'Public' officials? Maybe not in Minneapolis
- Article by: ERIC ROPER
- Star Tribune
- February 13, 2013 - 9:58 PM
A state agency ruled Wednesday that Minneapolis was correct to withhold details about the abrupt departure of its regulatory chief because he was not a "public official" as defined by a new state law.
Some of the city's top appointees, including the police and fire chiefs, also do not technically qualify as public officials, according to the ruling.
The non-binding opinion illustrates that a new law intended to shed light on resignations by top public employees has little teeth in Minneapolis and, for separate reasons, can be easily skirted elsewhere in the state.
The author of the new law, Rep. Pam Myhra, said she will be introducing legislation Thursday to close the loopholes. "This needs to be fixed," said Myhra, R-Burnsville.
The decision, issued by the Department of Administration at the request of the Star Tribune, centers on Minneapolis' former regulatory services director, Gregory Stubbs. He resigned with a $70,000 settlement last August after only nine months on the job, and the city refused to provide details about a complaint pending against him.
Governments must disclose the reasons behind the resignation of a "public official," the definition of which was expanded by the new law to include individuals in a management capacity who report to the equivalent of a city's chief administrative officer. Since Stubbs reported to Minneapolis' executive committee, and not the city coordinator, the city said he was not a public official.
"In light of the strong legislative policy of public accountability that underlies much of [Minnesota's open records law], this may appear as a puzzling result," Department of Administration Commissioner Spencer Cronk wrote in the opinion. "However, it is the result dictated by statute."
The opinion also confirmed a broad loophole in the law that allows jurisdictions across the state to skirt disclosure.
The law states that complaints against many public officials are public only if the "employee resigns or is terminated from employment while the complaint or charge is pending." Cronk concluded this alone could have prevented disclosure in the Stubbs case if no complaint was pending against him. The city has said, however, that there was.
A West St. Paul school district cited the clause last week when it denied information detailing why a local principal had resigned with a $64,590 payment. The district argued the complaint against the principal had technically been resolved prior to his resignation, making the data not public.
'Pretty big gap'
Mark Anfinson, an attorney for the Minnesota Newspaper Association, said this argument is not merely a "chink in the armor" of the new law. "It's a pretty big gap, because you can run a snowplow through it," he said.
The same provision doesn't apply to public officials covered previously under the law, including state agency and department heads, as well as appointed members of boards or commissions.
Myhra said the provision in question was added while the bill maneuvered through the Senate. Her legislative fix will eliminate the double standard altogether. "It isn't in stone," she said. "We can go back and change it. And we need to do that."
Beyond revealing potentially embarrassing details, governments have little incentive to release data they believe may not be public since there could be substantial civil penalties for doing so.
Though Wednesday's ruling confirmed that the new law does not cover many officials in Minneapolis' unique government structure, the City Council voted last year to officially support a change that would include its department heads.
Myhra said that her new bill will cover "managers, heads or directors of departments, divisions, bureaus or boards. And any employee that supervises or manages three or more employees" in cities and counties with populations larger than 7,500 and 5,000, respectively.
Stubbs, who did not return a message seeking comment, wasn't the first regulatory chief in Minneapolis to leave under unexplained circumstances. His predecessor, Rocco Forte, also resigned abruptly with a complaint pending against him. The details behind that complaint have not been disclosed.
Eric Roper • 612-673-1732 Twitter: @StribRoper
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