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Jon Weisbrod / By JON WEISBROD 

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Owatonna incoming senior, Sol Havelka, works with youngsters during a quarterback-receiver drill on Thursday afternoon during the final session of the annual four-day Huskies Youth Football Camp at the OHS practice fields. Hundreds of area kids entering grades 3-10 showed up to the event that was organized by OHS assistant coach Matt Skala for the second consecutive summer. (Photos by Jon Weisbrod/People’s Press)

Owatonna moves forward on Tobacco 21 in 5-2 vote

OWATONNA — The City of Owatonna is on the cusp of joining 40 Minnesota communities that have raised the legal minimum age to purchase tobacco products, including those used in e-cigarettes or vapes.

After a 40-minute long public hearing this week, the Owatonna City Council voted to accept the first reading of the proposed ordinance that will implement the Tobacco 21 model, a national campaign established in 1996 that is pushing for local and state governments to adopt policies requiring people to be at least 21 years old to buy tobacco products. The reading was approved in a 5-2 vote, with council members Jeff Okerberg and Nate Dotson both opposing the ordinance.

“I won’t dispute that smoking is bad in all its forms,” Dotson said during the council discussion. “I have one question, which I have asked previously of the council: how many of you would be OK with banning the sale of tobacco products from city limits? I think if we’re concerned about public health, that’s the way to do it.”

Dotson stated that he doesn’t believe there is much of a distinction between 18- and 21-year-olds when it comes to the ability to make the best decision for their health and whether or not they should be consuming tobacco products. Dotson also commended Andi Arnold, the Steele County Safe & Drug Free Coalition project coordinator, as well as members of the Owatonna High School S.H.O.C. program for their work in trying to spread awareness to teenagers about the dangers of tobacco use and vaping.

“I think that is a much more valuable resource when you can motivate and encourage fellow students not to take this up,” Dotson said to the students present for the public hearing. “There are a lot of things that people do and it isn’t the law that deters them. We’re the last stop. If someone makes this decision in their life, the law likely isn’t going to stop them from making this decision as poor as it may be.”

Though Dotson said that he understands that the side effect of the policy would be “hopefully” to minimize the number of youth smokers and vapers, he said that he could not support the policy based on ideological basis and preference of consistency that 18 has been the determined age of when someone is an adult.

Okerberg elected not to speak about his opinions on the matter during the council meeting.

Council members Kevin Raney and Dave Burbank shared their strong approval of the policy and pointed to a very specific measure in the proposed ordinance that compels them to support it: vaping and e-cigarettes.

The revised tobacco ordinance included updated language the primarily defines “electronic cigarettes, electronic delivery devices, and nicotine or lobelia delivery devices” as being under the regulation of the tobacco ordinance. Since December, community professionals have been approaching the city council about the popularity of vaping among the youth, what the U.S. Surgeon General has labeled as an “epidemic” in recent years.

“I think it’s been proven beyond a reasonable doubt that vaping should be banned for anyone under the age of 21,” Burbank said, stating that the moment he saw a 12-year-old wearing a hooded sweatshirt made by a vaping company that constructed the vaping device into the strings from the hood was when he onboard with Tobacco 21. “That’s a strategy that these places are using to hook kids. I’m too the point where I’d love to have someone from Big Tobacco come in here and try to make an argument that it won’t hurt the young people and they’re not trying to get them hooked. I don’t know if they’d get back out the door.”

Raney expressed his concern over the flavors of e-juice — the nicotine product that is used in e-cigarettes and vapes — that he feels are clearly marketed toward young children. He used known examples of cotton candy, s’mores, and bubble gum that are currently on the market. Gesturing to an 8-year-old girl sitting in the audience during the public hearing, Raney stated to the rest of the council that she is who the Big Tobacco and vaping companies are “going after.”

“In 2017, the commissioner of the FDA warned that teens using e-cigarettes has reached an epidemic proportion,” Raney said. “E-cigarettes typically have more addicting nicotine than cigarettes and cigars. A study on e-cigarettes shows that the vapor contains known carcinogens and toxic chemicals as well as potentially toxic metal particles from the device itself.”

