Bill would veil U leader search

Nina Petersen-Perlman

The House Civil Law Committee on Monday approved a bill exempting the University’s Board of Regents from the Data Practices Act and the Open Meeting Law when it selects a new University president.

If the bill passes through the Legislature and is signed by the governor, presidential finalists’ names and other information about them would no longer be considered public information. It also would defy a July 2004 Minnesota Supreme Court ruling.

In November 2002 several state media organizations, including The Minnesota Daily, sued the board for not releasing the names of candidates and holding closed meetings during the search to replace former University President Mark Yudof.

The Minnesota Supreme Court ruled that the board, in disobeying the Minnesota Data Practices Act and Open Meeting Law, broke state public information laws and had to release the names of the candidates.

Vice President of University Relations Dan Wolter wrote in an e-mail that although the board agreed that this is an important issue, it does not have an official position on the legislation. He said the bill is not part of the board’s or the University’s 2006 legislative agenda.

Instead, University Regent Frank Berman, who instead of the full board has spearheaded the initiative, testified before the committee Monday night in support of the bill.

Berman said attracting the most qualified candidates to apply for the University’s top spot with the current open-meeting law is difficult because they don’t want to jeopardize their current positions.

“No sitting president would apply for the position with the open process we’ve got now,” Berman said. “It’s not a convenience issue, it’s a necessity.”

First Amendment advocates said they are disappointed by the legislation.

Gary Hill, co-chairman of Freedom of Information Committee for the Minnesota Chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists, said there is “no conceivable excuse” for the bill.

“It’s really bad public policy that they’re trying to establish here,” Hill said. “I’m appalled the University of Minnesota is going to such lengths to operate in secrecy.”

Jane Kirtley, director of the University’s Silha Center for the Study of Media Ethics and Law, said she doesn’t find arguments like Berman’s on having closed meetings to be persuasive in this case.

“You know you’re seeking a job with a public university and should expect it would be subject to public oversight,” Kirtley said. “It’s possible a closed search can lead to discrimination, favoritism – all kinds of problems.”

Berman said in the five years he’s been on the board, he’s never encountered a more thoroughly honest group and process.

“People can have thorough confidence in the Board of Regents,” Berman said. “They have to have faith in their appointed representatives.”

Mark Goodman, executive director of the Virginia-based Student Press Law Center, said many cases like this require the public to rely on their assertions to do right on blind trust.

“As a philosophical matter, there are thousands of contexts where one could argue it would be more efficient for the government to conduct its business in secret,” Goodman said. “We as a society have said that’s not the way we want our government to run.”

Berman said that if the bill does pass, when it makes its way through the Legislature the board would not take it as a precedent and push to reverse open-meeting law statutes in other instances.

“This is the one single, narrow issue where I believe we need to depart from that law,” Berman said.

Attorney for the Minnesota Newspaper Association Mark Anfinson, who also represents the Daily, said it is likely other government entities would want to jump on the bandwagon and get their meetings closed, too.

“As I testified Monday night, if this is approved by full Legislature, why wouldn’t all public bodies in state ask for the same secrecy?” Anfinson said.

Berman said that if the Daily wants to “seriously consider what is best for the University of Minnesota, they would support this bill,” Berman said.

But Kirtley’s opinion differed somewhat from Berman’s.

“Open government is in the public interest, not secrecy,” she said.

Rep. Jeff Johnson, R-Plymouth, chairman of the Civil Law Committee and author of the bill, could not be reached for comment.