safety and other government personnel in the conduct of their daily activities. The issues involve not only the practice of recording these personnel in public, but also the availability of the official recordings of their activities, and/or the 9-1-1 calls that precipitated them.

Here are some examples of how these activities affect us as citizens:

Your Right to Record the Police

From Long Island to Leetsdale to Las Vegas, this past year has seen public servants finding themselves on the wrong side of both the law and public opinion when confronted by a citizen with an audio or video recorder, and attempting to stop the recording. A recent federal court decision may put to rest any hint of ambiguity about the public's right to record public officials in the exercise of their official duties, including those in law enforcement.

The case involved Simon Glik, a Boston lawyer who recorded some questionable handling of an arrestee in 2007. He was himself arrested for doing this. The charges against him were dropped, and Mr. Glik successfully established in court that the attempt to prevent him from passively documenting the actions of the police flew in the face of our most fundamental liberties.

Here in the local area, law enforcement seems well aware of a citizen's right to record them in action, as well as a citizen's responsibility not to unlawfully interfere with police activities or jeopardize safety at the same time. Law enforcement training and legal bulletins, including this one, are getting the word out to police agencies about these rights and responsibilities, on both sides of the badge.

There are several online examples out there of how to record police, and how not to. A good overview is available here.

Pittsburgh CopBlock: Monitoring or Meddling?

Organized monitoring and recording of police activity has its roots in the time of the Rodney King incident in Los Angeles, when home video cameras were becoming an affordable reality for many. The first of many "Copwatch" groups was organized in 1990 in Berkeley, California. Their message and mission is clear:
Berkeley Copwatch is based on the idea that WATCHING the police is a crucial first step in the process of organizing. We do not attempt to interfere in police activity or to resist police misconduct physically. It is our hope that, one day, mass outrage at police and government violence will increase to a point where fundamental change in the nature of policing becomes inevitable.
As the years and technology have provided a means to instantly transmit video over the Internet from any number of small devices, some concerned with the behavior of their local police have taken this concept and tried a different approach.

Copblock.org states that it exists in part to:
"..highlight the double standard that some grant to those with badges. By documenting police actions – whether they are illegal, immoral or just a waste of time and resources – then calling the police stations involved (ideally while recording and then later sharing your conversation), we can work together to bring about transparency and have a real impact".
This national organization has several affiliates, including one locally. Pittsburgh CopBlock has taken the strategy of the national organization one precarious step further - engaging in direct action that appears designed to elicit, or perhaps provoke, an emotional response from the officers involved. You can check out one of these activities here, and several more here.

Sewickley Patch, Beaver Countian, and other media have attempted to cover the local Copblockers and their activities, some of which have run them afoul of the local law. This occurred most recently in Leetsdale at Magistrate Robert Ford's office. The national CopBlock group has taken issue with some of this news coverage.

CopBlock Pittsburgh's efforts thus far consist largely of attempts to antagonize local law enforcement - by local I mean mostly Ambridge and the Quaker Valley departments - instead of calmly documenting their public activities in non-confrontational ways. Cops have to eat like everyone else - why go after them in a convenience store?

Despite the counterproductive nature of their rhetoric and tactics, I believe that Pittsburgh CopBlock has a valid point to get across, especially as it relates to our rights as citizens to document the activities of public servants. They're just going about it in a way that will serve only to isolate them in the larger arenas of public discourse.

Police officers have a very difficult job. I like to believe that the majority of them perform their duties with a healthy balance of respect for citizens, while possessing a situational awareness that sometimes makes it necessary to use force and aggressive tactics to mitigate a threat to themselves or others.

I also believe (but don't like to) that there are police officers out there that exceed the boundaries of both their authority and responsible conduct as a public servant. Citizens such as Simon Glik, along with excellent bloggers such as Carlos Miller, have demonstrated and brought attention to this on several occasions. The most recent affront to reasonable police actions, on the campus of the University of California at Davis, embellishes the point even further.

Perhaps CopBlock will consider joining the efforts of Copwatch, the ACLU, and others who seek to assure that police do their jobs within the boundaries set by law, while continuing to assure that their own behavior is protected by those same laws themselves.

