As University of Minnesota President Joan Gabel proceeds into the home stretch of her first year as head of the institution, she can learn from the Metropolitan Council. The seven-county agency has twice struck blows for public accountability in high-level personnel appointments, while the U of M has taken the opposite approach, elevating opacity over disclosure.
The Met Council’s initial undertaking in openness occurred last summer when it named a new chief to the Metro Transit Police Department. Transparency was particularly timely; the appointment occurred just three weeks before the U’s official installation of Gabel, who was disturbingly and simultaneously disclosed, then selected as the “lone” finalist by the Board of Regents as 2018 drew to a close.
The new Metro Transit Police Chief, Eddie Frizell, occupies an important position, overseeing about 120 full-time employees and five dozen part-timers that patrol the bus and transit systems carrying 80 million riders annually within 85 communities in the metropolitan area, as well as responding to more than 800 incidents annually. Preceding Frizell was John Harrington, who resigned his position to head the Minnesota Department of Public Safety.
In the future, the chief position has even greater significance here in the quad communities as the Met Council continues its efforts to extend the Blue Line light rail system northerly by 13 miles from Target Field, adding 11 new stations in north Minneapolis, Golden Valley, Robbinsdale, Crystal and Brooklyn Park. Planners for the $1.5 billion project, known as the Bottineau Light Rail Transit extension, are seeking an agreement with BNSF that would allow the line to run in the railway’s right-of-way. Funded by federal, state and local government grants, it is expected to be good for residents, commuters and businesses along the line, as well as the construction workers and other employees who will receive about $300 million from the payroll, comprising about 20% of the overall expenses.
Before Frizell was chosen, the Met Council prudently opened up the law enforcement selection process with public interviews of the pair of potential appointees: veteran Minneapolis police officer Frizell and Acting Transit Police Chief A. J. Olson. The session, conducted at the Central Library in downtown Minneapolis, was augmented with questions from members of the public in the audience and submitted in advance by voice mail, email and even old-fashioned postal mail.
Then, just before the holidays in December, Gov. Tim Walz filled an even-higher Met Council vacancy, the organization’s chair, with private sector bus line executive Charles Zelle. The head of the state Department of Transportation from 2012-18, Zelle was selected over two other publicly-identified candidates, a Ramsey County Commissioner, Jim McDonough, and current Met Council member, Deb Barber.
Those exercises in the spotlight contrast sharply with the secrecy that shrouded the U of M’s presidential selection process. As they have done consistently in the past, with rare exception, the university regents again thumbed their noses at the Government Data Practices Act, mandating publicly-funded institutions to disclose identities of all “finalists” for positions.
The purpose of that law is to allow public scrutiny of the process, serving as a “check” on flawed appointments by providing an opportunity for others to weigh in on the candidates and point out their strengths and shortcomings.
As it has in a long series of presidential selections stretching back decades, the U chose to circumvent the spirit, if not the letter, of the law by coming up with a deus ex machina approach. The board whittled down aspirants to sole candidate Gabel, and then, like a Papal selection, emitted a metaphorical puff of smoke from the McNamara Center on the campus’s East bank, signifying selection of the ultimate designee. Doing so bypassed any meaningful oversight by the taxpayers and other constituents of the various candidates.
The University justifies this maneuvering as a necessary means to avoid deterring qualified candidates from applying for fear that being publicly identified, especially if they are not selected, would compromise their reputations and current positions in academia or elsewhere.
This assertion is empirically unproven and contradicted by real-life experiences like those of the Met Transit candidates. It also is irrelevant; the public’s right to know the university’s most important inner dealings outweighs the risks to job security or bruised feelings of applicants.
Gabel has since, and to her credit, opted for openness. She established a campus-wide program to give faculty, staff and student input in the selecting of a provost, who oversees day-to-day operations at the five campuses. The chosen applicant, Rachel Croson, was one of three other publicly-disclosed candidates.
She also has set up an inquiry so the sprawling institution can better respond to public data requests and achieve greater accountability.
Hopefully, these steps signal that, under Gabel’s leadership, the U and the public it serves will benefit in the future by following the practices of the Met Council and start its own tradition of transparency.