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Two Views

“Schools and other public bodies can be information control freakazoids. … But I understand why; they have difficult jobs. … But we must strike a balance — the public should know how funds are spent.”

MARK ANFINSON, attorney, Minnesota Newspaper Association

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“People want their funds to be spent in the classroom. … With all the needs we have in education, we shouldn’t be spending all this money for someone not to work.’’

Rep. PAM MYHRA, R-Burnsville

Yet again, taxpayers are on the hook for a mystery payout

  • Article by: Editorial Board
  • Star Tribune
  • January 16, 2014 - 6:50 PM

Once again, a local public employee is receiving a substantial payout to leave a job — with no explanation to the public. It’s yet another case of severance-with-secrecy violating the spirit of Minnesota disclosure laws.

Even though recent revisions were supposed bring more transparency, public entities continue to find ways around the law, leaving taxpayers to wonder why public dollars are being paid out for no work in return.

The most recent case, first reported by the St. Paul Pioneer Press, involves former Principal Roche Martin and the Forest Lake School District. Martin had been principal of the district’s Linwood Elementary, but he’s been on paid leave since Sept. 25, 2013, and his resignation is effective April 30.

So for just over half a year, he’s being paid a portion of his $108,000 annual salary to stay home. School district officials won’t say why. And they’re not the only public agencies to take that approach.

Several school districts and other local government entities have clammed up in recent years under similar circumstances. And some have come under fire for it.

It’s still unclear why the city of Minneapolis has taken more than seven months to respond to the Star Tribune’s request for documents related to why Rocco Forte, a former fire chief and emergency services official, resigned two and a half years ago. At the time, officials said he had a complaint pending against him, but the basis for it and the findings of a related probe were never revealed.

In another case last year, a West St. Paul school principal resigned under a cloud with a $64,590 payment. Both sides in that dispute also kept the circumstances under wraps, arguing that disclosure was not required.

In 2012, a Minneapolis regulatory services director resigned with a $70,000 severance, yet the city refused to provide details at the time. Later, after repeated media requests and the changes in the disclosure law, the city released heavily redacted records that showed he had been accused of discriminating against women and spending work time with his family in Florida.

The Minnesota Government Data Practices Act was revised in 2012 and 2013 after public outcry over a $254,814 separation payment from the Burnsville-Eagan-Savage schools to a departing human resources director. The changes clarified the definition of “public official’’ and strengthened buyout disclosure provisions.

Yet some school and other local government officials have continued to release little or no information in these types of cases, even though state law says some personnel data is public, including the existence and status of complaints against public employees.

They are taking advantage of loopholes in the law that do not require disclosure of complaint details concerning leaves of absence or if no disciplinary action is taken against the employee.

In Martin’s case, because he is voluntarily resigning and the district argues that there was no dispute, school officials say they are not required to provide details of the separation agreement. A school spokesman confirmed that there was a complaint against Martin, but he would not give any details about it.

State Rep. Pam Myhra, R-Burnsville, sponsored the revisions in the law that require disclosure of the complete terms of separation agreements “settling any dispute” involving a payout of more than $10,000 in public money.

Though the Forest Lake School District and its attorney say data privacy rules prevent them from releasing details, Myhra points out that yet another provision in the law requires it. The law also says information should be made public if both sides agree to forgo further legal action, which is the case with Martin and the district.

In this case, it may be a matter of enforcing current law rather than seeking further modifications to the law. A clear interpretation from the state Department of Administration would be helpful.

Clearly, it can be difficult to balance the privacy rights of individual employees with the public’s right to know. At times, both parties want to avoid embarrassment or reduce additional costs by settling instead of going to court. In some cases, they may be trying to cover up wrongdoing.

Regardless of the reasons for the secrecy, Minnesotans have a right to know why their tax dollars are being spent on public employees who are no longer on the job.

© 2014 Star Tribune