Tag Archives: Idaho

Scraping pdfs, Ruby and Idaho elections, or …

… why I am never going to be a programmer. Last week I saw several reporters tweeting about checking the Idaho Secretary of State’s Election’s page throughout the day so as not to miss any new candidate filings during the current Idaho elections filing period.


I feel for Kevin and the rest of the Idaho Capitol Press Corps. While the Secretary of State does make a good effort to provide public information, and Secretary of State Ben Ysursa has been a champion of public records, there has got to be a better way.

See the live map here!
This is what happens now: The Secretary of State updates a .pdf file two or more times a day during the filing period and posts it on his web page. That means that anyone interested in the intrigue of candidate filing in Idaho’s newly refigured legislative districts has to bookmark the page, reload it several times a day and scan it for new entries.

I’ve been reading a lot about data journalism and thought I could follow some of the tutorials out there and create a nice little web scraper to tease out the scoops on candidate registration. I am really inspired by sites like ProPublica, which puts together awesome databases like this one on what influenced support on SOPA/PIPA or one on unequal course offerings in schools across the nation that incorporates maps. I like maps. The Guardian in the UK is also doing amazing things with data journalism and making information public and available and accessible. These guys make it look easy.

Brett Nelson, AKA "The Ruby"
So I took a Boise City Community Education class on Ruby programming last week, thinking I could pick up a few new skills. The only thing I really learned was that I’m going to stick with WordPress as a blog platform and it’s unlikely that I’ll ever be a real programmer. But I suggested to the teacher, my friend Brett Nelson, who works at Customated.com, that I had this idea to grab the candidate .pdf from the Secretary of State, convert it into a useful format and post it somewhere automatically so that my reporter friends don’t have to work so hard.

As with anything, it’s harder than it looks, and Brett ended up doing all of the heavy lifting on this.

Here is what (I think) we did:

  1. Wrote a ruby script (a little computer program) that automatically downloads the .pdf from the Secretary of State’s website as often as we like, converts it to text using Xpf, which preserves the spacing, and then uses Regular Expressions to parse the text into fields: District, Office, Party, Name, Address. The program runs remotely, on a server and activates itself. Yeah, it’s a bot.
  2. Use our nicely formated text file to build a Google Fusion table. Again, this is automated, using Google Maps/Fusion API commands. Google Fusion Tables allows us to easily place candidates on a Google Map, though it’s a bit more difficult to actually build the map on a web page, and requires a working knowledge of Javascript, another programming language.
  3. I told Brett I’d take it from there, but again, it was not that simple. First of all, I could not figure out how to embed all the javascript I’d need in a blog post on this blog, so I had to just make a new web page, that looks like it’s on this blog. Also, I really don’t get the details of javascript anyway. So once again, Brett bailed me out.
  4. I found a cool use of fusion tables that I wanted to emulate, allowing the user to select Senate, House A or House B races to display on the map so that they could easily see which districts had contested races. I spent hours trying to customize the Chicago homicide map linked above to my own needs, but gave up in desperation. Brett figured out the right calls we’d need to redraw the map (it’s not really that complicated, but it’s like learning a foreign language).
  5. Finally, after I’d say 25 hours between us, though my hours were much less valuable than his, we had a workable map. I’m still bummed it’s not as pretty and full of functionality as the Propublica projects are, but I think it’s quite useful.

So what can you do with this web app? First of all, I think it’s the first Google map of the newly drawn legislative districts. I converted the .shp file (L93) that the Commission published to a .kml file (which Google Maps reads) using Qgis on my Mac. So now people cal fly around the new districts, find their house, make sure that candidates actually live in their districts, figure out which legislators have the best nearby hunting spots, etc. UPDATE: The locations plotted for candidates are their filing addresses, not necessarily their home addresses, and thus may be located in a different district.

Second of all, you can easily see which races are contested for the May 15 Primary Elections by selecting one of the three Legislative races and looking for red or blue markers on the map. This map is constantly updated with new filing information. Candidate filing closes in a week, on March 9, so we will have to figure out how to make this information useful on an ongoing basis. I’d like to add web links and Twitter feed info for candidates and links to news articles about the races (if anyone wants to help, please speak up)!

Please let us know what you think and feel free to use any of the info you glean from our web app!

Passing the buck on Paul Ezra Rhoades’ execution

Ezra Paul Rhoades
I am opposed to the death penalty.

