Original article by Christopher Magan
St. Paul Pioneer Press
2:45 a.m. CDT, May 5, 2012
Local governments can no longer pay top officials under fire to resign without publicly saying why, thanks to a bill unanimously supported by state lawmakers and signed by the governor.
“I think it was ripe,” said Rep. Pam Myhra, the bill’s author. “I just think it was ready; taxpayers and parents really wanted to see this. I think stakeholders knew it was time.”
Gov. Mark Dayton signed Myhra’s bill on Friday, May 4 after it received unanimous votes in both houses of the Legislature last month. She wrote the bill in response to public outrage over the secrecy surrounding a nearly quarter-million-dollar buyout of a Burnsville-Eagan-Savage school official.
The measure strengthens the Minnesota Government Data Practices Act, the state open-records law, by requiring that investigations of top leaders be made public even if they resign before the inquiries are concluded or receive a taxpayer-funded severance. Past complaints were only released if disciplinary action was taken.
The bill also clarifies that the “complete” terms of employee separation agreements are public when they involve more than $10,000 of public money.
“I think it is one of the best pieces of legislation we put out this year,” said Sen. Dan Hall, R-Burnsville, who guided the bill through the Senate, where it stalled and was amended before receiving unanimous support.
Myhra, R-Burnsville, initially hoped to make all investigations public, but advocates for local government leaders pushed back, fearing the release of false accusations and other “unintended consequences.”
She wrote the legislation after a $254,814 separation agreement between Burnsville-Eagan-Savage schools and former human resources director Tania Z. Chance sparked community outrage. Much of the frustration was aimed at school leaders who refused to give many details about the reasons for the payout, one of the largest for a local government official in recent memory.
Citing legal advice, school leaders redacted part of Chance’s separation agreement and gave few details about what led to her departure just six months into a new two-year contract. After repeated requests for more information, district officials asked the Information Policy Analysis Division of the Minnesota Department of Administration if they had released enough information.
The state agency opinion found Burnsville schools withheld information that was public, prompting the district to release a complete version of Chance’s deal. In it, Chance was required to drop complaints she filed, one to the Minnesota Department of Human Rights and another to the state Board of School Administrators that involved Superintendent Randall Clegg.
School official have acknowledge the district also received a complaint regarding Clegg, but no disciplinary action was taken.
Under the new legislation, there would be no question of whether the entire separation agreement is public, Myhra said. Complaints made by an employee that were abandoned as part of a separation deal would also be revealed.
“This is a great advancement for transparency and I think taxpayers will be thankful for it,” Myhra said. Constituents have responded positively, she added.
Ron Hill, chairman of the Burnsville school board, said he had not seen the final bill, but he and the rest of the board were “supportive” of Myhra’s work.
“Any help from the Legislature to bring clarity to the Data Practices Act law is one we are supportive of,” Hill said.
Open-government advocates have applauded the measure as one of the best advancements in transparency in years. Mark Anfinson, attorney for the Minnesota Newspaper Association, said the changes will not only give the public more information about how tax money is spent, but it could also influence the types of settlements that government bodies enter into.
“The real public benefit is going to be not only access to information, but considerably enhanced accountability that this will impose on senior managers,” Anfinson said. “Less money will be paid out. The indirect effect access brings is accountability.”
Christopher Magan can be reached at 651-228-5557. Follow him at twitter.com/cmaganPiPress. Read our blog: Ahead of the Class at http://blogs.twincities.com/education/.