By Christopher Magan
Posted: 04/22/2012 12:01:00 AM CDT
April 23, 2012 4:45 AM GMTUpdated: 04/22/2012 11:45:34 PM CDT
The veil that now covers details of investigations into the conduct of top local government officials and the severance deals that can come in the wake of those inquires could soon be lifted.
State Rep. Pam Myhra, R-Burnsville, authored legislation to strengthen disclosure rules for investigations and taxpayer-funded settlements with high-ranking local government employees.
“This brings a lot more sunshine and transparency to government,” Myhra said.
Myhra wrote the bill after residents in her district expressed outrage over the few details released concerning a $254,814 payout to a former Burnsville-Eagan-Savage schools human resources director. Tania Z. Chance received the payment as part of a separation agreement that ended her employment just six months into a two-year contract.
School district officials redacted parts of the separation agreement and have said little about the reasons for Chance’s departure, citing privacy rules under the Minnesota Government Data Practices Act, which governs public records. After mounting public pressure to disclose details, district officials appealed to the Information Policy Analysis Division of the Minnesota Department of Administration for an opinion on whether the district disclosed enough.
A ruling is expected by Tuesday, April 24.
An unredacted copy of the agreement leaked to news organizations showed the agreement required Chance to drop any complaints she made to the district and state agencies about
Superintendent Randall Clegg in order to receive the severance payment.
Senators debated Myhra’s bill Friday before tabling it until more “stakeholders” had time to weigh in.
Sen. Ron Latz, DFL-St. Louis Park, said Education Minnesota, the state’s teachers union, as well as advocacy groups for superintendents and principals had concerns about the bill.
They specifically worried it could require the disclosure of federally protected medical information.
“It’s easy to see the unintended consequences,” said Tom Dooher, Education Minnesota president, in a statement. “Medical records and unfounded allegations, which have been considered private for decades, could suddenly become public information with each separation agreement with our front-line educators.”
A number of other groups also have weighed in on the proposed changes.
Laura Kushner, human resources director for the League of Minnesota Cities, said her agency worked with the authors to fine-tune the legislation.
“We have been at the table and come to an understanding with the authors,” Kushner said. “It is probably something we are going to live with.”
Open-government advocates have cheered the legislation, calling it one of the biggest improvements of data practices act in decades.
“This addition is a major improvement to the way things are now,” said Don Gemberling, a longtime advocate of government transparency who once led the Information Policy Analysis Division.
Not only would the legislation require full disclosure of the details of a separation agreement involving more than $10,000 of taxpayer money; it also would make public the details of any investigation of top local administrators such as superintendents, city managers and human resources directors.
Current law calls for disclosure of investigations involving a state employee, but local leaders are shielded unless the inquiry results in disciplinary action. If a local administrator chooses to resign before an investigation is finished, the details remain secret.
Myhra’s bill passed the House with a 131-0 vote April 16.
Sen. Dan Hall, R-Burnsville, plans to meet with stakeholders at 8 a.m. Monday, April 23, and bring the bill back to the Senate floor before the end of the legislative session.
Myhra believes the measure has a good chance of becoming law.
“I think we have fine-tuned it enough that we have a good bill, and hopefully the governor will sign it,” she said.