Minnesota: More light, but still loopholes, in public employee payouts

By Christopher Magan
cmagan@pioneerpress.com
Posted: 06/08/2013 09:36:23 PM CDT
Updated: 06/08/2013 09:37:59 PM CDT

Advocates for more transparency in payouts to government employees who resign under fire won another victory this legislative session, but full disclosure remains elusive.

Rep. Pam Myhra, R-Burnsville, sponsored changes to the Minnesota Government Data Practices Act, the state public records law, that broaden the type of administrators who must disclose why they were paid to leave their jobs early. However, the push to make more information public about the complaints that lead to resignations was again pushed back.

“It just wasn’t going to happen,” Myhra said. “A lot of stakeholders dug their heels in.”

Minnesota requires complaints against public employees be made public if the worker is disciplined or if he or she resigns during the investigation and receives a payment of $10,000 or more of taxpayer money. Government leaders have found ways around the disclosure rules, prompting Myhra and other lawmakers to try to close loopholes in the law.

Groups that represent teachers, school administrators and other government workers have argued that increased transparency of complaints against public employes will have “unintended consequences.”

Tom Dooher, president of Education Minnesota, the state teachers union, said he understands public frustration with recent settlements, but he believes recent changes to the law will lessen the incentive for employees to settle disputes out of court. School districts could end up paying legal fees with money that could be spent educating students.

“When public employees are wrongly accused, they will sometimes accept a confidential settlement rather than spend the time and money to fight the false claims,” said Dooher, who noted teachers were not directly affected by the changes. “That cost-saving incentive is now gone.”

Gary Amoroso, executive director of the Minnesota Association of School Administrators, added that the chance that frivolous complaints could be made public is troubling because it could harm employees’ reputations.

“Even if (a complaint) is totally false, there’s a stigma that could be held against that person,” Amoroso said.

But Myhra said taxpayers deserve to know more.

“It’s still a problem,” she said. “If public money is paid out, the public should know why. Sometimes, legislation has to be in steps.”

Myhra first introduced a measure to require more transparency of public employee separation payments in 2012 after Burnsville-Eagan-Savage school leaders agreed to a quarter-million-dollar payout for a district human resources director. Reasons for the deal were not disclosed, which angered many district residents.

Under public pressure, school board members eventually revealed that the human resources director, Tania Z. Chance, had to drop complaints against Superintendent Randall Clegg in order to receive the money.

Myhra’s bill received unanimous support during the 2012 legislative session and was signed by DFL Gov. Mark Dayton. Yet, weeks later, local governments had found new ways to conceal reasons for separation deals with employees.

Last August, Minneapolis officials declined to give details about what led to the $70,000 payout to a public works supervisor, claiming he wasn’t a public official.

In January, West St. Paul-Mendota Heights-Eagan school leaders paid Henry Sibley High School Principal Robin Percival $64,590 to resign. A complaint was made against Percival, but lawyers for the district said details were not public because no disciplinary action was taken and the inquiry was closed before Percival agreed to quit.

Those payouts led Myhra to again try to close what some see as loopholes in the state’s data-practices law.

She was able to better define which administrators are subject to disclosure rules, but efforts to increase public information about complaints fell short.

“They all came at her pretty hard,” said Don Gemberling, a data-practices expert, of the groups opposed to increasing the public information about complaints.

Gemberling provided input on the proposed changes to the law and said he expects the issue to be revisited should there be more payouts that draw public criticism. He agreed with Myhra that improving public disclosure laws often happens incrementally.

“I think it’s an improvement,” Gemberling said. “I think, if we see another round of games, they’ll go at it again.”

Myhra thinks those “games” are inevitable. Attorneys, she said, will find ways that meet the needs of their clients unless legal language is bulletproof.

“As legislators, we need to be diligent to make sure the laws are as clear as possible,” she said.

Christopher Magan can be reached at 651-228-5557. Follow him at twitter.com/cmaganPiPress.