Earlier this year, the Minnesota Legislature amended the data practices law to make sure that local governments would come clean about big payouts to employees. Public outrage over a series of six- and seven-figure buyouts prompted the action.
The idea was to make sure that when cities, counties or school districts wrote checks of $10,000 or more to outgoing public officials, taxpayers would get the full story about why their dollars were used in employment separation deals.
And yet a few short months after the disclosure change went into effect, Minneapolis officials found a way around it. In August, the city finalized a settlement with Gregory Stubbs, the former regulatory services director who had been on the job for only nine months. Stubbs had a two-year contract, and city officials wanted to end his employment. So they negotiated a $70,000 payout and allow him to resign.
But nothing in the agreement that was made public says why he was asked to leave -- despite the new law that specifically calls for disclosure. Officials claim that under their organizational chart, Stubbs was not a "public official.''
That's ridiculous. Of course the person who runs all regulatory operations is a public official. And Minneapolis officials know it's a twisted interpretation -- not to mention a direct violation of the spirit of the law. But they say they are compelled to keep the terms secret because the former director could sue the city, arguing that his position did not fit the description of a public official under the new statute. In other words, the fear of a suit trumps the people's right to know.
Because of the way the law was written, unfortunately, city attorneys may have a point. The way the statute defines "public official" includes a loophole that could give Stubbs or other top city employees a legal leg to stand on.
The Legislature adopted language that says a public official is anyone in a management position who reports to the equivalent of a city's chief administrative officer. Minneapolis says the city coordinator is the closest equivalent, but that the coordinator had no authority over regulatory services. Stubbs was hired by and reported to a committee made up of four City Council members and the mayor. Because his boss was not the city coordinator, the city argues, he was not was not a public official as defined by the law.
Does that mean that because Minneapolis has a different reporting structure than many Minnesota cities, its police and fire chiefs are not public officials? What a crock. Or as open-government advocate Rich Neumeister told Star Tribune columnist Jon Tevlin, what a bunch of "legal malarkey and balderdash.''
But because it's malarkey that could be upheld in court, the Legislature should revise the law. The rules should more generally cover the categories of government positions rather than supervisory relationships.
It's important to get this right, because millions of tax dollars are involved. Late last year, a Burnsville schools human-resources director was paid $250,000 to end her employment with the district. Also in 2011, one suburban schools superintendent got $100,000 to leave nine months before a contract was up, and another received a $361,000 severance package. In 2009, an Edina teacher received $100,000.
It's possible that those settlements were the most cost-effective arrangements and the right thing to do. Avoiding litigation can often be in the best interests of the employer, employee and the taxpayers. Still, if payouts are done in secrecy, it erodes public confidence. When public dollars are spent, the public should know why.