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 in a new state law.
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 can be easily skirted elsewhere in the state. Its author, Rep. Pam Myhra, said earlier this week that she will be introducing legislation to close the loopholes.
The decision Wednesday, issued by the Department of Administration at the request of the Star Tribune, centers around Minneapolis' former regulatory services director Gregory Stubbs. Stubbs resigned last August with a $70,000 settlement after a complaint had been filed against him only nine months into the job, but the city refused to explain why.
Governments must disclose the reasons for 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 the 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," wrote Department of Administration commissioner Spencer Cronk in the opinion. "However, it is the result dictated by statute."
That means the city's police chief, attorney, public works director, fire chief and others are similarly not "public officials" under the new law.
But Minneapolis isn't the only entity claiming the new rules don't compel disclosure. The legislation states that public official complaints are public if the "employee resigns or is terminated from employment while the complaint or charge is pending."
Cronk concluded that if a complaint or charge was not pending at the time of the resignation, the data would be private. This was the case last week, when the West St. Paul school district said a complaint a local principal had technically been resolved before his resignation.
"Therefore, it is possible that the data the Star Tribune requested might not even be public even if Mr. Stubbs were a public official for purposes of this section," Cronk said.
The same loophole doesn't apply to public officials covered under the old law, including state agency and department heads, as well as appointed members of boards or commissions.
Myhra addressed this issue in an e-mail Monday. An early draft of her new legislation eliminated the clause about pending charges.
"What is puzzling is when a large sum of money, sometimes equaling a year or more of pay, is paid out when an individual 'voluntarily' chooses to quit their job," Myhra wrote. "Part of the change last year did not anticipate an organization making a significant gift to an individual when they voluntarily resign. It was anticipated that a separation agreement would be reached as a result of a disciplinary action or was done quickly before the results of an investigation were revealed."
"It appears the Sibley High School has found a loophole in the statute. Based on statements from school districts and local governments, they want to bring more transparency to these situations and I look forward to working with them."
Pictured: Gregory Stubbs
Below: The opinion from the Information Policy Analysis Division of the Department of Administration.