State Rep. Pam Myhra, R-Burnsville
Minnesota state lawmakers have another shot at improving transparency when public employees receive taxpayer money as part of a separation agreement to end their employment.
State Rep. Pam Myhra, R-Burnsville, introduced legislation Thursday, Feb. 14, that would further strengthen the state’s public records law, called the Minnesota Government Data Practices Act, so the reasons for separation agreements that include more than $10,000 would be revealed to the public.
Last year, Myhra and Sen. Dan Hall, R-Burnsville, received unanimous support for a bill to improve transparency after their constituents were outraged over a $254,814 payout to a Burnsville school district administrator.
But weeks after the bill was signed by Gov. Mark Dayton, the secrecy surrounding payouts continued.
“People found all these ways around it,” Myhra said. “There wasn’t the clarity or the transparency we were looking for.”
The latest example came Feb. 4, when West St. Paul-Mendota Heights-Eagan school officials refused to reveal the nature of a complaint that led to the resignation of Henry Sibley High School Principal Robin Percival.
Percival received $64,590 to resign effective Jan. 28 and release all future legal claims against the district. Under the new law, district officials said, the complaint against Percival could remain secret because they closed the investigation and took no disciplinary action before the principal offered to resign.
The updated bill would remove the section West St. Paul school officials say allows them to keep the complaint private. It also strengthens requirements that governments give specific reasons for entering into separation deals.
For example, if a separation deal releases a government agency from the threat of a lawsuit, the bill would require the agreement to reveal “the nature of the acts, omissions, or other events that gave rise to the potential liability.”
Too often, Myhra said, separation agreements only include vague reasons like settling potential legal claims or the desire to end an employment relationship.
“That doesn’t shed a lot of light on the situation,” she said.
The bill also further defines public officials covered by the disclosure rules. That update is in response to Minneapolis city officials keeping the reasons for a $70,000 payout to a department director secret because he wasn’t a “government official.”
A recent nonbinding opinion from the Minnesota Department of Administration’s Information Policy Analysis Division agreed with Minneapolis officials’ interpretation of those rules.
Parts of the bill could again face challenges from advocates for government leaders and employees who have said increased transparency could lead to unintended consequences. They worry requiring more public information could reduce the incentive to settle disputes out of court or could reveal unfounded claims against public employees.
Myra said she believes the bill will again receive bipartisan support. Burnsville teacher and DFL state Rep. Will Morgan has signed on as a co-author.
“Parents and taxpayers are very concerned about this,” Myhra said.
Christopher Magan can be reached at 651-228-5557. Follow him attwitter.com/cmaganPiPress.