Minnesota bill would keep secret future searches for university presidents

MINNESOTA –The selection process for the presidency of the University of Minnesota would beclosed to the public if a new bill pending in the state Legislature passes.

But one staffer for a state representative said the bill will probably not pass in the state Senate, and that open records advocates ”don’t need to worry.”

Dennis Virden is an aide for Rep. Jeff Johnson, R-Plymouth, and an administrator for the House Civil Law Committee, which approved the bill Monday night.

”I don’t believe there’s a sentiment [of support for the bill] in the Senate,” Virden said. ”It has a ‘sick’ status. If it’s not passed in the Senate, the bill is dead.”

As for the journalists and open records advocates bracing for restricted access to the selection process, ”I don’t think they need to worry,” he said.

If the bill does pass, it would make moot a 2002 Minnesota Supreme Court decision that ruled the university system’s Board of Regents violated the state’s open records laws when it did not release the names of presidency candidates.

The Minnesota Daily, the student newspaper at the University of Minnesota, was one of the media organizations that sued the Board of Regents in the 2002 case for access to records on the selection process.

On Monday night, the House Civil Law Committee approved HF3136, which would provide for further exemptions to the Minnesota Data Practices Act and the Open Meetings Law.

The bill calls for ”all personnel data containing the identity of or identifying information relating to an application or nominee for the position of president of the University of Minnesota” to be kept private.

According to Dan Wolter, a university spokesman, neither the University of Minnesota nor the Board of Regents directly lobbied for the legislation or took a position on the proposed bill.

But Wolter confirmed that Frank Berman, a member of the university’s Board ofRegents, has spearheaded the effort for greater secrecy in the selection process.

In a statement released March 16, Board of Regents Chairman Anthony Baraga said, ”Individual regents may choose to engage in the legislative process on issues of individual importance, but they do not represent, or speak for, the board in such cases.”

In an article published today in The Minnesota Daily, Berman said he was concerned the university could not attract qualified candidates for the presidency if the process was open to the public.

”I respect the issue, and I respect the concern,” said Mark Anfinson, staff attorney for the Minnesota Newspaper Association, of Berman’s concerns. ”My view is that in Minnesota, the presumption is that government records are public. There are good reasons for that. You don’t override it unless you’ve got clear and compelling grounds to do so.”

The legislative measure is ”nonsense,” Anfinson said, and could open the door to greater secrecy for other public agencies.

Anfinson testified late Monday night before the House Civil Law Committee. In his testimony, he said he disputed Berman’s claims that the University of Minnesota would be unable to attract desirable candidates with its current selection process.

”If the problems were so clear and the deterrent effect of public access so evident, you wouldn’t have a majority of states in this country requiring public access in this context,” Anfinson said.

The sponsor of the bill, Rep. Ron Abrams, R-Minnetonka, did not return a call for comment.

But in an article in the Star Tribune, he said he did not want to be viewed as ”anti-press.”

”It’s a tough issue,” Abrams said in the article. ”[But] I felt it was an issue deserving of being raised and considered.”