As a pacifist, I’m opposed to the state taking people’s lives. I’m also opposed because of the well documented inequities in our application of the death penalty. And, yes, I’m opposed to the death penalty in my role as a journalist—I know first hand that law enforcement, judicial and political officials are not infallible and therefore not qualified to make this ultimate decision.

I am not going to rehash the many arguments for and against the death penalty in this post. But I will focus on that last point, about the fallibility of the people responsible for making the capital punishment calls. The case of Ezra Paul Rhoades in Idaho illustrates this point well—the law has enabled us to pass the buck in deciding and executing death penalty cases.

First, Rhoades was sentenced to death in 1988 by two judges, not by a jury of regular folks who would have had to wrestle with questions of conscience, in addition to questions of law. While I would hope that Judge Larry M. Boyle in Bonneville County, who handed down a death sentence for Rhoades’ murder of Susan Michelbacher and Judge J.C. Herndon who sentenced Rhoades in Bingham County for the murder of Stacy Baldwin, wrestled with their consciences, they were able to lean on state and federal law in making their judgements.

Having exhausted his appeals, Rhoades sued the Idaho Department of Correction in September, arguing that the method of execution in Idaho could potentially cause cruel and unusual punishment. What has followed has been a highly clinical discussion of the death penalty—is a three drug cocktail better than a single lethal drug—that has distracted us from the case at hand. Tomorrow, Idaho will execute a man.

The practical effect of this legal wrangling has been a passing of the buck at all levels. U.S. Magistrate Judge Ronald E. Bush considered the issue quite rationally in his Nov. 14 decision not to halt the execution, but concluded that the execution of the three-time murderer was in the best interest of the state, even though society has not resolved the uncertainty, expense and impact of the death penalty.

However, the citizens of the State of Idaho and the families of the individual victims in this case have a compelling interest in seeing that Idaho’s lawful judgments for the kidnappings and murders of Susan Michelbacher and Stacy Baldwin are enforced. Those judgments have been pending now for well over two decades while Rhoades challenged his convictions and sentences in state and federal court. There is much that has been said and written about the uncertainties and expense of death-penalty cases, and the impact that the length of time such cases place upon the families and communities of the victims, as well as the impact of such delay upon the ratio decidendi underpinning the death penalty in our society. Continued delay compounds those uncertainties, expenses, and impacts, and therefore is not in the public interest.

Then the 9th Circuit Court of appeals ruled yesterday, in clinical legalese, that Rhoades can be executed because he can’t prove his point that IDOC is not prepared to carry out the execution in a proper manner:

We conclude that Rhoades has not shown that he is entitled to injunctive relief on the merits of his claims. Because Rhoades has not shown that he is likely to succeed on the merits, which is required by Winter for injunctive relief, we need not and do not consider the district court’s remaining conclusions.

The November 15, 2011 emergency motion for a stay of execution is denied.


But the real passing the buck comes from the politicians—the ultimate conscience in death penalty cases. The Governor, and in this case, since Governor Butch Otter has been at a posh resort in Hawaii all week, the Lieutenant Governor, are not beholden to legalistic or clinical reasons for granting clemency: they can do so because a higher power tells them to, because data on the death penalty demands it, because they feel like it. But they do not feel like it.

From the Spokesman-Review:

“It’s tough, it’s tough,” said Otter, a conservative Republican, when asked about balancing his faith and the death penalty. He’s been reluctant to discuss the matter as Idaho approaches its first execution since 1994, when murderer Keith Eugene Wells dropped his appeals and requested to be put to death…

… Otter told The Spokesman-Review this week, “I support the death penalty,” adding that it’s an issue he’s given a lot of thought to “all my life.”

“I think that as our criminal justice system … suggests, people have to be held responsible, and sometimes it’s to the max, and this is one of those cases,” Otter said. “They have to be held accountable for their actions.”

And Lt. Gov. Brad Little is not engaged, despite his deputization to become engaged:

Little said he hasn’t even read the letters and emails that continued to come in to the Capitol regarding the execution this week, leaving them instead for Otter on his return. “I guess I could go ask for ‘em if I wanted to, but I have chosen not to do that,” Little said.

The lieutenant governor cited two reasons for not wading into the issue: His role as lieutenant governor, and the circumstances of the Rhoades case.