The big push from community members in support of Tobacco 21 has been that high school and middle school students have less access to a 21-year-old who could supply them with tobacco and vaping products. Owatonna Middle School Principal Julie Sullivan spoke during the public hearing that during her four years as the principal the instances involving vapes have gone from zero to more than she can count.

“This is an issue we deal with on a regular basis,” she told the council. “We need to help [the students] live a better life.”

“We probably can’t completely stop [kids] from trying it, but at least we are creating a barrier,” council member Brent Svenby said in support of the ordinance.

More than 40 people were in attendance for the public hearing including Mary Urch with Steele County Public Health, Dr. Brian Bunkers from Mayo Clinic in Owatonna, Steele County Attorney and Owatonna City Prosecutor Dan McIntosh, a representative with the American Lung Association, and several parents and children from the community.

Only one person from the public who was in opposition of the ordinance spoke, a representative from the Owatonna Smoke Shop located on Bridge Street. He stated that he was against the ordinance because there had been no discussion on how the city will regulate online sales of vaping equipment. An OHS student responded that she knows many kids in town with a vape and that none of them acquired it from online, that they all purchased it from 18- or 19-year-olds who they know in person.

Council member and chair Greg Schultz said that as a father and grandfather he has to support the ordinance for the sake of protecting the youth, but that he is frustrated that the city council was having the discussion at all.

“I am irritated that we are even talking about this,” he said. “I’m irritated that we’re talking about it on this level of government. We are a municipality. We own streets and sewers, the police department and fire department. I firmly believe that this is a federal or state thing to deal with.”

“I hope all of you are lobbying the state just as hard,” Schultz continued as he addressed the crowd. “Tell them to get on board. Encourage them. I’m disappointed with [the state] to be honest.”

City Attorney Mark Walbran said that the city’s tobacco ordinance had not been updated since 1998 and that the range of tobacco and nicotine substances and the delivery of said substances have greatly changed since then. He included language in the proposed ordinance that would also regulate hookahs as well as set a minimum age of 18 for clerks selling the products.

The ordinance will not be officially approved for implementation until after the second reading during the council’s Aug. 20 meeting.

Owatonna Middle School students embrace history, civics, and critical thinking during DC trip

OWATONNA — There’s perhaps no better way to appreciate history than a visit to the nation’s capital, with its bevy of museums, memorials, and monuments, and 33 students who completed their seventh and eighth-grade years at Owatonna Middle School were able to do that in early-June on a trip to Washington, D.C.

“So much history can be learned there, and in an interesting way,” said Liz Charlton, an English teacher at the middle school who was a chaperone on the trip. “The city is your classroom,” and “seeing (the history) is so much different than reading in a textbook about it.”

“You’re actually seeing it, so it sticks in your brain, because you can picture it,” said rising eighth-grader Kali Clauson. “It’s easier to remember, and I had so many more questions” while on the trip than reading or hearing about history.

As Kali showed her mother photos from the trip upon her return, “she was describing everything, because she remembered it all,” said Kali’s mother, Kacie. “As a parent, that was fun” to hear.

“I learned a lot, and I would definitely go back,” Kali said. “I didn’t know the whole experience would be so much fun.”

The travel party was in D.C. June 9-12 for a “whirlwind trip” in which days began at 7 a.m. and hotel returns didn’t occur until 9 p.m., Charlton said. “They saw a lot of the city, and we really packed it in, so they were exhausted by the end.”

Students had “very little phone time” during their days, because they were so engrossed in the tours, Kali said. Then, at night, “we were so tired we didn’t even want to” go on their phones.

Students witnessed the changing of the guard at Arlington National Cemetery, toured the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History, Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum, and the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, and visited the White House, Charlton said. They also saw a couple of monuments at night, which was “very cool, because they light up beautifully.”

