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Excerpts from recent Minnesota editorials

November 14, 2013
Associated Press

The Free Press of Mankato, Nov. 14

Be open with public salaries

A recent report on public employee executive salaries by the Associated Press showed a steep growth in those salaries after a restrictive law was revised but it also showed some governments were reluctant to reveal those salaries openly to the public.

The second concern is more serious than the first.

The Associated Press visited websites of 126 entities required to put the salaries of their top three officials online or in a mailing to citizens. A 2005 law required all cities and counties with 15,000 population or more to post the salaries, even though state law has for years required any government entity to provide salary figures for any employee to anyone who asks. The law, designed to track growth in public salaries, requires the information be on a website for 90 days.

The investigation found that many entities removed the data after 90 days and some were "buried deep on a website," according to the AP. Dozens of governments were apparently not in compliance with the law as the information could not be found on their websites. When the AP called requesting the information, all complied.

This kind of lack of transparency is not surprising to news organizations who make these kinds of requests regularly. The culture of many government institutions still seems more about protecting the bureaucracy and fiefdoms than public accountability or transparency.

There were certainly some exceptions. The city of Prior Lake deserves special recognition for not only prominently displaying its salaries on its website year round, but also including information on longevity pay and car allowances.

Prior Lake City Manager Frank Boyles told the AP: "We don't have anything to hide."

Prior Lake also puts the information in a type size people can read. Other entities put the information in small type that almost seemed like some kind of fine-print disclaimer.

We surmise the fear of putting public salaries in full view of the public is that some citizens will figure their local public executives are paid too much. That certainly can and should be an issue for local governments to discuss.

The AP report shows that in some cases salary for the same position rose $40,000 in eight years. The law opened up restrictions on public employees who under previous law could not be paid more than 95 percent of the governor's salary without a special exemption. The change in the law allowed for pay of 110 percent of the governor's salary without special state approval.

The AP report shows 145 city and county employees earn more than the governor's salary of $120,303. Those salaries may not be surprising or even out of line in and of themselves, but the transparency provisions of the law certainly are aimed at starting a discussion about that. Local officials who approved higher salaries for Mankato City Manager Pat Hentges and Blue Earth County Administrator Bob Meyer say the salaries are competitive and commensurate with the job requirements and performance of both executives.

Now, the public has the information to weigh in on those decisions as we go forward.

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Albert Lea Tribune, Nov. 13

Ethanol remains better than oil

Stories on Tuesday by the Associated Press detail the environmental damage of the corn-based renewable fuel ethanol.

Few fuel sources can claim to be the answer to America's quest for an energy source. Even nuclear energy, with its ultra-low fossil fuel footprint, has serious drawbacks. Hydro destroys wildlife habitat and sometimes requires entire towns to move. Wind energy is intermittent, and solar energy, while getting better, lacks the capacity the world seeks. And it's a universally accepted fact that coal and oil have had much more serious environmental damage than ethanol, wind, nuclear and solar combined, and let's not forget the human toll from oil-related wars.

Clearly, the green solution to energy problems remains out there. There must be some leeway, some slack, for growing pains.

Ethanol is on the right track. University studies show it releases fewer greenhouse gases than the conventional means of making gasoline. And those studies are describing the entire production life cycle, not merely what comes out of the exhaust pipes.

What's more, much of the gasoline used in the Midwest comes from the Alberta Tar Sands. Gasoline from oil sands produces three times as many greenhouse gases than conventional oil. It makes ethanol look far cleaner than gasoline, by comparison — a comparison the AP failed to make.

The fact is, one of the best aspects of ethanol is it is a domestic source of energy — also an aspect the AP didn't delve into. Wouldn't American consumers rather have their fuel dollars going to Midwestern farmers than to royal families and dictators in the Middle East?

