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Ian Lind • Online daily from Kaaawa, Hawaii

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Are those DNA testing services worth the price?

June 28th, 2015 · 3 Comments

Several weeks ago, I said I would return to the issue of DNA testing for the purpose of tracing family relationships (“On the limits of family“).

Back in 2012, my sister got me to sign up with Family Tree DNA, a testing company associated with Ancestry.com.

She was anxious to test her theories, based on her traditional genealogical research, of the origins of our Lind family. The main method of DNA tracking apparently traces males back through their fathers’ lineage, from what I can gather. It’s the Y-DNA test.

Family Tree DNA offers different levels of testing, with the higher levels testing a greater number of DNA strands or “markers.”

At first, I signed up for a mid-level test which checks 37 DNA “markers,” and later upgraded to the 111 marker test.

And at each level of tests, there’s also a measure of “genetic distance,” which they describe as “the total number of differences, or mutations, between two sets of results. In general, it is found by summing the differences between each STR marker.”

The results, in my view, have not been very useful. However, they had a major impact on my sister’s theories of our family history.

I’ll explain.

We have one relative as a baseline to compare.

John Lind in Hana is a cousin several times removed. As I understand, our grandfathers were first cousins who grew up in Scotland and emigrated as adults to the U.S. (I’m sure my sister, Bonnie, will correct me if I’m a generation off).

He’s one of three people who turn up as matches to my DNA at the 111 level marker level. John is the closest match at a genetic distance of just 3. The other two people are at a genetic distance of 10.

But based on that pretty close match, the DNA data only give a 50% chance that John and I share a common ancestor with six generations.

In comparing Y-DNA 111 marker results, the probability that Mr. JOHN CRICHTON LIND and Mr. Ian Yonge Lind shared a common ancestor within the last…

COMPARISON CHART
Generations Percentage

4    41.64%
8    86.64%
12    98.05%
16    99.78%
20    99.98%
24    100.00%

As the testing level drops and the genetic distances increase, these results quickly become meaningless. As far as I’m concerned, predicting that I share an ancestor somewhere in the past 24 generations is pretty much worthless information. Even the relative certainty of a link somewhere in the past 12 generations is, in real terms, insignificant.

There are very broad conclusions. My DNA type is most common in that area of Scotland, Ireland, and Northern England, and that’s where my ancestors are from. But I didn’t need DNA tests to reach that conclusion.

The second problem is that not everyone who signs up for DNA testing provides an email address or contact information. In several cases, I haven’t found a way to contact my closest matches.

And then there are the unexpected complications.

For example, there’s a group of families in and around Scotland that share variations of the surname Lind, including Linn, Lin, Lynn, and so on. We expected that I would turn up lots of DNA matches and locate family connections in this group. But that didn’t happen.

Very early on, it because clear that although my sister has traced our Lind ancestors through birth & death records, along with other documents, back a long way, my paternal DNA just didn’t find lots of matches among the Linn-Lind-Lynn group.

Why not? That’s the big question.

My assumption: At some point several generations back, one of my great-great-great-whatever grandfathers wasn’t who he was supposed to be. An extramarital affair? An adoption? Perhaps parents just folding in the child of one of their young daughters? There are lots of possibilities, it seems to me. And I’m not sure how the genealogical researcher overcomes such barriers when they show up via genetic testing.

It has certainly challenged the family narrative that Bonnie has developed.

On the other hand, at least one person I’ve heard from (in an unrelated family) found a half-brother who was turned up in one of these DNA tests. So the occasional Bingo! can happen.

I’ll be interested to hear sister Bonnie’s reaction when she reads this.

→ 3 CommentsTags: General · History

Major ethics investigations underway at the city

June 27th, 2015 · 5 Comments

Here’s a tasty little morsel buried in the background paperwork prepared for the Honolulu Ethics Commission’s meeting this past week.

…the Commission has 17 open and interrelated investigations involving 2 departments, 7 subjects and 45 – 50 witnesses. The investigations have absorbed hundreds of hours of investigative work over the last 10 months. However, it will likely take six months to conclude the investigations.

