Sunday, March 14, 2010

Surprise, surprise...

The University of Minnesota

Is Skirting the Open Meeting Law

During Central Corridor Negotiations

To those of us who've been around the U for some time, the actions of the Morrill Hall Gang are not at all unexpected. See for example:

Openness and Transparency at the University of Minnesota

[Added later: a friend has also reminded me of the attempt by the University to conduct the last presidential search under conditions of secrecy. That attempt was foiled by freedom of information laws and was embarrassing in its revelation of the qualifications of the applicants for the position. See Statement of Interest of Amici Curiae for details.]

From Finance and Commerce:

Over the last few days, I’ve been busy nurturing some righteous anger at the University of Minnesota, on behalf of journalists and the public we serve.

The U of M is not allowing me to cover vital negotiation meetings regarding the Central Corridor light rail project that I — and my newspaper — believe are important for the public and should be open.

The meetings are particularly vital right now because the fate of the biggest public works project in Minnesota history hangs in the balance.

The U of M (and others) can get around the law by making sure those doing the negotiating either aren’t a part of or don’t add up to a quorum of their governing body (in this case, the U of M’s Board of Regents).

I’ve tried to appeal to the U of M on the moral basis of the public’s right to know what’s going on.

That hasn’t worked out.

If these negotiations fail, the 11-mile, $957 million line designed to connect the two downtowns will be in big trouble—and could well fall to pieces.

The primary “shuttle diplomats” are Jim McDonough, commissioner for Ramsey County, and Peter McLaughlin, Hennepin County commissioner; both head their respective regional rail authorities.

And both are big fans of the Central Corridor.

For the last month, they’ve been trying to bridge the major differences between the two sides, which are stymied on safeguards against vibrations and electromagnetic interference that could harm sensitive and expensive equipment and research conducted in U of M labs along the Washington Avenue portion of the line.

But that’s not the worst of it: McDonough and McLaughlin have been part of much larger joint negotiation sessions over these issues that have been going on — out of public view — for eight months.

(These joint negotiating meetings have at times also included St. Paul Mayor Chris Coleman, a top representative for Minneapolis Mayor R.T. Rybak, Met Council Chair Peter Bell and U of M Vice President of University Services Kathleen O’Brien.)

For eight months, in other words, leaders from both of the Twin Cities and two large and powerful public bodies (both of which get a boatload of public dollars) have been negotiating decisions about the largest public works project in the history of the state — a public transit train to be built on public roadways — and the public has had no witness to, not to mention influence upon, these dealings.

That ain’t right — and I write that not just as a journalist, but more importantly as a tax-paying citizen of Minnesota.

To put the U of M’s public status in perspective, note this: The bonding bill that the Minnesota Legislature just passed includes $100 million for U of M projects. (In total, the U of M asked for $194.7 million in 2010 state bonds to be matched by $47.3 million in university bonds.)

And they don’t want a journalist covering vital discussions?


For the record, a well-crafted e-mail from Kathy O’Brien landed at 4 p.m. Friday, in which she wrote that it’s really up to the Met Council, as they are the agency of record for the Central Corridor project. O’Brien’s response is savvy and technically correct — and not really an accurate reflection of reality.

In the real world, the U of M owns a long and lousy record of being unwilling to open their doors to public eyes.

As Mark Anfinson, the First Amendment lawyer who represents the Minnesota Newspaper Association, put it to me: “With the university, it’s intensely frustrating how reluctant they are about public access, considering who they are and who’s paying many of their bills.”

But as bad as that is — and that’s pretty damn bad — what’s worse is this: I am apparently the first journalist who’s asked to cover the negotiations. (And I only did so at the suggestion of Jim Stasiowski, the writing coach for the newspaper company I work for, Dolan Media Co.)

I’m ashamed of myself, and ashamed of my profession.

We should be all over negotiations like this, and making a big stink about not being let into the negotiating room.

We need to redouble our efforts to patch the holes in the public’s most effective safeguard.

Like by raising a ruckus when the U of M says we can’t cover their Central Corridor negotiations.

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