Search for regent draws on past errors

A conflict of interest caused the last appointee to the empty seat to resign.

Nina Petersen-Perlman

Less than three weeks before the February regents meeting, the board is still one short.

But in the search for a new regent, the governor’s office is taking its time, hoping not to repeat its mistakes.

When at-large board member Richard “Pinky” McNamara resigned in December, Gov. Tim Pawlenty chose Michael Vekich to replace him a week later.

Vekich’s first and only official act as regent was to resign because of a conflict of interest.

Because Vekich serves on the board of the Minnesota Partnership for Action Against Tobacco, his appointment was perceived to create a conflict of interest that could cost the University grants resulting from the state’s 1998 $6.1 billion settlement against tobacco companies, even if he resigned from the partnership.

That was a mistake the governor’s office does not wish to make again, said John Berns, director of board and commission appointments for the governor’s office.

“The fact is we didn’t know about it,” he said. “Every person we talk to, we talk about conflicts of interest.”

But because of the nature of the position, which Berns called the “ultimate public service opportunity,” appointees’ potential conflicts can be numerous and not always obvious.

“One of the realities is that if you want to appoint someone to a high-level board, you’ll get someone very active, very involved,” he said. “Some conflicts are clear, some are not. We have to look at the facts of each situation.”

Although Berns said it is the state’s goal to have someone in place by the February meeting, the seat doesn’t need to be filled for the meeting to take place.

“It might be the day before or five days before or 10 days before,” he said. “Ideally, we would like to get it done as soon as possible.”

Regent Dallas Bohnsack said the new regent should be given at least a month to review all the necessary materials before participating in a meeting. He said that when he was elected he received several notebooks full of background information.

“They gave ample time to us new regents so we could ask questions and get an understanding of the depth of the departments,” he said. “You have to have a clear picture of what everyone’s accomplishing.”

Tom Sullivan, University executive vice president and provost, said he was confident the governor would find someone.

“We expect a new member to join relatively soon,” he said. “I know the governor and staff are working on this.”

The new regent will finish McNamara’s term, which lasts through February 2007.

Berns said the governor takes the appointment seriously.

“Our philosophy is that the governor is focused on getting a good person on the board because it’s a very important appointment,” he said. “We’ll take as much time as necessary with getting the very best.”

Berns said that when McNamara resigned, the governor’s office invited people to apply for the vacant seat, and that’s the pool they’re choosing from now.

“We have some outstanding people, and the governor will pick the best of those,” he said. “It will be someone who has a special mix of experience and skills, someone who really cares about the University.”