In the struggle between individual privacy and open government, privacy has won another round. The Bureau of Mediation Services, a state agency that arbitrates grievances by public union members, will no longer make available any rulings that completely reverse an employer's action against a worker. That's why the public cannot have access to the ruling that exonerated Todd Hoffner, the now reinstated Minnesota State University, Mankato, football coach.

The bureau's decision follows an advisory opinion from Minnesota IPAD, the agency that considers whether records should be public or not. I asked the commissioner of the Bureau of Mediation Services, Josh Tilsen, for the background.

As recently as four years ago, all of the bureau's rulings were made public, he told me. Some workers who were fired and later exonerated complained that even those favorable rulings were making it hard for them to get another job. In 2010, the Legislature changed the law to shield the identity of those winning grievants. But the bureau's decisions were still made public, minus the names of the workers.

Tilsen approached IPAD in February to see whether that was kosher. In an opinion signed by Administration Commissioner Spencer Cronk, IPAD said no, the entire decision is non-public. The decision did leave one possible opening: "The Bureau may elect to redact or summarize a decision and make it public, if it can do so without disclosing private personnel data.  In that case, the Bureau might seek to work with the employer, who is in the best position to decide which specific data in the decision do or could identify the employee. However, particularly in high-profile situations, when details of the disciplinary action are known to the public, the Bureau may need to secure the data subject’s consent to release any data."

Tilsen told me he can see both sides of the issue. The public benefits from understanding the reasoning of a legal opinion. But an individual's career can suffer permanent damage from the record of a past clash with an employer. "I've had people weeping on the phone," he told me.

Tilsen thinks the overall number of decisions made non-public is small, because few decisions totally reverse an employer's action. Still, it seems to me the practice of shielding the names from the decisions was a good compromise. With another class of records removed from public scrutiny, it's that much harder to know whether justice, in this arena of government, is being served. 

Above: Coach Hoffner back on the job/Star Tribune file photo by David Joles

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