The public’s right to know

Two state bills could erroneously privatize public data.

The presumption of MinnesotaâÄôs Data Practices Act, the stateâÄôs open records law, that all government data should be public, unless state or federal statute holds otherwise, is a sound and important one. But privacy advocates are incorrectly eroding the spirit of that presumption with two bills in the stateâÄôs Capitol protecting what they call the privacy of state employees and private companies over the publicâÄôs right to know whether those employees and companies are benefiting from their ties with the state or misusing state money respectively. The benefits of landing on the side of transparency far outweigh that of landing on the side of privacy. One of those bills, the Tubby Smith Act , is a result of this newspaperâÄôs efforts to obtain the annual athletically related income from head coaches Tubby Smith, Tim Brewster, J. Robinson and Don Lucia for the past 10 years. In an advisory opinion, the Minnesota Department of Administration held that the University of Minnesota complied with the stateâÄôs Data Practices Act in denying the request. And now, state senators are seeking to codify that advisory opinion, while their counterparts in the state House are correctly pushing opposing legislation that would make that data public. Privacy advocates posit that an athletics coach should not have to report income made by, for example, mowing a neighborâÄôs lawn. Without going into too much detail about the legitimacy of that counterfactual, it ignores the primary purpose of making âÄúathletically-related incomeâÄù public data: highlighting conflicts of interest or scandal. Just as University physicians should report outside income, so too should University coaches. Indeed, University physicians and coaches alike obtain much of their outside income primarily because of their position at the University. The dangers of privatizing that outside income âÄî creating a system that would make kickbacks or conflicts of interest harder to catch âÄî far outweigh a public employeeâÄôs right to privacy. Other legislation in the Minnesota Legislature would make âÄúAll financial, business or proprietary data collected, created, received or maintained by the University of Minnesota in connection with investments âĦ [become] nonpublic data.âÄù The legislation overrides current state Data Practices Act provisions which, according to House co-author Rep. Steve Simon , make âÄúbusiness models, trade secret information and litigation involvementâÄù of venture capital funds and investment firms âÄî otherwise private information âÄî public upon request. University of Minnesota Chief Investment Officer Stuart Mason said in an interview âÄú[The University] commit[s] a certain amount of money to a venture capital fund. As part of our due diligence and monitoring of the venture capital fund, we get the business plans, interview CEOs, obtain financial models, etc. We get lots of sensitive data.âÄù Currently, because the University is a public institution, beholden to public data practice law, that sensitive data can be obtained by the venture capital fundsâÄô competitors. As a result, Mason says the University âÄúhas been systematically disincluded from the best venture capitalists,âÄù amounting to potentially $30 or $40 million per year. With higher education institutions hungry for cash, venture capital funds are holding a club to public data practice laws across the nation, withdrawing partnerships where public money ensures transparency. But if these companies are unwilling to allow public knowledge of their mode of operation, the public has a right to say, âÄúTake a hike.âÄù Under current law, the public can uniquely peer into these funds to ascertain the ethicality of their practices, a paramount concern for taxpayer investment. Yet language in the bills appears to make individual investments untraceable after âÄúinitial commitment,âÄù except for myriad meaningless portfolio totals. At a public university, the thirst for knowledge and information ought not to be squelched for lust of money. It is imperative that Minnesota lawmakers land on the side of transparency on both bills, which would dangerously close the channels of public information if passed.