Why Minnesota lawmakers’ plan to enlist social workers to help Metro Transit woes could be a challenge

Why Minnesota lawmakers’ plan to enlist social workers to help Metro Transit woes could be a challenge

 A legislative plan to launch a high-profile campaign to rid light rail trains of crime and other unsafe conditions requires a combination of state, local and non-profit police and social services agencies.

But what if all of those agencies are not willing — or able — to take part? Commissioners from both Ramsey and Hennepin counties are telling lawmakers that they don’t think they can divert their social services staff from their current duties. Ramsey County Commissioner Rena Moran, a former House member who was chair of the House Ways and Means Committee last session, told the committee it will be difficult for the county to help. 

State Rep. Rena Moran

Ramsey County Commissioner Rena Moran

“We support the overarching goal of the bill and that is to protect the investment that we have made in the transit system and help the people who are riding the light rail,” Moran said. But the issues are bigger and a solution requires responses to what she termed the homeless crisis and the mental health crisis and the lingering impacts of COVID-19 on the workforce and families.

Here’s how the Transit Safety Intervention Project under House File 2045 would work: It would begin with a three-week effort using mental illness professionals and social workers to work with people on trains and platforms who need services. That would be followed by a nine-week effort that would add police agencies to enforce a new code of conduct for passengers.

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Rep. Brad Tabke, DFL-Shakopee, envisions teams using state and local police and social workers along with nonprofit mental illness and homelessness advocates to “reset the culture” of expectations of train users. (A bill summary is here.)

But Moran also raised several concerns about relying on county workers for the intervention.

State Rep. Brad Tabke

“We don’t operate the system, and there are a lot of jurisdictional, legal and staffing issues with using county personnel,” Moran said. “We are already short staffed at Ramsey County with social service workers.” Adding social workers who can do this work take months “and moving staff off their current assignment is a decision we take very seriously, as well.”

She proposed instead contracting with community organizations for the types of social service providers envisioned in Tabke’s bill.

Hennepin County Commissioner Jeff Lunde shared Moran’s concerns. In an interview Friday, he said the county is budgeted to hire 12 social workers to embed with police agencies in Minneapolis and suburban cities and thinks it will take nine months to hire them. The county has more than 900 social workers in its budget but relatively few are trained to do the type of field work required by the Transit Safety Intervention Project.

Any social worker is in high demand, but the competition for those who are able and willing to work in the field in unpredictable and stressful situations is even tighter. He said the county has street-to-housing teams that might talk to people at a transit platform that appear to be experiencing homelessness. But the next day they might be at an encampment in Brooklyn Center.

photo of candidate

Hennepin County Commissioner Jeff Lunde

“We think the fastest way for them to get people is to work with community-based organizations,” Lunde said. “I don’t want to act like we don’t care. We do. If we have to give them staff, we lose our flexibility.”

Tabke said he has heard the concerns of the counties but said he is still asking for cooperation for a relatively short amount of time. 

“There is obviously a shortage of staff across the board, and that is part of how we got to this problem, he said. “But we need to continue to work together and the counties have to be part of the solution.

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“This is an interjurisdictional problem, and that’s why we have so many issues on the trains because people are pointing fingers in other directions and often saying this is someone else’s issue and not mine,” he said. “What this program will do is bring everybody together to talk about whose responsibility is whose and how we get the right  pieces in place to make sure we are solving this problem.”

The program would run for a few months through early summer to make sure the Blue Line and Green Line are safe and ready to be transitioned into the Transit Rider Investment Program (TRIP). Staffing sizes would shift as people become available. NAMI has committed its mental health crisis team but not all the time. DHS also has a crisis team that would be called upon.

The project leader would make requests, such as using Bloomington police where and when it makes sense, airport security when it makes sense. It could include private security companies such as those patrolling high-problem stations like Lake Street in Minneapolis.

“The goal is to have enhanced presence on the trains,” Tabke said. “I expect that everyone understands and recognizes this is a problem and will respond to the best of their abilities.”

House File 1322 is the second part of the safety response. Once the intervention campaign winds down in early summer, so-called TRIP personnel would be added. These civilian staff would be on trains and buses and at stations to enforce fares, provide help to riders, inform riders of code violations and summon police if needed. The bill creates a new administrative citation, similar to a parking ticket, for fare evasion. Current law requires commissioned police to issue such tickets but because the high-priced ticket was rarely enforced by county attorneys, they were rarely issued.

