Mary Agnes Welch's Gripe Juice
with Mary Agnes Welch
11/4/2013 4:20 PM
I was part of last week's jury duty cattle call and spent two days with about 200 other Winnipeggers waiting to see if we'd get picked for one of four trials - three murders and a sexual assault.
The experience was an eye-opener. It's one part raffle as we all waited for our numbers to be drawn, one part nerves when we finally came before the judge, and five parts boredom. Here are a few observations:
Everyone had an excuse. Not long ago, Mike McIntyre wrote about the growing frustration among judges with the sometimes-dubious reasons people give to duck jury duty. That was on full display last week.
When called, at least three quarters of the people offered the judge an excuse - everything from epilepsy and anxiety to poor English skills to the loss of sales commissions. The judge offered some pushback, and occasionally rejected excuses, but mostly people were released.
Some of the medical excuses were so marginal that folks in the separate jury pool room watching on a video feed openly guffawed.
When my number was finally called, I expected the judge to raise concerns about a journalist serving on a jury. Instead, she told me she'd take what she could get.
The rules are silly and officious, and staff sometimes were, too. In this case, we spent two days cloistered in two large courtrooms with little to do but stare at the lovely neo-classical décor, snooze in between raffles or line up for the one bathroom before cranky court staff ordered us back to our seats, including an older gent.
Few, including me, realized this was a two-day affair, so it wasn't until Friday that people wised up and brought their Dean Koontz novels or their university textbooks with them. Those, like me, who brought work laptops had to turn off the wifi. There's only so much you can get done before you need your email or Google or your office network.
I got so bored the first day that I disabled the wifi and data on my iPhone so I could play Tetris. Bad move. No phones allowed either, the sheriff told me. (That rule seemed to relax a little on the second day, maybe after court staff realized people were too comatose to take any commemorative selfies).
At one point Friday morning, folks were chatting lightly with their now-familiar seat-mates when one staffer told us to pipe down. When she shushed us a second time, several people back-talked and grumbled. And, later, when the final jury was chosen, those of left over erupted in applause, which again earned a rebuke from court staff.
It was like being in high school again, except high school students aren't asked to judge murder cases.
The must be a more modern, efficient way of doing this. Jury duty struck me as very much like the rest of our court system - mired in the 19th century. Perhaps some elements of selection could be done electronically to speed things up? Perhaps it should be mandated that employers pay jury members their full salary during a trial so fewer people claim financial hardship? Perhaps the old gents could be allowed to use the bathroom?
For the record, there is no automatic exemption for journalists. And I can think of no good reason a journalist shouldn't serve on a jury if, as in my case, they haven't written about the crime and don't know any of the participants.
When my number was called, I was challenged out by defence counsel, as I knew I would be. But, my number was returned to mix, so I had to return Friday in case I was called for the remaining two trials. I wasn't.
10/28/2013 11:15 AM
The NDP has just launched what it's calling its Fairer Deal for Renters campaign. Flyers and emails (like the one below) are appearing in people's mailboxes directing them to a website where citizens can fill out a brief survey on how to fix the province's rental crisis.
How great is that!? Finally, the NDP is taking action on what's arguably the city's most pressing poverty problem -- our complete lack of decent, affordable rental units. Maybe the NDP is planning to tackle some of the recommendations smart people have made in recent years to fix this! Hallelujah!
Except the campaign is the most offensive kind of bogus. It's just a bait-and-switch push poll designed to pad the NDP's list of supporters. The website does nothing but promote the small tweaks the NDP already made to landlord-tenant rules, and then it asks which of the party's well-established and totally unrelated campaign promises you like best, including several meant as backhanded attempts to demonize the Conservatives.
It's one thing not to care much about poor renters. It's another thing entirely to use their issues as a marketing strategy to build up your pre-election warchest. At best, cheesy. At worst, shameful.
10/9/2013 4:11 PM
In the last few months, I've been dealing with some laughably outrageous fees levied by the city for access to information requests.
One is for $5,440 for some rec centre data my excellent former colleague Jen Skerrit originally asked for in January. You know what else the Free Press could get for $5,440? Almost an entire summer intern.
Anyway, Jen seriously scaled back her request, asking for data from just one year instead of three. The new fee came in at $1,960. Jen asked for a fee waiver. No dice. We finally, nine months later, got some data, but it was a fraction of our original request.