That’s huge. Seventeen interrelated investigations involving seven employees or officials and two different city departments.

I would guess that it’s hard to keep something like that secret. With so many people involved along the way, there have to be tales making the rounds in the city.

Sounds like a scandal ready to go public, doesn’t it?

Could the city administration’s foot dragging on ethics have something to do with these investigations?

→ 5 CommentsTags: Ethics · Politics

City Ethics Commission rejected staff concerns about restrictive media policy

June 26th, 2015 · 1 Comment

The Honolulu Ethics Commission this week adopted a new policy for responding to the news media despite staff concerns that it is turns away from transparency, and will restrict their ability “to efficiently, promptly and accurately respond to media inquiries.”

The staff concerns were spelled out in a supporting memo accompanying an amended draft policy prepared by the commission staff based on past practice.

The staff memo begins by identifying certain assumptions they made.

Staff assumes that a goal of the EC is to continue educating and responding to media inquiries to inform the public about what the Commission does and the conduct of city officials. Staff also assumes that the Commission believes that it should be as transparent in carrying out its work, except where due process rights or confidentiality would be infringed.

Accordingly, the media policy proposed by the commission staff began with this framing statement.

Media interaction will aim to educate and inform the public and city workforce about the City ethics program, including the standards of conduct governing the work of City officers and employees, ethics training, legislation, statistics and Commission priorities.

However, the commission rejected that approach and instead insisted on a much narrower one. Here’s the same paragraph as it was approved by the commission.

All media releases will aim to educate and inform the public about the standards of conduct governing the work of City officers and employees for the public.

Perhaps the commission believed that this statement is vague enough to allow almost anything to be included under it, but reports about the meeting, and the staff’s own concerns, seem to signal that was not the case.

The staff memo also complained that any problems the new policy is intended to address have remained unstated.

What are the current problems that the policy will resolve or avoid? It is not clear how the Commission’s past practice as reflected in staff’s draft has resulted in miscommunication to the media or public or misstatements of the Commission’s positions. Without knowing what the concerns are, it is not possible to craft a policy that corrects the problems. Given the other pressing Commission priorities, the EC should adopt the approach that “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.”

For at least the last 30 years, best government agency practice has been for agencies to disseminate what they do for the public and how their actions’ impact the public. The only practical means of doing so is through media coverage. The Commission’s practice for 15 years has been to accurately inform and respond to media inquiries because the media is the most effective and ubiquitous link to public. Of course, certain topics are not open to the media, such as pending complaint cases, EC deliberations or confidential information.

The commission, in its wisdom, apparently did not agree. The commission’s draft media policy, rather than the one put forward by staff, was adopted with only a single “no” vote, and with one member absent.

For the record, here’s the staff memo that accompanied their proposed policy.

If you’re at all concerned about ethics, it is definitely worth spending the time to read in order to understand the concerns that the commission apparently chose to ignore.

For Action: Setting a Media Policy.

At the last meeting, the EC asked staff to draft another proposal based on the media policy offered by Commissioner Amano, OPEN – 6, and staff’s draft news release, OPEN – 7. Staff assumes that a goal of the EC is to continue educating and responding to media inquiries to inform the public about what the Commission does and the conduct of city officials. Staff also assumes that the Commission believes that it should be as transparent in carrying out its work, except where due process rights or confidentiality would be infringed. If staff has misinterpreted the Commission philosophy, that should be discussed.

Staff believes that any media policy, as well as any other policy or procedure adopted by the Commission, should be based on the following basic principles:

1. There should be clear reasons to set the policy.

What are the current problems that the policy will resolve or avoid? It is not clear how the Commission’s past practice as reflected in staff’s draft has resulted in miscommunication to the media or public or misstatements of the Commission’s positions. Without knowing what the concerns are, it is not possible to craft a policy that corrects the problems. Given the other pressing Commission priorities, the EC should adopt the approach that “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.”

