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Matt Von Pinnon, Published October 03 2010

Von Pinnon: Loopholes in Minn. laws help keep public in dark

Because The Forum covers news in both Minnesota and North Dakota, we routinely deal with each state’s open records and open meetings laws.

Simply stated, North Dakota’s transparency laws are much more favorable to its public. Minnesota, on the other hand, has about as many exceptions to openness as it has lakes.

In a couple recent examples, The Forum’s efforts to inform Minnesotans were met by public officials apparently determined to find loopholes in the law that allow them to keep citizens in the dark.

One case involves efforts to build a new Fergus Falls ice arena.

Another involves efforts to keep terms of teacher union contracts under wraps until school boards ratify them, guaranteeing the public no up-front influence on deals struck in closed-door negotiations.

In the Fergus Falls arena matter, The Forum fought successfully to obtain the identities of donors and the amounts of donations to the controversial project.

Or so we thought.

First, a little background:

The Fergus Falls City Council voted a while back to build a new $7 million ice arena, using a combination of $4 million in public money and $3 million in donated money.

The City Council formed an agreement with a private foundation that helps raise funds for local public schools. The private foundation would collect the donated money for the city arena and keep the city up to date on the status of those donations. A side-effect of that arrangement allowed those donations to remain private, the city claimed.

The Forum didn’t think that was right, as the donations were integral to the city being able to build the arena.

We first asked the city to reveal the donors and the amounts raised. After being denied, we asked the state Department of Administration, which helps clarify such disputes, to determine if the donations should be public.

The department recently ruled in the public’s favor, saying because the foundation was performing a service the city would otherwise have to do, the donor records are public.

We again asked the city for those documents, reports the city’s own agreement with the foundation requires.

Now the city says they don’t have such reports, that the foundation has never provided the city with that information.

The city can’t give us something they don’t have, city officials say.

Right now it’s unclear what recourse, if any, the public has in this matter, but we vow to look into it.

Another loophole in Minnesota public record laws was revealed last week in a dispute over negotiated public teacher contracts.

The St. Cloud Times tried to report on closed-door negotiations between the St. Cloud teachers union and its school district. The Times asked for certain records earlier deemed public in a state opinion The Forum fought to secure last spring after a dispute with Moorhead public schools.

The earlier opinion said terms of teacher negotiation agreements should be made public before being ratified by the school district, allowing the public to weigh in at school board meetings before the deals are final.

A new opinion that was sought by the St. Cloud public schools now allows districts to hide this information if the data used to reach an agreement is being collected by a state mediator, which is often the case in these disputes.

Minnesota newspapers, including The Forum, will try to close this loophole during the upcoming legislative process but, unless that’s successful, the public will be less informed about how public officials use their money.

Perhaps most frustrating in all this is that such disputes shouldn’t happen in the first place. Public officials should want public business to be transparent.


Von Pinnon is editor of The Forum. Reach him at (701) 241-5579.