Then, as part of this project, I asked for the database of inspection orders issued against rooming houses since 2008. The city said it would cost $6,480. I tried negotiating but could only get it down to $2,210.40. Remember, this doesn't involve rifling through boxes of old papers and spending hours photocopying. This is a database, so it's clicks and maybe some coding. By this time, the stories on rooming houses had already run, and I gave up.
I could live with $910 if the city was actually giving us what we wanted - the names of each dog and the first three digits of its owner's postal code. (Given recent experience with FOI requests, we didn't overreach. Other cities with nearly word-for-word the same FOI legislation as Manitoba's, have released the full postal code associated with each licence. We asked for just half the postal code, hoping for a fulsome and quick response from the city. We are so naive.)
Instead, the city is refusing to release the information, essentially arguing that dogs come with privacy rights. We could pay $910 for information that is essentially meaningless. Or, we can add it to the pile of appeals we've got on the go with the Manitoba Ombudsman.
This, at a time when the city has a committee ostensibly studying the concept of open data, and after some councillors have called for proper, modern open data policies.
09/26/2013 11:44 AM
Let me acknowledge something right up front: Journalists like people who return their calls and say stuff. We sometimes mistake accessible, open politicians for those with real talent, smarts or insider knowledge.
With that caveat, let me tell you a bit about putting together today's story on physician-assisted suicide and what it revealed about some long-standing issues we've had dealing with Manitoba's Conservative MPs.
I'll start with Steven Fletcher, who is either on fire with interesting policy proposals and opinions, or systematically kablooey-ing his political career. I genuinely hope it's the former, since it's not a huge exaggeration to say he's made more news -- on powerlines, assisted suicide, moose -- since being punted from cabinet than he did the whole time on the inside.
He's typically been reasonably accessible (which means he'd comment maybe half the time) but now he's offering something better than the occasional returned phone call: Real ideas and opinions. By testing the limits of PMO control over MPs, could Fletcher be clearing the way for other Manitoba Tories to speak out just a smidge more?
Next, on to Bob Sopuck, MP for Dauphin and environs. He surprised me yesterday by promptly returning my call when I phoned for comment on physician-assisted suicide. Sopuck gave me a fulsome, personal, thoughtful and eminently quotable position on the issue. Then we talked about fishing. (It's awesome this year, btw.)
Sopuck's a policy guy, with an interesting background doing wonk work that included a posting as Filmon's sustainability guy. He's got an interesting perspective from a corner of the province we inside the Perimeter don't attend to enough. It would be great to hear more from Sopuck, and other Tory backbenchers like him, including Winnipeg South's Rod Bruinooge and Winnipeg South Centre's Joyce Bateman.
Let's end with Lawrence Toet, who has not been quoted in the Free Press since election night, 2011. Yep, not once in more than two years, that I can find. I checked with Mia Rabson, our Ottawa correspondent who's now on mat leave, and she confirmed that, to the best of her recollection, Toet has never returned one of her calls. Same for me yesterday, when I called to ask about physician-assisted suicide. Not even a terse, one-line email repeating the PMO's talking points.
Mr. Toet, if you don't want to talk about euthanasia, I totally understand. Those are dangerous waters. We could talk about something else. What Transcona ought to get in the new federal infrastructure fund? Rail safety? Poverty issues in Elmwood?
Call me. I'm pretty easy to impress at this point, and I'll talk about anything you want.
About Mary Agnes Welch
Mary Agnes Welch joined the Free Press in 2002, first as a general assignment reporter and then covering city hall and the Manitoba legislature before moving to her current post as public policy reporter.
Before Winnipeg, she worked at the Windsor Star and the Odessa American, a small daily newspaper in West Texas. There, in addition to covering more than 20 counties, she took high school football scores from coaches all over West Texas by phone every Friday night.
Mary Agnes is a graduate of Columbia University’s journalism school, has won several Western Ontario Newspaper Awards and has been part of two teams of reporters nominated for a Michener Award. In 2011, she was nominated for a National Newspaper Award in the beat category. She is also the former national president of the Canadian Association of Journalists.
She once misspelled "Shih Tzu" in the paper and received 37 emails from angry dog-owners.
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