“I mean, the Constitution says you have all the rights and powers of the governor when the governor’s out of state, but you know what? The governor comes back,” Little said.

But the worst part is that now the state is enabling us, the Idaho public and indeed American public to pass the buck, by banning witnesses at part of the execution:

Prison officials say to maintain Rhoades’ dignity, they won’t allow witnesses to view him being restrained or having the IVs inserted. They also said changing the procedure now could be disruptive.
But a group of Idaho news organizations say that policy conflicts with a 2002 federal court ruling that found the public, through the media, must be allowed to view executions in their entirety. The news organizations have asked the state to reconsider.

In the end, we all empowered the police, the judges, the governor and the lieutenant governor to make the decisions they made and we must take responsiblity tomorrow when Rhoades is executed. The only way most of us will do that is through a public witness like a brave reporter who is willing to document the event for us. I plan to be present at the execution as well, standing outside the prison gates while a man is put to death inside. I’m not reporting on it; I just feel a need to be there. I suggest that everyone—whether you support of oppose the death penalty, whether you feel it is justified in this case or not—be present tomorrow morning in some way. The bucks stops with each of us tomorrow morning.

Local labor law facing repeal for Capitol project

For 75 years state building projects have favored “bona fide” Idaho workers. A law from the 1933 session requires that 95 percent of the labor on large government building projects be Idaho workers.

This “Idaho First” law has not been enforced in recent memory, and a bill now before the Legislature aims to exempt the largest building project in the state – the restoration and expansion of the Capitol – from the requirement.

capitolfence.jpgThe major contractor on the job is basing his final price on passage of the bill, but some Idaho labor unions are asking lawmakers why they would want to outsource the work.
“When you have the highest profile project in the state and you can’t maintain a commitment to hire local people to work on it something is very wrong,” said John Littel, political director for the Pacific Northwest Regional Council of Carpenters.

In addition, the Depression-era law is included in state contracts, but not enforced and the Department of Public Works has no way of accounting for who is working on the job site.
“Nobody’s trying to suggest in any way that we ought not to be using Idaho workers, but we need to open the field up so we get some workers… or more competitive bids,” said Tim Mason, administrator of Public Works.

Work on two new underground wings and an $80 million restoration of the old Capitol began as last year’s Legislature left town. So far, foundations have been poured on the wings and the restoration of the historic Statehouse has mainly involved a careful demolition.
But contractors say they are having a tough time finding the right workers in Idaho to get the job done.

“Idaho does not have some of the trades required to do the work,” said John Emery, senior project manager for Jacobsen Hunt, the joint venture that is managing the Capitol renovation.
There are some technical jobs required by the restoration project. Chief among them is the scagliola, a faux marbling on the columns in the old building, with a $2 million price tag.
Jacobsen Hunt would also like to be able to use out-of-state contractors for some metal and finish work, Emery said, though there may be local companies capable of doing the work.

“In some cases the Idaho contractors are just taking advantage of the law,” he said.
An Idaho marble contractor bid $750,000 higher for marble work on the project, he said.
Idaho firms are doing the mechanical and electrical work already, Emery said.

The bill would exempt the Capitol construction project from the Idaho First law until 2010 and would be retroactive to last year. It passed the House with six Democrats objecting and is now awaiting a continued hearing in the Senate State Affairs Committee.

Boise Rep. Les Bock opposed the bill, arguing that law makers would have to go home and explain, “why we passed a bill that permitted the construction of the People’s house with workers from other states.”

Title 44 of Idaho code deals with labor laws. In the 1890s it was enacted to keep foreign workers off of state projects. Then after the Depression the Idaho First law and a provision to require that state building projects pay prevailing county wages were added. In 1985 the Legislature revisited the law, striking the prevailing wage part.

The Senate State Affairs Committee questioned whether or not the bill, by repealing the entire chapter would allow undocumented workers on the project.

Last year the same committee allowed Public Works to hire a Construction Manager at Risk, another exemption of Idaho code carved out specifically for the project. That means that Jacobsen Hunt, a partnership of two large out-of-state construction companies, is subbing out all of the work, rather than the state. And short of “job sheets” which indicate how many workers are on the job each day, the state is not monitoring the detailed subcontracting enough to even know where the workers are from.