State Sen. Scott Dibble

State Sen. Scott Dibble

The bill does call for police-issued misdemeanor citations for smoking, drinking alcohol, damaging vehicles or stations. It also authorizes police to remove passengers from trains and stations for violations.

Senate Transportation Committee Chair Scott Dibble is sponsoring both bills in the Senate — Senate File 2506 on transit intervention and Senate File 1049 on the TRIP program. Last week he merged the two into SF1049.

Dibble told his committee that he is often uncomfortable riding the light rail, due to smoke and litter and treatment he thinks he receives because he is a gay man.

“But the situation for other people is far worse,” he said, “rising to levels of violence of the worst sort.” The Central Station in downtown St. Paul and the Uptown Station in Minneapolis have both been closed because of what he termed intolerable conditions.

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In his budget update last week, Gov. Tim Walz requested $11.45 million for a transit safety package for the Met Council.

“Minnesotans’ tolerance is very, very low on violence and you’ve seen an increase in areas, including transit,” Walz said about the request. “People getting to their jobs is dependent on these transit corridors. We need to make sure they are safe.”

In addition to the $2 million for the intervention project, it would provide $7.9 million to enclose three high-crime platforms with enclosures that will make it harder to enter them from behind and $850,000 for 10 mobile cameras to supplement cameras at platforms and on vehicles.

Ernest Morales III

Ernest Morales III

Last week, Metro Transit’s new police chief, Ernest Morales III, appeared before the Senate Transportation Committee and told members he has been riding the light rail lines and buses since he has been in the state from New York where he worked for the police department for 30 years.

“I see what seems to be problematic and unpleasant to the everyday commuter,” he said. “While I felt uncomfortable, I didn’t necessarily feel threatened. However, perception is very important particularly when you are a commuter experiencing the ride.”

He said he went to Lake Street station to see the issues first hand.

Morales also said he hopes to rebuild the police force through retention and recruitment efforts and continue to work with other police departments and hiring of private security agencies.

“I want to remind the committee that we’re a small footprint in these communities that are experiencing larger problems,” Morales said. That is why having partnerships with the other agencies that trains and buses pass through is important.

Lunde was asked last week what Hennepin County would do if his concerns about using county social workers were not addressed in the bill.

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“We’ll smile, put on our big-boy pants and try to work it out,” Lunde said. “We want it to be safe. We know people aren’t riding it because they don’t feel safe. It’s a very complicated problem and we know we’re part of the solution.”

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Lake residents want a tougher law to keep trash (and worse) off the ice

Lake residents want a tougher law to keep trash (and worse) off the ice

Many popular Minnesota lakes turn into towns on ice over the winter.

Upper Red Lake is visited by tens of thousands of anglers and many spend a weekend or a few days on the ice. And some leave more than footprints and frozen-over ice-fishing holes when they depart.

This winter the Upper Red Lake Area Association ran a pilot project to address the issue of people dumping human waste on the ice. They installed dumpsters at lake access points and mounted a public awareness campaign to encourage anglers to properly dispose of human waste.

“They recorded well over 10 tons of human waste bags, toilet bags that people had put in those dumpsters,” said Robyn Dwight, president of the Upper Red Lake Area Association.

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The campaign was so successful Dwight said the group is looking for funding to continue it next year.

Dwight is among a growing number of Minnesotans organizing to call for tougher enforcement and more resources to keep lakes clean over the winter.

a holiday wreath frozen in ice

A holiday wreath among the trash left behind on Lake Mille Lacs.

Courtesty Ann Brucciani Lyon

Keep it Clean initiative

The Keep It Clean initiative started in 2012 around Lake of the Woods along the Canadian Border as trash proliferated on the popular winter fishing destination.

In the past couple of years, Upper Red Lake and Lake Mille Lacs joined the effort because of what they saw as a worsening problem. Dwight said they’ve heard from other lake groups in Minnesota and in surrounding states who also want to join the initiative.

Trash collected on a frozen lake

Minnesota DNR conservation officer Brent Grewe collected this trash in March 2021 from the ice on Medicine Lake in Hennepin County.

Courtesy of Minnesota DNR

Trash left on the ice has long been a issue for many Minnesota lakes, but Dwight said the evolution of wheel houses has exacerbated the pollution and the concerns. Wheel houses are essentially fully appointed recreational vehicles with holes in the floor for fishing through the ice. They allow anglers to spend days at a time on the ice.

“More and more people have an opportunity to leave trash on the ice, not only trash but human waste because these beautiful RVs are now equipped with black and gray water holding tanks,” she said.

