NEBRASKA LEGISLATURE

LINCOLN — A measure that would require the University of Nebraska to publicly release just one finalist for top leadership jobs is headed to the floor of the Nebraska Legislature.

Under Legislative Bill 1109, NU would be able to identify a single priority candidate 30 days before a vote by the Board of Regents. The bill would specifically exempt NU from current public records law, which requires that four finalists be named.

The eight-member Government, Military and Veterans Affairs Committee advanced the measure Tuesday with the minimum five votes required.

Media and government watchdog groups have argued that the proposal would cut the public out of the process of selecting leaders for the public university.

But Gretna State Sen. John Murante, the bill's sponsor, said the measure balances solving a problem the university faces in attracting the best candidates and maintaining an open selection process.

Murante said people were asking for a closed selection process, but he was unwilling to introduce such legislation.

The legislative committee advanced the bill the same morning NU announced four finalists to replace University of Nebraska-Lincoln chancellor Harvey Perlman.

NU declined to specify the number of applications it received for the UNL chancellor's job. But NU President Hank Bounds said during a legislative hearing last week that the candidate pool was "a fraction of the size" of what he would expect, and blamed the low number on the public process.

The names of the four finalists would not be made public under Murante's proposal. Only a single priority candidate, and his or her application, resume and other documents, would be announced.

Thirteen lawmakers, including Murante and Speaker of the Legislature Galen Hadley, have signed on to co-sponsor the bill.

Murante introduced the bill after NU said numerous candidates won't apply for leadership positions because they would be "outed" as a finalist, putting their current jobs at risk.

The proposal will be prioritized, Murante said.

Murante said he's pleased that the full Legislature will debate the measure and praised it as good public policy. Others, however, disagreed.

Omaha Sen. Beau McCoy, a member of the government committee who voted against advancing the bill, said he takes issue with naming just one finalist because that doesn't allow Nebraskans to compare the candidates.

"That breeds an appearance of secrecy," he said.

McCoy said that when taxpayer dollars are involved — 23 percent of NU's total budget comes from the state, according to a NU spokeswoman — disclosure and transparency "are paramount."

"Because that's what the citizens of Nebraska deserve," he said.

Former Gov. Dave Heineman, who publicly expressed his interest in 2014 in the NU presidency as his term as governor was coming to a close, said he is "absolutely" opposed to Murante's bill.

He said the current process of naming four finalists has served the state well and "resulted in one of the most outstanding presidents we've ever had in J.B. Milliken, and by all accounts, the new president, Hank Bounds, is off to a great start."

"In the public sector," he said, "the shareholders are the taxpayers of Nebraska, and we want to know what's going on."

North Platte Sen. Mike Groene vowed to fight LB 1109 on the floor, arguing that the proposal goes in the opposite direction of the public's increasing demand for more government openness.

He said the measure is coming from the top down — not from average taxpayers. The Board of Regents support Murante's proposal.

When a single finalist is named, questions will be raised about whether women or diverse candidates were considered, Groene said.

"This is going to cause more problems. I don't know what it helps," he said. "Transparency in government is never a wrong choice. We should always err in the favor of transparency."

Murante's bill would also mandate that public forums on the NU presidential candidate be held at each of NU's campuses.

Current state law doesn't require public hearings, though Bounds and three other finalists for NU president were interviewed publicly by the Board of Regents and held a public forum on each campus.

Along with Murante, Sens. Tommy Garrett of Bellevue, Joni Craighead of Omaha, Matt Hansen of Lincoln and Tyson Larson of O'Neill voted to advance the bill.

Groene and McCoy voted no. Sen. Dave Bloomfield of Hoskins abstained.

Contact the writer: 402-473-9581, emily.nohr@owh.com

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