Jacobsen Construction is a Salt Lake City-based company that worked on the Utah Legislature and has built many Mormon temples in the U.S. and Mexico. Hunt Construction Group is based in Scottsdale, AZ and has offices across the U.S.

So far, Emery said he is in compliance with the law, though it is impossible to know for sure. Some workers are hired through a local temp agency office, Labor Ready, and Emery said that even some of those workers are coming in from other states for the work.

Public Works chief Mason said it up to local police to enforce the Idaho First law, a violation of which is a misdemeanor. A Boise police spokeswoman said there was no record of any prosecutions in the city and that a code for the violation does not even exist in their computers.

It is also unclear whether the 95 percent Idaho worker provision applies on a daily basis or over the length of the entire project.

Mason told the Senate committee Wednesday that passage of the exemption is needed as soon as possible. Some of the bids have been delayed and Jacobsen Hunt is withholding a final maximum price for the project until passage of the bill.

Still, Senators asked that the debate continue Friday to get more answers on the application of the bill and particularly on the use of undocumented labor. Sen. Bart Davis, R-Idaho Falls asked why the Idaho First law couldn’t be repealed permanently for all state projects.

In North Idaho contractors regularly make use of crews from Spokane.

No one has testified against the bill, including the unions. A representative of the carpenters union showed up late Wednesday and Dave Whaley, head of the state AFL-CIO said by phone that the Idaho First law is fair and is a law that should be enforced.

“I’d like to see them try and keep the work here,” Whaley said, though he voiced no opposition in the House committee hearing.

holes.jpgMason and others pushing for passage of the repeal have repeatedly called the Idaho First law outdated. There are many old or un-enforced laws on the books, including laws against fornication. The repeal of an old law barring sales of liquor on Election Days is currently making its way through the Legislature.

“We probably have too many laws on the books that aren’t being enforced,” said Nampa Rep. Steven Kren, who was asked to carry the bill through the House.

Kren, an electrical contractor who voted against funding the Capitol renovation last year, agreed that state jobs should hire Idaho workers. But he said if the bill does one thing it’s this: “I’m satisfied that they’re trying to accomplish one thing that that’s to keep the Capitol on schedule.”

Cops, Craig, Smoking

Thursday’s Newsrack includes a story that raises plenty of questions about who is policing us now. Do ex-military guys training to be civilian police need extra training or treatment? Are academies training cops to inflict PTSD on us? And has anyone spoken to the young officers that came up with the slogan? Also, the race for Craig’s seat grows, pot on hold in Hailey and how do we get to Canada…
Continue reading Cops, Craig, Smoking

School Suit Suit, BSU Prof in Bosnia…

The Idaho Statesman’s Dan Popkey had a juicy Sunday story naming four men who claim to have had sex with Sen. Larry Craig. Craig has denied the allegations, calling it tabloid journalism and refusing to speak to the paper. AP in the Press-Tribune.

State lawmakers to look at siting of transitional homes. “It’s difficult to get a straight answer on how people interpret the Fair Housing Act,” Idaho Department of Correction Director Brent Reinke said. Kristin Rodine. Idaho Statesman.

State lawmakers to look at urban renewal. Kathleen Sims: “There’s no blight in Coeur d’Alene and I would welcome anyone to come and try to find some.” Lora Volkert. Idaho Business Review.

Rep. Bill Sali proposed 16 amendment to mining reform bill. None stick. Betsy Z. Russell. Spokesman-Review.

High court sued on schools suit decision. Stan Kress: “We’ve got some malpractice going on in the Legislature.” Betsy Z. Russell. Spokesman Review.

Crapo supporting health care reform bill that requires Americans to get insurance. Nate Poppino. Times-News.

Ag department teaches new way to count cows in CAFOs. Sven Berg. South Idaho Press.

Ed Bangs: Idaho wolf management plan will end up in court. Matt Christensen. Times-News.

Boise State history prof Nicholas Miller testified in Bosnia war crimes tribunal. Tabitha Keily says he’s “fair and balanced” in the Boise State Arbiter.

Boise mobile home parks being sold for development, Boise State report shows. Tabitha Kiely. Arbiter.

State Journal reporter Dan Boyd wins national award for his series on Peruvian sheep herders. No link to series.

Idaho has a Poet of the Year in Kathryn Hamshar. Terri Ivie. Priest River Times.

Mt. Baldy skiing opened this weekend. Greg Moore. Mtn. Express.