The Minnesota state statute is quite clear. Once a body hiring to fill a public position like school district superintendent chooses its candidates to interview, the candidates’ names are public record and must be released.
“Promptly,” Mark Anfinson, an attorney for the Minnesota Newspaper Association and an expert on public-access and open-meeting laws, said in an interview Wednesday with the News Tribune Opinion page.
So it appears the Duluth School Board and its superintendent-search consulting firm violated state data-practice laws Tuesday by picking six candidates to interview and then not publicly releasing their identities. The names weren’t announced until a day later — and that was only due to News Tribune reporter Adelle Whitefoot’s “advocacy and professionalism,” as School Board member Alanna Oswald stated.
The consulting firm, BWP & Associates, planned to withhold the names until the moment of the candidates’ interviews, meaning March 19-20, it told Whitefoot at Tuesday’s meeting. The names are private information until then, the firm was wrong in stating to the reporter.
School Board Chairwoman Jill Lofald said in an interview Wednesday with the Opinion page that it was her understanding BWP intended to release the names as soon as it could contact the candidates “and make sure that they were still on board.” Doing so was “out of respect” for the candidates and “out of common courtesy.”
But extending that courtesy sacrifices the public’s legal right to know and is the precise violation of state statute that the Minnesota Court of Appeals upheld in a case involving a public candidate search in North Mankato, Minnesota, according to Anfinson.
“The court couldn’t have been clearer in saying that as soon as the appointing authority, in other words the body that makes the decision on who will be hired, as soon as they choose people to interview, those names promptly become public. That’s how the law works,” Anfinson said. “(Search firms) are rarely experts in what the state law requires … as they operate often in a number of different states. … It seems that that might be what’s going on here.”
Even if its search firm didn’t know the state law in Minnesota regarding public data, the Duluth school district and our elected School Board should. The laws must be followed to ensure the public remains informed and government never operates in secret.
Lofald said she didn’t expect to learn the names of the six candidates following the vote Tuesday to interview them, even though state statute clearly states the names need to be immediately released.
School Board member Oswald had a far different reaction: “I was stunned when the consultants told us we couldn’t know their names,” she told the Opinion page.
As stunned as all district residents can be.
And this isn’t over yet. The School Board Tuesday also voted against live-streaming or recording the candidates’ interviews, unlike all other School Board proceedings. The board also is seeking a legal opinion on banning the media and the public from video-recording the interviews.
Anfinson can offer that ruling: “The board doesn’t have any legal duty to record or live-stream public meetings,” he said. “They can decide not to do it. It’s their choice. What they clearly cannot do is try and prevent the public and media who are attending the meeting from recording the meeting or any portion of it. That would, without question, violate the open-meeting law and probably the First Amendment.”
Of concern to Duluth district residents, Oswald was the only School Board member to vote in opposition to looking into stifling media coverage of a public meeting held in a public venue and conducted by a public body. Even if it wasn’t a violation of state law, it would still be objectionable public policy. And for an elected School Board that has claimed a commitment to transparency and openness to even consider such a move is disappointing, to say the least.
“All us board members are kind and considerate decision-makers, but my fellow board members let their hearts make this decision when it conflicted with brainy thoughts of logic and law,” Oswald said. “The decision came from a good place, trying to respect all our candidates’ future employment dreams and their privacy, as we can only employ one of the six. However, it conflicts with the law and community expectations of transparency, process participation, and ownership in our schools — along with the rights of journalists to cover community events in multiple formats for accessibility to our community.”
While the name-withholding mistake is a bell that can’t be unrung, any consideration of restricting the actions of the media and public at a public meeting can still be scrapped. And the Duluth School Board can better learn Minnesota’s open-records laws.