For at least the last 30 years, best government agency practice has been for agencies to disseminate what they do for the public and how their actions’ impact the public. The only practical means of doing so is through media coverage. The Commission’s practice for 15 years has been to accurately inform and respond to media inquiries because the media is the most effective and ubiquitous link to public. Of course, certain topics are not open to the media, such as pending complaint cases, EC deliberations or confidential information.

The media report on EC matters of public interest that are discussed in open session or in formal advisory opinions. For example, in fall of 2013, the Commission debated the role of COR in setting the EC’s budget because of the impact of budget and personnel control on the ability of the EC to independently and effectively manage its workload. Reporters attended the open session of a number of meetings and composed news articles based on the topics discussed. The media and members of the public believed that this was an important issue for public review.

2. The policy should not restrict staff’s ability to efficiently, promptly and accurately respond to media inquiries.

Having the EDLC contact the EC members to get approval on responses to the media will be counterproductive to the goals of ethics education and transparency. The suggestion that there be some type of approval by the Commission before responding to a media inquiry raises complications:

• Having proposed responses approved by the EC as a whole or by a member is too cumbersome to ensure prompt, accurate responses. The answer to one question will create follow-up questions. It would be unwieldy to have to ask for EC or commissioner permission for each conversation or follow-up question. Also, what happens if the responsible Commission member does not agree with staff’s proposed response?

• Using a non-specific triggering event such as “if time permits” makes it difficult to decide whether a response waits until the next Commission meeting or is approved by the responsible EC member. Also, who is to determine “if time permits”?

• If the EC is unable to promptly and professionally respond to media inquiries, the media will get its information from other sources and the EC will lose the opportunity for timely input into the discussion.

A simpler approach can be adopted to ensure that members know what staff discussed with reporters before it is reported in the media. The Media Policy below requires the EDLC to respond to the media inquiry and then copy the members with an email so that they are informed of the advice given or conversation.

3. The consequences of the policy should be vetted before adoption.

Staff is concerned that the current wording of para. 2 in OPEN- 6 would result in unintended, but serious, consequences. The paragraph reads: “Under no circumstances shall any media communication engage in media activities to air concerns/grievances regarding the operations of the Ethics Commission, or interpret or comment on any decisions or advisory opinions.”

This paragraph has two parts. First it prohibits staff and or EC members from raising “concerns” or “grievances” about EC operations through the media. No explanation of the need for this restriction has been offered yet. Even if the prohibition is justified, it is impractical to implement and follow. There is no definition of “concerns” or “grievances.” Something as ordinary as the workload statistical chart staff handed out at the last meeting might reasonably be interpreted as a concern or grievance about not having enough resources to do our job. Would the Commission want to hamstring itself by prohibiting any response to a reporter asking whether the chart shows we need more resources? What about a Charter amendment to change how EC lawyers’ salaries are set — does that imply a concern or grievance about the manner in which salaries have been determined in the past?

Take a more serious example. What if the Council or Administration cuts the Commission’s budget by 25% (a scenario that has happened in other jurisdictions)? No comment could be made by the Commission. The result of a “no comment” policy on EC operations is that anyone, except the EC, may discuss operational issues in the media.

The second part of the prohibition is that no comment may be made to “interpret or comment on any advisory opinions.” Staff assumes that this prohibition does not restrict the staff’s duty to interpret the EC’s formal advisory opinions when rendering informal advice or examining complaints under Rule 1.10(a), Ethics Commission Rules of Procedure.2 If staff’s assumption is incorrect, the issue should be discussed.

A typical media request to staff is: “How will the Garcia opinion affect other city personnel in the future?” The typical staff response is: “Each case presents different facts, but generally this case shows that city officials may not accept gifts over $200 in value from one source in one year where that source has an interest that the official could affect.” To effectively communicate to the public, city work force and the media, staff needs to be able to interpret the practical effect that a formal advisory opinion will likely have on similar ethics issues in the future. Staff does so hundreds of times a year when it responds to requests for advice. What staff should not and does not comment on is the EC’s deliberations in reaching an opinion.

→ 1 CommentTags: Ethics · Media · Politics · Sunshine

Feline Friday: Duke leads the way

June 26th, 2015 · 2 Comments

Duke, Romeo, and KiliThis morning we let the cats out after we got back from our early walk down to the beach.

