The Concordia mission statement has been embedded into the minds of Cobbers since their arrival on campus: becoming responsibly engaged in the world. Some Cobbers take this mission statement to heart.
For Darrell Ehrlick, a 1998 graduate, becoming responsibly engaged in the world means pursuing something he has passion for: journalism. With his passion, he has been able to make a difference in the Minnesota Data Practices Act, making it easier for citizens to access information about government records.
However, when he graduated from Concordia, he did not know he was going out into the world to change laws. He had a different plan.
“I was going to go to seminary, become a Methodist minister and go back to Montana,” Ehrlick said.
Ehrlick graduated with a degree in English honors and religion, with minors in Russian, Greek and Latin. Other than a few classes that he took for his English major, his only experience with journalism was his work with “The Concordian” and with the “Forum of Fargo-Moorhead.”
According to Catherine McMullen, associate professor of journalism, Ehrlick was the journalism student that one could hope for: he had passion, he was assertive and he was focused.
McMullen said “his passion, his fire-in-the-belly curiosity and desire to get to the truth” was something she noticed about his dedication to the practice.
His passion for journalism was not something he had planned on persuing after college, so he continued on to seminary.
He was accepted into Emory University and was there for only a year when he withdrew from the college.
“I felt like a fish out of water there,” he said. “I liked the school, but it was there that I realized that the church life wasn’t for me. I missed newspapers.”
After this realization, he followed his then girlfriend, Angela Wagenaar (now Ehrlick) to Utah where she was attending Utah State to receive her doctorate in clinical psychology. In 1999, he was hired as the editor of a weekly publication called the “Cache Citizen” in Logan, Utah.
“I was so hungry [to be back in newspapers], I took the job when I probably shouldn’t have,” he said.
The publication was not in the greatest of states: the paychecks for the writers were bouncing, the organization was $750,000 in debt and Ehrlick had no idea what he was getting into.
“Yes, journalists do work for peanuts,” he said, “but they don’t work for free. And I was the only one with a history of working for newspapers.”
Nearly eight months after Ehrlick became the editor, the “Cache Citizen” was out of debt and the organization was put up for sale.
In 2000, Ehrlick left the “Cache Citizen” to get back into reporting and worked for the “Herald Journal” in Logan as a sports writer and became the city editor for a time. Four years later, Ehrlick and his wife, wanting to be closer to family, moved to Winona, Minn.
Ehrlick was hired as the interim editor of the “Winona Daily News” and began running the editorial section in July. By December, he was hired to be the 17th editor of the newspaper.
It was at the “Winona Daily News” that Ehrlick significantly impacted the way people can access information.
About two years ago in Winona, the school district faced a decline in the enrollment. Ehrlick was sitting in his office with the school’s superintendent in the seat in front of him.
He asked the superintendent for the report of demographics of the district. Even after the superintendent declined giving Ehrlick the report, Ehrlick told him that according to the Minnesota Data Practices Act, a requested document must be handed over in a reasonable time.
To Ehrlick, reasonable time to receive a document was about 10 to 15 minutes.
“He then said to me that reasonable time is when Hell freezes over,” Ehrlick said.
When this happens to a journalist or to any citizen, two things can be done: it can be accepted or it can be fought. During this time, Ehrlick would have to make a formal request and then after being refused, he would have to hire a lawyer and take the official to court. The time and resources for this to occur is considered futile.
“Between $5,000 to $25,000 would be a conservative estimate of what it would cost,” he said. “Smaller media organizations don’t have that kind of money lying around.”
Even if the organization had that much money, the time to go to court and receive a ruling would take anywhere from six months to a year.
“Let’s say we get the money, go to trial and win,” Ehrlick said. “Who will care?”
Knowing there had to be an easier way to obtain records, Ehrlick spoke with Minnesota State Representative Gene Pelowski and a lawyer representing the Minnesota Newspaper Association, Mark Andinson, about receiving assistance.
It was with their help, and the help of Rusty Cunningham, the publisher of the “Winona Daily News,” that a program was created which had never before been seen in any state in the nation. The program was a change to the Data Practices Act.
This change in the program was not established so that every piece of public information needs to be fought for. According to Ehrlick, government officials are “law abiding people who do what they can to help.” Those officials who don’t hand over public documents are not being selfish, keeping certain information to themselves. Ehrlick said that it is very hard for officials to decide what should be open to the public. Being that officials are held liable to any misinformation given, it is better for them to safe than sorry.
In the original Data Practices Act, any case brought to court would have to go to trial court, which could take six months to a year to even get a ruling. Under the new program, a case concerning Data Practices Act is sent through the Office of Administrative Hearings and results were seen sooner.
Office of Administrative Hearings ruled on cases concerning family court, child custody and alimony. According to Ehrlick, the results from these cases are ruled in reasonable time.
“Why couldn’t the same be done with public information?” he asked.
In July 2010, this new program was enacted to allow public information cases to be held in front of an administrative judge within 30 days of being filed and a ruling be granted in less than 60 days, cutting the trial and waiting time by nearly 75 percent.
In order for a case to be filed there is a $1,000 bond fee that needs to be paid. However, if the ruling is in favor of the plaintiff, the bond is returned. Another promising aspect of this program is that instead of paying close to $25,000 in fees, there is a maximum of $5,000 for court fees set, making it easier for smaller media organizations, such as “Winona Daily News” to fight for public information.
As for the use of this program, the “Winona Daily News” has not submitted a case under the revised act; however, it may eventually have to use it on two possible cases, but the occasion has not come to light.
For the time being, Ehrlick has been working hard as the editor of the “Winona Daily News” and is actively involved in multiple organizations in the Winona area including editing for nearly eight other weekly publications and teaching as an adjunct professor at Winona State University.
When he isn’t busy staying intently involved in the area, Ehrlick spends whatever time with his wife of nearly 11 years and their nine-month-daughter, Mollie.
“I spend whatever time I can with Mollie, which is why some people receive e-mails from me at 1 a.m.,” he said. “I work when I can.”
His work is his life and it is because of those involved in his life that Ehrlick has enjoyed every minute: everything from working for a publication that is now defunct to helping change the Data Practices Act.
Becoming responsibly engaged in the world begins with passion. Ehrlick believes that those who are about to go out into the world and begin their careers do not necessarily have to plan out their life beforehand.
“I had a different plan, and look where I am now,” he said, “If I die today, I will have died knowing I met some amazing people, had amazing experiences. Now I am sitting back and enjoying life.”
To enjoy life, to enjoy future careers, Ehrlick also believes that people need to push the boundaries.
“You got to hunger for it,” he said. “You go to be passionate for it. You got to want it more than anything else.”