Tevlin: Minneapolis is hiding behind disclosure law

  • Article by: JON TEVLIN , Star Tribune
  • Updated: October 29, 2012 - 7:56 PM

What happens when the city's head of regulatory services resigns after only nine months on the job, with a complaint pending against him, and bags a mysterious $70,000 payout? The city claims that person, Gregory Stubbs, is not a "public official."

The Regulatory Services Department of Minneapolis has a really great Mission Statement and super swell Core Values (capitals theirs, adjectives mine).

"Working to ensure the safety, health, and livability of our community through information, education, regulation and the enforcement of applicable laws and regulations."

Among the department's core values? "Accountability" through "truthful, honest and dependable actions."

Sounds terrific, right?

So what happens when the city's head of regulatory services resigns after only nine months on the job, with a complaint pending against him, and bags a mysterious $70,000 payout?

The city claims that person, Gregory Stubbs, is not a "public official," and thus is exempt from a new law designed to shed light on exactly these kinds of secret payoffs.

Stubbs was appointed by Mayor R.T. Rybak and approved by the City Council. But the head of regulatory services for the City of Minneapolis is not a public official? Roll that around in your head for a few seconds.

After Burnsville's school district paid a departing human resources director $250,000 without explanation, the Legislature expanded the definition of "public official" to cover, among other employees, anyone in a management capacity who reports to the equivalent of a city's chief administrative officer.

Minneapolis City Attorney Susan Segal argued that the City Coordinator is the closest equivalent to a chief administrative officer. But that position has no authority over the regulatory services director, who reports instead to the city's executive committee (four council members and the mayor). Others who could skip out with a bag of money -- and no explanation -- include the police and fire chiefs under the city's "logic."

We are asked to believe that, technically speaking, our chief of police is not a public official.

To borrow some Orwellian Newspeak fitting for this occasion, this is obviously "ungood" for the public.

Mark Anfinson, an attorney for the Minnesota Newspaper Association, agrees Stubbs is clearly a public official, but is less skeptical than I am about the city's defense. He thinks the problem is that those writing the legislation didn't or couldn't foresee all the potential organizational charts, and thus the law wasn't broad enough to include the unusual hierarchy of Minneapolis.

Also, while there is little punishment for failing to make something public, we only need look as far as the recent $600,000 payout to the police officer whose information was inappropriately accessed by other officers.

"I can't really fault the city," said Anfinson. "The attorney is erring on the side of caution."

To those of us who are not lawyers, however, the city's position looks like nonsense. As the Star Tribune's attorney made clear in letters asking for information, the notion that Stubbs, and the police and fire chiefs, are not public officials because they report to a higher power than the City Coordinator is "an absurd result."

Or as open government and privacy advocate Rich Neumeister puts it: "They are trying to obfuscate with legal malarkey and balderdash."

Exactly.

Neumeister has been hounding public officials -- yes, he calls them public officials, even when they don't -- for decades, and he can tick off a number of local governments that have tried similar linguistic gymnastics to cover up "shenanigans" from St. Peter, to Edina, to Big Lake.

Of the Stubbs case, Neumeister says, "this is the poster boy for why we need even stronger laws. This is nothing new -- it happens whenever something embarrassing happens that [government] doesn't want out."

A complaint is filed. An investigation is begun. The investigated person resigns or retires "before the case is final," often carrying away what any of us would consider a bountiful severance from the taxpayers.

Poof.

Neumeister said the Legislature can go back and broaden the law next session, but by then the Stubbs case will be gone and lawyers will devise new ways around the law.

Included in the correspondence between the Star Tribune and the city is an organizational chart. It shows the mayor and City Council above several other positions, including the city assessor and city attorney.

It would be wise for the mayor and the City Council to take careful note to read the box at the very top of the hierarchy on their own organizational chart, the ones who are supposed to be in charge.

The box reads: "Residents of the City of Minneapolis."

jtevlin@startribune.com • 612-673-1702

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