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Viewpoint: Clarity — and transparency — sought in candidate data issue

When candidates file for local offices later this month, their names and certain other information become public.

In past elections for city council, school board and the Legislature, the Bulletin has reported on those filings as they came in. We’ve done that because the public should know who is seeking elected office before a filing period closes. That information helps citizens decide who they want to represent them and maybe even whether they should run themselves. (People sometimes will wait until the end of a filing period to see who else wades in before deciding whether to take the plunge themselves.)

Last month the South Washington County School Board planned to appoint someone to fill a vacancy on the seven-member board. (Jim Gelbmann stepped down mid-term.) To its credit, the board developed a thorough, thoughtful appointment selection process. It started with a two-week application period.

Citizens interested in serving could submit an application, and the board would select applicants to interview.

School boards are made up of elected representatives who set local education policy and decide how to spend your tax dollars. It seemed logical that names of those applying for the vacancy would be public, just as they are during an election filing period.

The Bulletin asked to receive public information about applicants as they applied, but the district said a state law prohibited the release of that information until finalists were chosen to be interviewed. The law cited by the district pertains to applicants “for employment by a government entity.”

The application period came and went. Seven people applied to serve on the board, but nearly a week passed before the district made public the applicants’ names and other information.

The district’s action was a head-scratcher for us because another state law specifically pertains to “applicants for appointment to a public body” and says an applicant’s name and certain other data is in fact public from the time the application is submitted.

This was a relatively noncontroversial appointment process, so you may wonder, why the concern? Here’s why: This easily could occur again here or elsewhere in Minnesota, and the public is not well-served when the information is withheld. Clarity is needed.

It’s worth noting that after the application period ended, the district adopted a policy to consider school board members as elected officials, not district employees, for the purposes of personnel data laws. However, that did not change how it handled the application data request.

We decided our disagreement warranted the input of a state office that helps to resolve disputes about the Minnesota Data Practices Act and the Open Meeting Law.

We requested an advisory opinion from the Minnesota Department of Administration’s Information Policy Analysis Division, and that office agreed to address the issue. The district had the opportunity to respond, and the state is expected to offer an opinion yet this month. We’ll report on that opinion regardless of the outcome.

If this process sounds familiar, your memory is sharp. Just a few weeks ago we reported on a state advisory opinion that the city of Newport violated the Open Meeting Law earlier this year.

Also, in 2012, a state advisory opinion requested by the Bulletin found that the District 833 School Board violated the Open Meeting Law in its handling of the former superintendent’s performance evaluation.

We hope the forthcoming advisory opinion falls on the side of greater transparency and concludes that data about applicants to an elected body are public when they apply.

Scott Wente is editor of the Bulletin.

Scott Wente

Scott Wente has been editor at the South Washington County Bulletin since 2011. He worked as a reporter at other Forum Communications newspapers from 2003 to 2011.

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