The Official Record - Your Right to Know

Pennsylvania is one of only six states where the official recordings of 9-1-1 calls and public safety radio traffic are confidential, unless an agency or court decides that their release is in the public interest. These recordings and other information were specifically exempted in the Pennsylvania Right to Know Law of 2008.

Computer and written logs that provide information on response times are public, however, as is information regarding 9-1-1 callers, their phone numbers, and location information. This was reaffirmed by Commonweath Court in February of this year, reversing a lower court decision after a reporter filed suit to obtain records in York County.

In response to the Commonwealth Court decision, in March State Rep. Joseph Hackett (R-Delaware County) introduced HB 1174, which would specifically exclude the information about callers to 9-1-1 and their geographic location.

The bill was marketed as an attempt to protect crime victims and witnesses from possible retribution from the release of this information. It gained the immediate support of the bulk of the emergency response community and crime victims groups alike. With this support, and perhaps the looming approach of their summer recess, the state House unanimously passed this bill at the end of June, and sent it to the Senate.

The bill has remained in the hands of the Senate Veterans Affairs and Emergency Preparedness Committee since then, perhaps in response to fairly loud voices in opposition to the bill. This includes the Pennsylvania Newspaper Association, expressed through the editorial pages of its member newspapers, including the Post-Gazette and Tribune-Review. The Trib seemed to sum up these concerns best when it wrote:
"We can't support them unconditionally if they hide from us this critical information about their work," says Trib legal counsel David A. Strassburger about first responders, speaking on behalf of both newspapers and the public...The Senate must not fall for this rollback of transparency masquerading as aid for a victimized group.
If there is a true, genuine concern that criminals, abusers, and stalkers will resort to showing up at a police station or other government office to obtain this information through a Right to Know request, then build amendments into the law to specifically exclude information related to certain criminal cases from release without a court order.

Otherwise, the media and general public should have the ability to obtain information on how their public safety agencies respond to requests for assistance. A big part of this is being able to independently assess response time data to all areas of the communities that these agencies serve.

This information can also provide insight into additional resources requested to an emergency scene, how long it took those resources to arrive, and the appropriateness of the resources requested. This is important to assure that the most proximal resources needed for the job are the ones being requested and sent.

HB 1174 will allow government agencies to withhold much of this information.

As a public safety professional for most of my working life, I strive to make sure that the job I am doing can be held up openly before the public as an example of conscientious, professional service. I believe that accountability and transparency trump what seems to me to be an over-reaching effort to "protect" crime victims and witnesses. I also believe that there are those who seek the same "protection" whose aim is to conceal from the public examples of less than professional 

In the process of researching this bill, I requested comment from the ACLU of Pennsylvania regarding their take on it. Legislative Director Andy Hoover responded, "At the moment, we have no position on this bill but will continue to monitor this legislation and offer our input when appropriate".

As this bill has a potential direct impact on the ability of citizens to independently assess the accountability of police and other public servants, I would think that some kind of analysis and positioning on the part of the ACLU is well overdue, especially since police accountability is one of their stated priorities.

Contacting your state senator, and encouraging them to closely evaluate these factors when considering whether to support or oppose HB 1174, is definitely a good idea.

Why Does This Matter?

If you're interested enough to have read this far, then you're probably someone who values their ability to question government, assemble peaceably to voice concerns collectively, document the response of public servants, and not be subject to violence or criminal prosecution as a consequence of those actions. You can even deliver a relatively anonymous screed to a talk show host, or express your feelings responsibly online, and feel confident of your freedom and safety.

You can thank the Bill of Rights, and those like the ACLU who make it their mission and passion to defend the liberties granted under it. You can also thank laws that make government activities part of the public record, and prevent attempts at secrecy in the large majority of those activities.

We all have an obligation as citizens to be responsible stewards of these freedoms - not to take them for granted, not to set them aside just because someone thinks we should. 

One of the linchpins of a free society is a strong and vibrant news media. The media needs to have the tools at their disposal to report to the citizens, and as a consequence encourage public discourse and the means by which citizens engage in participatory government, whether as a public servant or an informed member of the electorate. 

With that in mind, enjoy your freedoms, and your week ahead.