Moreover, ethanol has gone a long way toward improving the economy of rural America. Moribund for decades, small towns and ag-dependent regional centers were shrinking as farm efficiency became the American food goal. Farmers had to choose between specializing or selling their family farm. On-farm income declined and more families took off-farm jobs. Youth migrated out of small towns to colleges, then off to the major cities for work. We recall times in the 1990s when commodity prices matched levels of the 1950s. And who can forget the farm crisis of the 1980s? Rural Americans were beginning to wonder if anyone in Washington — be they Republican or Democrat — really cared about the rural vote except during hollow promises made leading up to the Iowa caucuses.

Increased corn prices, in part because of ethanol, haven't been the only factor to turn around the rural economy, but it is one of the factors. Land prices sure have climbed. The farm economy is functioning. Jobs are being created, and that's good for America.

It is natural that when an industry does well, there will be expansion that has some environmental drawbacks, whether it is cellphones, office paper, big-box retailers or suburban living. There will be more land in production as a result of changes in agricultural markets and machinery. But hasn't that been happening since pioneer farmers began settling America's breadbasket? Be it John Deere's plow, the latest farm bill or high corn prices, farmers respond.

Ethanol also is driving research and innovation, right here in the Midwest. The industry is bent on improving and becoming more green as it grows. And that includes addressing environmental issues the AP detailed.

Why would importing foreign oil be better?

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Duluth News Tribune, Nov. 8

Miraculous story sullied by big bucks

An investigation into what went wrong hadn't even really begun, debris remained scattered all across the south end of Superior, and nerves had to still be tattered when thoughts turned to — cashing in?

Just hours after two planes collided and nine skydivers either fell out or had to jump Saturday evening — amazingly, with no one seriously injured — an instructor for Skydive Superior speculated with a reporter that footage of the accident, captured by jumpers' helmet-mounted cameras, could fetch a handsome price. He even had a number in mind: $150,000 was about what he figured it would take to make repairs and to get back to skydiving again. He referred to a hastily arranged trip to New York for national television interviews a day after the accident as a fundraising effort.

While all the Twin Ports can pull for the skydiving community's comeback, such comments just don't sit well. Troubling are any thoughts of any entity looking to parlay a profit, even if used to replace its losses, after planes it was operating collided mid-air and then crashed in large chunks, putting into danger everyone on the ground below.

Shouldn't safety be the only concern so soon after a near tragedy? Or making sure it never happens again?

And what about the cost to taxpayers for the emergency response and the subsequent federal investigation? To their credit, Superior fire officials aren't looking for a slice of any payout.

"I haven't really heard any of the guys talking about that. . It's not really come up," Battalion Chief Steve Edwards told the News Tribune Opinion page yesterday. "We're paid with taxes. We handle all different types of emergencies. This isn't out of the realm of what we would normally do."

Perhaps even more troubling is the thought of a news outlet buying a story, long a no-no in the world of legitimate journalism. More than $100,000 has been reported as the amount NBC News paid to outbid its competitors not only for exclusive rights to the video but exclusive interviews, on air, with the survivors for two full weeks. The deal effectively prevents NBC's broadcast competitors from also getting the story.

The dollar figure has been disputed, and Monica Lee in NBC News' communications department didn't return email or telephone messages from the News Tribune Opinion page Thursday seeking clarification. But whether north or south of $100,000, ethical concerns persist and criticism rightly has followed.

"Mainstream news organizations typically frown on paying sources, lest the payments taint the sources' veracity or color the news outlet's objectivity in reporting the story," the Washington Post's Paul Farhi wrote this week in reporting the payoff. "Although some news organizations, such as the National Enquirer and TMZ.com, pay for news, 'checkbook journalism' is considered unethical by the Society of Professional Journalists and other professional news organizations."

This story is far from over, of course. An investigation into what went wrong barely has begun. With findings and determinations, attention eventually can be turned away from money and to where it belongs: making sure recommended changes are made to assure safety, both in the air and on the ground, and to prevent such accidents from ever happening again.

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