Pioneer Press: Big payouts – public needs to know why

“Just keep writing your checks, folks, and don’t ask any questions.”

That was columnist Joe Soucheray’s quip last month on the quarter- million-dollar payout to the Burnsville school district’s human resources director to resign her post.

Officials refused to say why they paid her that much to leave the district just seven months into a new two-year contract.

The public outcry is understandable. More than 150 residents packed a school board “listening session” March 1 to voice their displeasure over the payout and the secrecy, with many calling for the board and superintendent to resign.

Minnesota’s freedom-of-information advocates long have been proud of the state’s tradition of leadership in openness.

“Still, the state’s statutes shield information about the job performance of public officials in ways other states’ laws do not,” the Pioneer Press’ Christopher Magan reported.

A remedy: legislation introduced this week to strengthen part of the Minnesota Government Data Practices Act. The measure – forwarded to the House Civil Law Committee after a unanimous vote Tuesday by the Education Finance Committee – has our support.

It would require disclosure of specific reasons for employee separation payments, regardless of whether a dispute exists, when the payments include more than $10,000 of public money.

The bill’s chief author is Rep. Pam Myhra, a first-term Republican from Burnsville. Myhra told us Wednesday that she heard from a significant number of parents and taxpayers who were calling for answers.

Meanwhile, district officials said they were “being as transparent as the law would allow,” she said.

The current statute is vague, Myhra believes, and “clarifying the language will maximize transparency.”

In a report Sunday, Magan provided some perspective from leaders on freedom-of-information issues:

– In the 1990s, working for the state’s Administration Department, Don Gemberling wrote the portion of the statute requiring “specific reasons” for settlements. Gemberling, now with the Minnesota Coalition on Government Information, said that by “specific,” he meant considerably more specific than recent explanations. “Do I think there’s some creative interpreting of the statute going on? Oh, yeah,” said Gemberling.

– “The attorneys for these public bodies are far more eager than they should be to keep these things private,” said Minnesota Newspaper Association attorney Mark Anfinson.

It’s a debate that’s especially appropriate during Sunshine Week, March 11-17. Ultimately, the sunlight of open government will give the folks writing the checks more power.