“It’s cool to see them lit up,” and to “compare the difference between day and night,” Kali said. Her favorite time, however, was “when the sun was setting.”

Kali’s favorite stop on the trip was the Lincoln Memorial, she said. “You could even stand where” Martin Luther King. Jr. did when he delivered his iconic “I Have a Dream” speech.

Charlton’s fellow English teacher, Mara Halvorson, has planned a D.C. trip at her previous post in Faribault, but then came to Owatonna Middle School before she could enjoy the fruits of her labor, Charlton said. Consequently, she was an expert organizer for this adventure, and, even better, Halvorson is on the same staff team with the middle school’s resident D.C. expert, social studies teacher Scott Noet, so she was able to pick his brain for tips.

“So many tours go there that it’s a student-friendly place,” Charlton said. “It’s really organized.”

Noet was heartened to spot so many middle school groups touring Washington, D.C., during his own visit this spring, because one always leaves that town “more optimistic,” and optimism is in short supply for many in the country right now, he said. The fact that America’s government is “for the people, that hits you every time.”

Kacie, a teaching and learning coach at Wilson Elementary, was impressed by the trip’s detailed day-by-day scheduling, she said. “It was really thought through.”

Close Up, with its team of trained instructors, coordinated the trip, even conducting workshops at the hotel at night to discuss what students saw and heard during the day, Charlton said. “A lot of history is really complicated, and it can be hard to see it through multiple perspectives, but that’s what Close Up does.”

Guides “knew a lot, and they were able to answer our questions,” Kali said. On the rare occasions when a guide didn’t have an immediate answer, they researched the topic and provided answers the following day.

The Owatonna contingent even got an impromptu exercise in critical thinking during a protest outside the White House, Charlton said. Multiple students picked up pamphlets from a “man who was screaming into a megaphone,” then discussed whether his points had merit and/or were supported by facts.

They also talked about how the First Amendment affords individuals like that man the freedom of speech, assembly, and petition, she said. “It was a teachable moment.”

Protesters served as a dose of “real life,” Kali said. “That’s what is actually happening” at the White House.

Students raised funds for their trip in a variety of ways, from selling Papa Murphy’s cards to candle sales, and “some kids basically paid for their entire trips selling coupons,” Charlton said. “The work you put in, you got back.”

Several students hadn’t flown before — and even more were making their first flights sans parents — so the travel could have been “daunting,” but “they were all fantastic kids,” Charlton said. And, traveling without their families breeds “independence,” especially valuable for the eighth-grade class of 2018 who will enter Owatonna High School this fall.

“You almost forget about your parents, in a way, because you’re having so much fun,” Kali said. “I know everyone who went on the trip liked it.”

While Kacie hasn’t been to the nation’s capital herself, she’s thrilled her daughter was able to make this trip.

“I was super-excited for her,” Kacie said. “Why not do it when you can go to a destination like that?”

This was Kali’s first class trip, and the experience has made her hungry for more, she said. “I really want to do another school trip.”

Charlton actually took a class trip to Washington when she was in eighth grade, and “I loved it,” she said. Consequently, she “wanted to give (the middle school) kids the same experience.”

Because she’s obviously more mature now than when she was in eighth grade, several sites took on new resonance for her this time, such as the Holocaust Museum, she said. Close Up has a program for teachers, not only students, so “we went through a lot of professional development” — including learning more about what “America did and did not do” during the Holocaust — and “we can use that in our classrooms.”

Charlton was also fascinated by a walking tour of the city’s Georgetown neighborhood highlighting espionage, which was “unexpected,” she said. “I was geeking out over that and telling the kids about it.”

In addition to growing closer to her classmates, Clauson also befriended students touring the city from other states, and “I still communicate with them,” she said. “You have to just go up and introduce yourself, not be scared.”

So many students Charlton spoke with remarked how the visit “changed who they are and how they see things,” she said. “They want to go back” to D.C.

“I didn’t want to leave,” Kali said. “I wanted to stay longer.”