“We don’t have the resources in the state of Minnesota to deal with these new winterized wheel houses. We don’t have winterized (sewage) dump stations and we don’t have the resources to keep up with the whole phenomenon of winter camping on the ice.”

So the groups teamed up to push for legislation that would toughen state law regarding leaving garbage on the ice.

The bill also would require a study of the costs of expanding enforcement of the law. It has garnered bi-partisan support from lawmakers since it was introduced earlier this month and will go before a Minnesota House committee later this week.

an abandoned beer box in snow

Organizers of a campaign to reduce trash left on ice are pushing for tougher enforcement and more funding to address the problem on Minnesota lakes.

Courtesy Ann Brucciani Lyon

The majority of anglers manage their trash properly, and some resorts provide trash service on Mille Lacs said Ann Brucciani Lyon with the Mille Lacs Area Community Foundation.

“It’s that group that doesn’t pick up after themselves that’s creating challenges for everybody else that’s out there and it’s affecting everybody else’s enjoyment,” she said.

Brucciani Lyon said social media is rife with examples of a wide range of waste abandoned or dumped on the ice.

“You will see very heated language when people are finding a garbage bag that’s been left behind or trash that’s out there,” she said. “And it is a polarizing issue because people, the majority, would like to see the lakes clean and healthy.”

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Gophers head to Fargo, top NCAA Men’s Hockey Tournament seed

Gophers head to Fargo, top NCAA Men’s Hockey Tournament seed

Minnesota earns its first overall Number One seeding since 2014, the last time they made a championship game appearance.

The Gophers will face off against Mankato next on Friday and Saturday.

Kamaan Richards

The Gophers will face off against Mankato next on Friday and Saturday.

No. 1 ranked Minnesota will travel to Fargo to play against 16-seed Cansius on Thursday at 8 p.m. Central Standard Time in the first round of the 2023 NCAA Men’s Hockey Tournament.

Gophers defenseman Mike Koster said the team hasn’t before played in a regional this close to home, with the other three regionals playing out east.

“I don’t look too much into that, obviously it’s a place that a lot of guys are familiar with whether playing in youth or juniors up there,” he said.

If victorious, they will take on the winner of two familiar foes on Saturday. Eight-seed and NCHC conference champion, St. Cloud State, or 9-seed and CCHA conference champion, Minnesota State-Mankato.

“We feel like it’s a pretty exciting bracket,” forward Mason Nevers said. “Canisius is a great team, they’re coming in on a hot streak … just won a championship. It’s hard to look much further than that, our whole mindset is just Canisius right now, but three Minnesota teams is a lot of fun.”

The Gophers are 1-1 against each Minnesota-based team this season. They split a home-and-home series in early October versus Mankato, winning 4-1 at Mariucci Arena and losing 3-2 down south.

The Gophers also split a home-and-home series in early January versus St. Cloud, losing 3-0 at Herb Brooks National Hockey Center and winning 2-1 at Mariucci Arena courtesy of a Logan Cooley game-winning goal with 18.8 seconds remaining in 3-on-3 overtime.

“I’ll be honest, I’ve been in so many of these tournaments … it’s just crazy,” head coach Bob Motzko said on his Minnesota-filled region. “Maybe in my younger days, I was more into the where and the who … you just want to be there. Should be great crowds.”

-Official Bracket-

(Fargo Regional)

1 Minnesota
Canisius (Atlantic Hockey Champion)

St. Cloud State (NCHC Champion)
Minnesota State-Mankato (CCHA Champion)

(Manchester Regional)

4 Denver

Boston (Hockey East Champion)
Western Michigan

(Allentown Regional)

3 Michigan (Big Ten Champion)
Colgate (ECAC Champion)

Penn State
Michigan Tech

(Bridgeport Regional)

2 Quinnipiac

Ohio State

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Students urge UMN to better fund scholarship, Native American studies

Students urge UMN to better fund scholarship, Native American studies

Students and activists protested in the freezing cold to urge the University of Minnesota to follow through on promises to tribal communities. At the top of their list was an expansion of a tuition program that they say too few can access.

“[It] is kind of frustrating and hard for the students that are here already and aren’t getting the support that we feel like we need,” said Laila Gourd, a sophomore from the Spirit Lake Nation in North Dakota.

A new tuition support program for the university’s campuses, including the Twin Cities, began last fall, but it has limits.

