Star Tribune: End the secrecy on officials’ payouts

Bill would require transparency in public-employee settlements.

In his only public statement about the $255,000 payout to his former human-resources director, Burnsville schools chief Randy Clegg did nothing to clarify the matter. In fact, his comments muddied the waters further, if that’s possible.

On Monday, Superintendent Clegg defended hiring Tania Chance back in 2010, gave her high marks for her “professional qualities” and said he “would highly recommend her for any position in the human resources area.”

So if all of that is true, why pay Chance $255,000 not to apply those superb skills in Burnsville? The glowing assessment deepens the mystery around why it was necessary to craft such a pricey agreement to buy Chance out of the remaining 18 months on her contract.

Add to the intrigue the fact that Chance had filed complaints against Clegg with both the Minnesota Board of Administrators and the state Human Rights Department. A condition of the settlement was that those charges have been dropped and that neither side can talk about them.

In the absence of more-complete information, speculation can and will run wild about what may — or may not — have happened here.

But it’s not just inquiring minds that want to know. The taxpayers who paid that big bill want and deserve an explanation. They rightly made that clear late last week when dozens of angry district residents questioned the Burnsville-Eagan-Savage school board about the decision.

Like the superintendent’s remarks, the board’s response was unsatisfactory. During the listening session, board members maintained that they are forbidden by the Minnesota Government Data Practices Act from revealing details about Chance’s departure.

Some boards and administrators say that the secrecy surrounding separation agreements allows the parties in such situations to resolve what could become long and even more costly investigations or court battles.

Paying a few hundred thousand now is better than spending two or three times as much over a longer period of time, they argue, even if district leaders believe they’ve done nothing wrong.

Too many school districts and other local government bodies have taken that approach when dismissing officials — too often with six-figure cushions and vague explanations.

The severance-and-silence treatment occurs despite a provision in the Data Practices Act that says settlements resolving disputes with public employees “must include specific reasons for the agreement if it involves the payment of more than $10,000 in public money.”

That may seem clear, but legal interpretations over the years have often skirted the original intent of the law. Lawyers have argued, for example, that once a settlement is reached, there is no “dispute,” so the law doesn’t apply. One data practices expert called that a “creative interpretation” of the statute.

To require more disclosure, Rep. Pam Myhra, R-Burnsville, introduced a bill that would drop the dispute clause altogether. She proposed that no matter the reason, the public should be told about the circumstances that lead to any payout of more than $10,000 for any contractual public officials.

The measure is a step in the right direction. Minnesota’s data practices rules need stronger, clearer language about payouts to public employees.