A bill intended to increase transparency surrounding public official resignations is ready for a floor vote in the Minnesota House and Senate -- but only after some changes by several special interest groups.
Rep. Pam Myhra, R-Burnsville, introduced the legislation to close several loopholes identified in a state law she helped pass last year. The intent of the law was to give the public more details when high-ranking government officials resign. But it did not work as expected.
Minneapolis said the law precluded it from releasing information about a director of regulatory services who resigned with a payout, since he did not meet the definition of a "public official." Myhra's bill fixes that by expanding the definition of public officials.
The West St. Paul school district withheld details about why a principal left with a $64,590 settlement because he resigned after the complaint against him had been resolved without discipline. The law makes complaints on local officials public only if they result in discipline or the official resigns while it is pending.
Mark Anfinson, attorney for the Minnesota Newspaper Association, called the second loophole "a pretty big gap, because you can run a snowplow through it."
Myhra's bill originally nixed the language which allowed West. St. Paul to withhold the data. But the Minnesota Elementary School Principals' Association and other groups fought successfully to keep it in the law.
“This language is important because we’re concerned that …frivolous charges made against employees should not be made public," testified Patrick Hynes, representing the League of Minnesota Cities, on behalf of a group including the school boards and counties. "These could be personality conflicts that devolved into accusations and charges that simply are not borne out and don’t rise to the level of discipline. And we don’t think that those types of charges should be made public.”
But the West St. Paul complaint would be public under a compromise addressing settlements that release legal liability. This was not previously the case because of three words, "with another person," that made it into the 2011 law -- they will now be deleted.
So after originally deleting this entire section (below), the bill now makes the following change.
(f) Data relating to a complaint or charge against an employee identified under
paragraph (e), clause (4), are public only if:
(1) the complaint or charge results in disciplinary action or the employee resigns or is terminated from employment while the complaint or charge is pending; or
(2) potential legal claims arising out of the conduct that is the subject of the complaint or charge are released as part of a settlement agreement
with another person.
Anfinson thinks that will cover most significant cases. “It’s very rare that there’s a significant issue with a top-ranking executive that involves the payment of some money without a release," Anfinson said Monday.
“The bill was hanging by a thread in the House," Anfinson added. "It was very problematic. And in order to get any legislation, compromises, as so often is the case in this context, were required. It’s not a perfect bill, but it’s definitely progress."
Privacy advocate Rich Neumeister is less optimistic that the bill will bring necessary transparency. “Lawyers are still going to play their games," Neumeister said.
“All these government associations and representatives of cities and counties are like flies…Any kind of major initiative on accountability and transparency [gets proposed], they come out like flies, watering it down," Neumeister added.
The Senate version of the bill was modified on Friday to conform with the changes made in the House. It's unclear when either bill will get to the floor.