The university’s Morris campus has had a full tuition waiver program for all American Indian students since its inception, as stipulated by federal legislation and Minnesota statute due to the site’s history as a former boarding school. In 2021, the university announced the Native American Promise Tuition Program to extend tuition support for Native students attending its four other campuses.

At the time, University president Joan Gabel said the “program is a meaningful step to increasing access and continuing to improve retention and graduation rates while closing opportunity gaps.”

Unlike at Morris, the new program offers free or reduced tuition, depending on family income, limited to enrolled members of Minnesota’s 11 federally recognized tribal nations. Students must also be first-year undergraduates or transfer students from tribal colleges.

“The university isn’t doing a good job with keeping their relations with Native American students,” said Gourd. She said the tuition program excludes displaced Lakota and Dakota people forced to settle in what are now other states.

The American Indian Student Cultural Center organized the protest Friday with the university’s chapter of Students for a Democratic Society. They want to see the tuition program extended to include current undergraduate, graduate and professional students, as well as descendants of all federally or state recognized tribal nations.

“It is just insanely inadequate for the fact that the University of Minnesota is a land grab university,” Sorcha Lona, an organizer with Students for a Democratic Society. “It owes its Native students free tuition.”

Universities, including the U of M, profited from the sale and leasing of land taken from Dakota people in the 1800s, detailed in landmark reporting by High Country News. Minnesota researchers from tribal nations and at the University are preparing a report recommending how the university should improve its relationship with Native communities.

The protest of around 30 people also drew members of the UMN Teamsters, Anti-War Committee, and the American Indian Movement.

“Many students who currently qualify for the Native American Promise Tuition Program are receiving a large share of support from other existing programs from federal, state and University sources,” said University Relations spokesperson Jake Ricker on Friday. “I think it’s worth reiterating something the University has said previously about this program, which is in the very first year of its existence. This program does not represent completed work.”

In early March, the University of Minnesota requested funding from the state Legislature for a full tuition program that would expand eligibility. Gov. Tim Walz included the request in his revised budget plan released this week.

In addition to the tuition program expansion, students also seek more funding for the American Indian Studies department and Native-led student groups.

“Having better support for us by providing Indigenous faculty members would really be helpful,” said Taryn Long, from the Oglala Sioux Tribe, adding many courses in the major are inactive.

“It’s good to know that the American Indian Studies Department was the first of its kind in the nation and the Cities…is, like, very Native populated. That was comforting to come into,” student Laila Gourd said. “But then also to see on the other side of that, how poorly the university tries to support these students is also tough.”

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Ex-felons in Minnesota say right to vote is ‘life-changing’

Ex-felons in Minnesota say right to vote is ‘life-changing’

Dondi McIntosh will cast his first ballot in a national election next year when he is 51 years old.

Some rights, like voting, aren’t appreciated until a person gets older. For McIntosh, of Rochester, the appreciation is heightened because the franchise had until recently been denied to him.

That changed earlier this month when Gov. Tim Walz signed a bill that restored the voting rights of formerly incarcerated felons who are still on probation.

McIntosh calls it “life-changing.”

A smiling man sits in a chair, calmly looking toward the camera.
Dondi McIntosh is pictured Thursday, March 9, 2023. (Matthew Stolle / Post Bulletin)

To people who regard voting as a God-given right, that may sound like a bit of hyperbole. But from McIntosh’s point of view, being restored to the franchise has been transformative.

Ever since being released from prison after serving 15 years on a drug-related felony, McIntosh has worked to claw back those things that not only allow a person to function in society but give a sense of identity and self-worth: a birth certificate, a Social Security number, a driver’s license and the right to vote.

“It’s one of those components that you don’t realize the value of until it’s taken from you,” McIntosh said. “All those things that fell through the cracks because of me being incarcerated. Your sense of humanity jumps ten-fold” when those things are restored.

It’s a theme that comes up again and again with residents who served time for felony-related offenses and were denied the vote while on parole. To vote is to have a voice, to be able to contribute, to be a full-fledged citizen, to be given a second chance. It is when that right is taken or forfeited that its loss is acutely felt.

Though they may have been restored to society after serving prison time, there is a sense of being an outcast when the right to vote is withheld, McIntosh and others said.

Second chance

For Christie Wilkins, having the right to vote restored is akin to being given a second chance at life.

“People do wrong all the time,” Wilkins said. “But do they have a second chance to change their life?”