Duke was the first out and down the stairs, with Romeo, Kili, and Ms. Annie close behind. Wally wandered out at her own pace. And Toby stayed in to wait for his spoonful of cottage cheese.

And Romeo seems to have learned a thing or two. He makes his rounds and comes back before too much time passes. I reward him with a dish of canned food. It seems to have made a difference.

One huge factor is that Lumber hasn’t been around. That’s good in terms of Romeo’s ability to get a little time in the yard without getting into a fight. But now I’m worried about that absence. I hope Lumber is okay, but I’m worried about contacting his people…what if it’s bad news?

–> See all of today’s Feline Friday photos!

→ 2 CommentsTags: Cats · Photographs

A two-prong attack on ethics

June 25th, 2015 · 6 Comments

What’s going on? Yesterday the Honolulu Ethics Commission adopted new guidelines that effectively shut down open communications with the news media and the public.

I don’t understand the political dynamics at work, but the policy will have the effect of isolating the ethics commission and undermining its overall purpose of ensuring high ethical standards among city officers and employees.

The Honolulu Star-Advertiser reported today:

The new policy, drafted by commission member Riki May Amano, a former Circuit Court judge on Hawaii island, in effect, prevents any commission member, Totto or his staff from attempting to explain, elaborate on or clarify any positions taken by the commission without first discussing the matter with at least the commission chairman.

Queries by the media are to be directed to the executive director, who is to work with staff on a response “and consult with the Ethics Commission, if time permits.”

In circumstances where a response to media is needed immediately, the executive director is to respond after consulting with the commission’s chairman, vice chairman or a designee.

“To avoid confusion and potentially contradictory information, Ethics Commissioners and/or staff shall not communicate with media on behalf of the Ethics Commission without prior written authorization from the executive director,” the policy states.

Additionally, any written media communications put out by the commission now needs to be sent to, in order, commission members, complainants and respondents (when applicable), the mayor and his Cabinet, City Council members, and then media and members of the general public who have asked to see commission news releases.

Civil Beat noted the political conflict between the commission and the administration of Mayor Kurt Caldwell, which has restricted the budget, blocked commission from accessing city data while investigating possible ethics violations, and denied funding for a seasoned staff investigator.

The extent to which politics is behind the new media restrictions isn’t clear. The triggering issue, however, does seem to be comments by commission director Chuck Totto on the possibility that key votes in favor of the city’s rail project could be invalidated after findings that council members favoring rail had violated the ethics law by failing to disclose key conflicts.

Last month, the Star-Advertiser reported:

The city’s top civil attorney said it’s not up to the Honolulu Ethics Commission staff to determine the potential ramifications of a settlement agreement reached by the commission and former City Councilman Nestor Garcia.

Chuck Totto, the executive director of the Ethics Commission, said Wednesday that his staff believes Garcia’s votes on rail and Kapolei development projects should be invalidated because he had failed to disclose a potential conflict of interest related to those projects.

But Corporation Counsel Donna Leong, in an emailed response Thursday to a query by the Honolulu Star-Advertiser, said: “There has been no decision by anyone, including anyone in the city, as to whether former Councilmember Nestor Garcia’s votes (referred to in an Ethics Commission advisory opinion released Wednesday) are invalid.”

Meanwhile, the State Ethics Commission has also restricted the ability of its executive director, Les Kondo, to communicate with the news media.

Kondo narrowly survived an attempt by some commission members to oust him after a contentious personnel evaluation, but in the process made clear that his is not free to answer questions or discuss issues with reporters.

It seems to me that the two-front attack aimed at cutting off the ethics staff from the news media and the public at both the city and state levels is a dangerous move that is clearly counter to the public interest.

There’s plenty of room for arguments over specific legal interpretations without cutting off the public from the ethics discussions, and slamming the door on inquiring reporters whose job it is to dig beyond commission press releases.

Both state and county ethics commissions need to get the feedback–these restrictions are bad policy, bad for ethics, bad for the public.

→ 6 CommentsTags: Ethics · Politics