Jeffrey Jackson / By JEFFREY JACKSON 

In this Tuesday, July 30 photo, the logo and sign have been removed from the Perkins restaurant in Minneapolis. (AP)

Lawmakers wrestle with regulating drones amid privacy concerns

At all levels, law enforcement agencies of all types are increasingly using drones to conduct their work. Outside of established protections established in the Bill of Rights and freedom of information laws like Minnesota’s Data Privacy Act, few restrictions currently exist on the use of drones. However, the American Civil Liberties Union and a group of Minnesota legislators are trying to update laws to address privacy concerns.

A new drone bill, supported by the ACLU, would restrict the ability of law enforcement to use drones for non-emergency situations. In addition, it would require law enforcement to dispose of data collected on individuals other than the intended target, unless the data collected provides evidence of criminal activity. In that event it would still be subject to the Open Field Doctrine, which enables law enforcement to arrest people for criminal acts they are observed committing on private property.

Under current law, drones can be used to search for both criminal suspects and missing persons. If the footage in question is not part of, or does not become subject to, a criminal investigation, it would generally be considered public information under Minnesota’s public records law, the Data Practices Act.

Sen. Warren Limmer, R-Maple Grove, chairs the Senate Judiciary and Public Finance Policy Committee. Along with Sens. Jim Abeler, R-Anoka, and Ron Latz, DFL-St. Louis Park, Limmer worked to advance a version of the bill this spring but temporarily shelved the measure in response to concerns from law enforcement agencies. Limmer says he is particularly concerned that law enforcement agencies often indefinitely hold data not pertinent to a criminal investigation, including drone images.

“We don’t believe that data needs to be held and collected into perpetuity,” said Limmer.

Earlier this week, Northfield Area Fire and Rescue responded to an emergency in a rural area outside Dundas. Two individuals’ inner tubes deflated while they floated down the river and they were left stranded. Rescue personnel used a drone, privately owned by one of the department’s members, to help locate the individuals in need and provide help more quickly.

Northfield Fire Chief Gerry Franek said that Fire and Rescue has used the drone before, but that this was the first time they’ve used it in an emergency situation. Previously, they’ve used it to track down criminal suspects and for training purposes. He says Fire and Rescue hasn’t devised any formal in-house rules on drone usage, just that they use it “when appropriate.”

By contrast, Dakota County Sheriff Tim Leslie told a House-Senate panel on data practices last month that the Dakota County Sheriff’s Department has put in place tight guidelines for drone use. Leslie said that all drone use is examined on a quarterly basis by the county’s Sheriff-Citizen Advisory Council.

Minnesota Newspaper Association Attorney Mark Anfinson says he and others are concerned that the bill prohibits law enforcement agencies from using a drone in non-emergency situations without a warrant. Anfinson worries that since law enforcement receives so many calls about emergency or near-emergency situations, law enforcement officials would struggle to discern what situations would qualify as a true emergency under the law. Faced with such uncertainty, law enforcement officials could err on the side of caution out of fear of being accused of misconduct — preventing them from deploying drones in appropriate situations.

“It would impose a whole new set of extremely complicated and detailed rules … on top of the complicated and detailed rules they already have to follow when using technology,” Anfinson said.

Bill proponents say they’ve worked closely with law enforcement agencies to address their concerns. They argue that new restrictions on drone usage and related data collection are necessary to protect citizens’ privacy.

“Drones are new and powerful tools,” said Julia Decker, policy director for the American Civil Liberties Union. “In working with law enforcement to craft exceptions in this bill, we’ve acknowledged the real-world benefits of drone usage. However, drones are also unique in the potential for secret surveillance.”

Limmer and the committee have continued working with law enforcement agencies to help address their concerns. He says he’s optimistic that the committee will be able to come to an agreement and produce a thoughtful, balanced drone regulation bill for the full Legislature’s consideration.

“Law enforcement is using all sorts of surveillance gadgets, but there’s been very little legislation around proper use of them,” Limmer noted. “The challenge is to find balance between public good and privacy concerns.”