Wilkins served two prison terms for drug-related offenses. While on parole, she felt the loss of the franchise keenly. In 2008, when the Black community had the opportunity to vote for the first Black president in Barack Obama in a national election, she was not allowed to vote.

A woman stands, smiling, in front of a building.
Christie Wilkins, of Rochester, said that giving ex-felons on parole the right to vote is like a second a chance. Wilkins is pictured Wednesday, March 15, 2023, in Rochester. (Joe Ahlquist / Post Bulletin)

“That was something the Black community wanted to engage in, but as an (ex-felon), we couldn’t engage in that,” Wilkins said.

And even when Wilkins had paid her debt to society and was no longer on parole, Wilkins encountered bureaucratic hurdles that hindered her right to vote. Last year, when she went to her polling station to cast a ballot, election judges told her her name had been “flagged.” It still showed her as being on parole when she wasn’t.

“I wasn’t leaving until I voted, because I knew I was able to vote at this point in time, because I wasn’t on papers,” Wilkins said.

When Walz signed the bill into law, it allowed as many as 55,000 formerly incarcerated felons to vote. Walz hailed it as the largest expansion of voting rights in Minnesota in half a century. The law will go into effect on July 1.

Legislators opposed to the bill argued that convicted felons should not be able to vote until their sentences were completed, both in prison and on parole.

There is a partisan dimension to the issue of restoring voting rights to ex-felons, because of the belief that these voters are more likely to vote for Democrats. Democrats, who pledged to change the law, control both chambers of the Legislature.

Joining a movement

With the bill’s signing, Minnesota joined 21 other states that automatically restore the right to vote for some or all ex-felons upon their release from prison, according to the Voting Rights Lab, which tracks election laws at the state level.

A man stands in a parking lot.
Ka’Juan Parker, a Rochester machinist, says that the passage of the law restoring the right to vote to ex-felons shows that people still matter. Parker is pictured Wednesday, March 15, 2023, in Rochester. (Joe Ahlquist / Post Bulletin)

For Ka’Juan Parker, the new law shows that “people still matter.” A Rochester machinist, Parker felt there was double-standard in the way ex-felons were treated under the old law.

“If you’re a convicted felon, you don’t stop paying taxes,” said Parker, who said he has never been to prison but was put on felony probation for fleeing police. “I feel if you can’t vote because of a felony, you shouldn’t have to pay state or federal taxes. On the flip side, we’re all in this together.”

While in prison, McIntosh said, he came under the influence of mentors who changed his life. They taught him about the importance of action, of bringing about change through participation and involvement.

The phrase that captured that philosophy — and was drilled into him while in prison — was “Don’t talk about it. Be about it.” Being denied the right to vote relegated him to the sidelines, a bystander, not a complete citizen. Being able to vote meant he could be a participant and weigh in on issues that he has come to realize are important to his life, from housing to transportation. It allowed him to “Be about it.”

“You can’t complain about a system that you are not participating in. You have the right to complain if you vote,” McIntosh said. “That’s why I say life-changing.”

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3rd suspect arrested in killing of Alex Becker outside his St. Paul home

3rd suspect arrested in killing of Alex Becker outside his St. Paul home

Becker was walking home from work when he was attacked late last year.

Authorities have arrested and charged a third person in connection with the death of Alex Becker, the St. Paul 22-year-old who was shot in an alley while walking home from work last December. 

Shaun Lamar Travis, a 25-year-old Brooklyn Park resident, was taken into custody in Minneapolis on Friday, jail records show. He joins fellow suspects Arteze O. Kinerd and Detwan C. Allen, who were charged in the weeks following the murder. 

After his arrest, the charges against him said, Kinerd made a call from the Ramsey County Jail in which he allegedly said, “I’m cooked, I don’t know what to tell Fat. Fat might be cooked.”

Per the latest charges, Travis’s Facebook indicated he went by the name “Fat” or “Fat Fat.” His account was deactivated shortly after Kinerd’s arrest.

Additionally, surveillance footage from the night of the murder helped authorities identify all three suspects. 

Travis has been charged with aiding and abetting second-degree murder. 

The victim, Becker, was remembered in a GoFundMe set up by his aunt as a “gentle, young man” who enjoyed spending time with his siblings, friends and parents.

“Alex was the kindest soul, he had the purest heart,” his mother, Tara Becker, shared on Facebook. “This is the epitome of senseless. He would have handed over everything he had, they didn’t need to take him from his family.” 

So far, the criminal charges have not specified a motive for the crime. 

You can read a timeline of the murder by clicking right here. 

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