“If you can’t say something nice, don’t say nothin’ at all.”

Disney’s cartoon rabbit Thumper may have uttered those words on the big screen 75 years ago, but the sentiment endures. Look no further than Minneapolis’s $183,000 goodbye agreement with former police Chief Janeé Harteau. Until Friday, it included a make-nice clause, meaning Harteau and the person who forced her out, Mayor Betsy Hodges, would not be allowed to say anything mean about each other.

“Harteau agrees that she will not disparage the City.”

“The City agrees that it will not disparage Harteau.”

And all in the city would be well. No unpleasant public criticism about police-involved shootings and downtown crime. A distinctive silence about a fractious relationship between a mayor fighting for re-election and a chief who was recently lauded as a world leader.

Hush-hush clauses have become common in corporate America, which regularly buys the silence of former employees to keep what happens in the workplace from public discussion.

But there’s something so Minnesotan about the idea of nondisparagement. I remember when Target laid off 2,000 workers in 2015, and as they came down the headquarters escalator for the last time, boxes in hand, most of them wouldn’t say anything to reporters. They were afraid of jeopardizing their severance deals, they explained, though many of them probably wouldn’t have cast aspersions anyway.

It gets hinkier when you’re talking about people on the public payroll. That’s why some City Council members recoiled when the Star Tribune’s Adam Belz reported last week that nondisparagement was part of the severance deal that the council is set to consider this week. They said they didn’t know about it, even though it extends to what they can say.

Then Harteau told KARE 11’s Jana Shortal last Wednesday that the clause wasn’t her idea.

The next day, Hodges backpedaled. “When Chief Harteau asked for a letter of recommendation from me, I thought there was an opportunity for everyone to take the high road and that the nondisparagement clause, which is a common practice in separation agreements, could help bring the negotiation to a close,” she said in a statement. “I remain happy to provide the letter of recommendation, but if the clause is not helping with a smooth transition to Chief Arradondo, I’m happy to remove it as long as that removal doesn’t cost us more money.”

On Friday, the mayor’s spokesman, Eric Fought, said the clause was removed.

No one would be happier than I if someone turned down the nastiness meter on our public discourse. But gag orders shut down opportunities to talk about how government works and doesn’t work.

Another reason to jettison the Hodges-Harteau nonaggression pact: It’s probably illegal.

State law says that any agreement that prohibits discussion or disclosure of otherwise public personnel information is “void and unenforceable.” It applies to settlements about disputes involving public employees, which certainly seems to fit this situation.

The law hasn’t been tested very often. But in a 2015 legal opinion, the Commissioner of Administration determined that the law prohibited the city of Hastings from censoring part of an investigation into the former finance director. The former employee’s attorney had objected to the release of the unredacted report.

It’s about constructive conversation, not personal insults. Thumper would understand the difference.


Contact James Eli Shiffer at james.shiffer@startribune.com or 612-673-4116.