Last year, many Minnesota lawmakers thought they had addressed a problem with payouts to public employees. They adopted modifications to the state Data Practices Act designed to clarify disclosure rules about severance packages.
The revised law, authored by Rep. Pam Myhra, R-Burnsville, intended to ensure that any time a public employee receives $10,000 or more to end his or her employment, citizens should know why. Myhra took on the cause because many of her constituents were understandably outraged when a Burnsville school human-resources director was paid $255,000 to leave in early 2012 after only 18 months on the job. Neither the district nor the employee offered any explanations about what happened.
Yet despite the 2012 changes to the law, at least two more cases of severance-with-silence have occurred in the metro area. Together, they illustrate that the statute needs more work.
Last summer, the Minneapolis regulatory services director resigned with a $70,000 severance, yet the city refused to provide details about a complaint against him. And this month, it was reported that a West St. Paul school principal resigned under a cloud with a $64,590 payment. Both sides in that dispute also kept the circumstances secret, arguing that disclosure is not required.
In our view, however, that interpretation of the statute is a stretch to avoid disclosure. Minneapolis argued that under the law’s definition the regulatory services director was not a “public official.” And in West St. Paul, leaders said the investigation ended before the resignation occurred, therefore there was no obligation to reveal the circumstances that caused the employee to resign.
In the interest of transparency about the use of public dollars, the Star Tribune challenged the arrangements. But the Department of Administration denied the newspaper’s request, saying that complaints against public officials must be made public only if “the employee resigns or is terminated while the complaint or charge is pending.”
Under that standard of preserving secrecy, entities can simply fiddle with the timing of investigations, complaints and “official” resignation dates. Consequently, the public is kept in the dark.
Mark Anfinson, an attorney for the Minnesota Newspaper Association, called that argument “a pretty big gap [in the law], because you can run a snowplow through it.”
Myhra said the provision in question was added while the bill maneuvered through the Senate last year. So this session, she has wisely gone back to the drawing board to further revise the law and do a better job of closing those loopholes. Her newly introduced bill would more clearly define “public official” and offer more specifics about how the reasons for resignations must be reported. Stating, for example, that the city “wants to avoid going to court” shouldn’t qualify as a reason for the forced resignation and payout.
The public should know how public dollars are spent. But as reasonable as that principle may seem, there will be push back from associations of public entities and their lawyers. School boards may worry that they may eventually have to disclose every frivolous complaint against their workers. And in some situations, it is advantageous to employees and employers to keep terms secret to avoid embarrassment, and perhaps cover up wrongdoing on both sides.
Public administrators also argue that confidential settlements protect the public purse by settling personnel issues for lower costs than if they turn into lengthy court battles.
But even if a settlement is the best option, the terms ought to be explained to taxpayers. Government officials shouldn’t use tax-generated funds to bury details of disputes under a cloak of secrecy.
Armed with more information about how the statute can be skirted, legislators should strive to create solid data practices that best serve the taxpaying public.
An editorial of the Star Tribune (Minneapolis).