Tuesday, March 8, 2016

What Happened to the Alondra Cano Ethics Complaint? (And Why It Matters)

Late last year, Minneapolis Council Member Alondra Cano found herself in a controversy of her own making when she attended a Black Lives Matter protest at the Mall of America, and used her Twitter account to publish the names and addresses of several of her constituents.  One of them filed an ethics complaint, or at least publicly stated his intentions to do so.  The issue was picked up nationally, and even on a global scale, with mainstream media calling it "doxing" and local bloggers offering a spirited defense of why this was not a violation of that nature. (The link to that particular post has gone dead, and will be added here if it gets back online.)

On a personal note, I think it's great when elected officials join the public in direct action such as protest, and wish more would do so more often.  I especially applaud Cano for taking part.

When that post was published, it took the story to a completely different place than what Minneapolis needed it to be, if we're to learn from it and arrive at better local governance.  Cano's actions weren't "doxing," and almost certainly didn't violate any laws.  They may, however, rise to the level of an ethics violation.  And that's where Minneapolis needs its elected officials to aspire to behavior that better facilitates constituent interaction with local government.

From Cano's post-Twitter interviews where she refused to apologize and even insisted she would do it again, it's clear she doesn't understand the implications of her actions.

I do not think the Council Member acted out of ill intent, but instead...

...got caught up in the moment.  It's doubtful that she explicitly thought to suppress people's expression of political opinion.  It's unlikely that she intended to publicly shame someone.  But there is the intent, and there is the actual effect.  There is also the question of whether she violated any internal policy within rules for city employees and elected officials.

Let's tackle the last item first.  The fine print on contact submission forms states that the information is public, and may be shared upon request.  Many people who comment this way may not read or care about that language, but it is disclosed that your interactions with city officials through such a portal are not private.  However, the key phrase here is "upon request."  What does that mean?  If a journalist or citizen or other interested party made a request (such as a Freedom Of Information Act) to view data, and your online submission fell under their inquiry criteria, the city could choose to or may be compelled to share that information.

But in those cases, there is a process.  Someone decides to review the information, someone decides that your message fell under that request, and someone made a decision to release that data under the color of law.  If that was done so inappropriately, presumably you would have some recourse and that employee may face disciplinary action.  What you might NOT expect, however, is that your data could be shared at a whim, almost instantaneously, to the whole world, and without even the thinnest veneer of accountability.  And if your information is that available when you communicate with an elected official, who gets to decide how much to publish?  Can literally any public employee pick any such communique, and use it however and whenever they choose?  If not, then what makes the rules different as they apply to Cano?

And if your information were shared in a public forum, how might you react?  Let's flip the tables a bit.  Council Member Yang and Council President Johnson have been critical, or at least not fully supportive of some Black Lives Matter tactics, most notably the temporary shutdown of the 4th Precinct headquarters and parts of Plymouth Avenue.  There have been numerous claims that Yang and Johnson should face challengers in 2017 based on those positions.  That, by the way, is something people should absolutely feel free to say without repercussion or retaliation.  Now imagine if Johnson and Yang published constituent comments that included personal data like addresses, phone numbers, and emails.

I submit that it would be reasonable to conclude those actions were meant to intimidate and ultimately silence critics, or at least that those who had such information leaked would feel that way.

Cano's defenders point to threats and vulgarities that came afterwards.  Those are neither excusable nor relevant to the matter at hand.  In dialogue with some supporters, I have heard the defense that she is a woman of color, and therefore to be afforded some additional leeway.  But Yang is a person of color and Johnson a woman, yet their views on the 4th Precinct shutdown were afforded no extra leniency on such grounds.

Are racial disparities, police brutality, and the shooting of Jamar Clark such powder keg issues that they cannot be dealt with civilly?  Certainly civility is a challenge in these areas, as anyone on north Minneapolis Facebook pages can attest.  But we are talking about the behavior of an elected official, who ought to recognize the decorum and responsibility of the office and rise above the typical internet scrum.  And if one issue is somehow exempt from those expectations, then tell me which other issues may follow suit?  Who gets to decide which issue demands certain behavior from our elected officials and which issues are a free-for-all?

When you interact with your council member, regardless of how mundane or controversial your concern is, regardless of whether you sing their praises or demand their removal from office, you should expect that your behavior is met with the respect it deserves.  You should be as supportive or critical of your elected officials as you wish to be, without the prospect of favoritism for support or retaliation in response to criticism.  It's a high bar, but those standards should be expected of all of our elected officials.

By her actions on the day of the Mall of America protests, by her refusal to acknowledge impropriety, and by her admission that she would repeat her actions, it's clear that Council Member Cano does not understand this.  Or worse still, that she understands perfectly and chooses not to alter her behavior.  If she refuses to see the intrinsic value in civil behavior, then the results of an ethics complaint should cause her to limit her behavior for fear of the consequences that would follow.

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