County Board’s Newfound Scrutiny of Federal $$$ Requests

Written by Jeff Johnson on March 12, 2010. Posted in General

Last week, the county board voted 4-3 to lay over (and possibly kill) a request by the Hennepin County Sheriff’s Office for federal funding of a “Kingfish” cell phone tracking device.  It was the second time the board has postponed a vote on this request, likely making it difficult for the Sheriff’s Office to meet the deadlines for our local congressional representatives.

The Kingfish, as I understand it, is not capable of listening to cell phone conversations, but can track the location of a cell phone that is on but not being used.  This device has been used by other law enforcement agencies around the country to track missing or abducted children who are carrying a cell phone or who are with someone who is carrying a cell phone.  I am told that a court order is required before the Kingfish can be used to track a cell phone in any particular case.

The Star Tribune carried a short and accurate story (“Hennepin hangs up on cell phone tracker“) about the issue last week:

The latest: The Hennepin County Board for a second time has tabled Sheriff Rich Stanek’s request to seek $426,150 in federal money for a cell-phone tracking device called the KingFish. The device helps law enforcement agencies by pinpointing the location of cell phones that are on but not being used.

What it means: The 4-3 vote on Tuesday looks to end, for now, Stanek’s hopes to purchase a KingFish with federal funding. The deadline is nearly up for submitting this year’s wish list to the county’s congressional delegation.

The back story: Three weeks ago the board forwarded Stanek’s requests for nearly $3.5 million in federal funds for dispatch center equipment, but declined to include the KingFish. Commissioners expressed concern that the device might lead to illegal searches and questioned whether the Sheriff’s Office really needed one.

What happened: Board members debated the pros and cons of the issue on Tuesday. Some said they needed more information before going ahead with the request. Commissioner Gail Dorfman said she preferred a pilot project to determine how well the device works. Commissioner Jeff Johnson said he was convinced it was an important and useful law enforcement tool that wouldn’t violate privacy rights.

How they voted: Commissioners Peter McLaughlin, Mike Opat, Mark Stenglein and Dorfman voted to table the request. Commissioners Jan Callison, Randy Johnson and Jeff Johnson voted against the layover.

All of us on the board asked legitimate and difficult questions regarding this request for federal funds and had the opportunity to meet with the Sheriff’s Office directly to have those questions answered.  I was quite comfortable with the answers I received, but apparently that was not the case for a majority of the board.

The county board over the past year has requested hundreds of millions from the federal government (for transit, health, human services, environmental and public safety programs) without much discussion about any particular request.  In fact, this project (which is quite small in comparison to many we have requested and is a priority for the Sheriff’s Office) has probably been given more scrutiny than any other request I can remember (including our requests for subsidized bike helmet money, money for public art and many millions for several light rail trains).

I don’t begrudge any of my colleagues asking tough questions and scrutinizing the request for federal money; I only hope that the board will treat future requests – even those that are not for crime prevention – with the same close scrutiny and fiscal concerns that we treated this important public safety request.

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