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Willmar, Minn., mayor says he doesn't have to release committee names

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news Willmar, 56201

Willmar Minnesota 2208 Trott Ave. SW / P.O. Box 839 56201

WILLMAR -- Willmar Mayor Frank Yanish continues to withhold the names of the eight advisers who helped him draft his alternate plan for reorganizing city government.

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The West Central Tribune has filed a letter requesting information about the group with Willmar city government. The letter asks the city to cite specific Minnesota statutes that allow the names to be withheld if the city does not release them.

Under Minnesota's Data Practices Act, records of state and local government are presumed to be public unless a specific exception exists in the law.

Yanish released an "Option C" plan late last week, an alternative to ideas presented by consultants hired by the City Council to study the city's organization. They are looking for ways to serve the public without gaps in service or duplicated services. The cost of the study by Brimeyer-Fursman of Maplewood is $22,500.

In his proposal, Yanish referred to an "ad hoc advisory group" which helped him develop the plan.

When asked by the Tribune earlier this week to identify the members of his committee, Yanish declined.

Yanish said Wednesday that the eight people are not members of an official city committee but a group with diverse backgrounds who "are more in tune with my line of thinking," Yanish said.

He characterized his thinking as "conservative, but not ultra-conservative," adding "I think we do have some ultra-conservative people on the (City) Council."

One person on the committee has asked that her name be withheld "because of where she works," he said.

Minneapolis attorney Mark Anfinson said it was clear to him that the names should be public. Anfinson is retained by the Minnesota Newspaper Association to advise member newspapers.

The Minnesota Data Practices Act covers anyone who "performs services on a voluntary basis" for a government entity, Anfinson said.

If the names of group members have been recorded "in any form," the names are public data, Anfinson said. The law applies to any recording of the names, even an informal list on a cell phone or a home computer, he added.

"There isn't the slightest doubt that the names are public data and must be disclosed upon request," Anfinson said.

However, Yanish said City Attorney Robert Scott had told him that the names are not public. He suggested the Tribune file a request through City Hall, which led to the Tribune's letter.

Yanish said it is possible others in town know who the group's members are. They have met Thursday mornings for about six months, and some people may have seen them meeting. The meetings are not open to the public, however, Yanish said, something else he had spoken with Scott about.

"I check with the city attorney quite frequently on things," he said.

The group is a mixture of men and women, some working and some retired, who have interesting backgrounds, Yanish said. "For the most part, it's been a very good group," he said. "It's been helpful to have their advice."

Yanish's plan calls for a consolidation of the human resources departments of the city, Kandiyohi County and the Willmar Municipal Utilities, which is owned by the city.

In his proposal, posted on the city's website, the mayor suggests that such a consolidation could save $400,000 a year. The report does not spell out how the savings would be realized.

The consultants have recommended two options for reorganizing the city, and Yanish added his own plan as a third option for the council to consider.

The consultants have presented two options to the City Council already. Option A would establish an external services director to oversee the delivery of services to taxpayers. Option B would hire a public works director/city engineer position and shift some responsibilities between city departments. The public works director position has been vacant for a year.

The consultants recommended that the City Council choose Option A.

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