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Lifting the veil on sudden departures by government officials

Posted by: on Aug 26, 2013 | No Comments

By James Eli Shiffer, the Star Tribune’s watchdog and data editor, and brand-new COGI board member

Nine months after he arrived to run a 300-employee department for the city of Minneapolis, Gregory Stubbs abruptly quit. The City Council gave him $65,000 and gave the public no explanation.

The Star Tribune reporters who cover Minneapolis thought they had an easy way to find out why Stubbs left. They sent a public records request to the city invoking a new provision of the Data Practices Act designed to shed light on the departure of “public officials” who leave in the midst of scandal. The law had been changed following outrage over the pricy and unexplained severance package given to a school official in Burnsville.

But the city of Minneapolis had a surprising response: the city’s director of regulatory services isn’t a public official, as defined by the law. The Star Tribune went to IPAD for an opinion, and the agency agreed with the city. As it turns out, the law was drafted in such a way that it excluded most of Minneapolis’ top officials, including the police and fire chiefs. Reporter Eric Roper turned that situation to his advantage, writing a story about the loophole and getting a key lawmaker on the record that it would be changed.

The Legislature followed through this year by broadening the definition of “public official” to eliminate any doubt that it covered Minnesota’s largest city. In an era when lawmakers are making more and more exemptions to the Data Practices Act, this was one significant advance for the public’s right to know.

It took weeks before the Stubbs documents arrived at the Star Tribune. They were heavily redacted, but  they documented the sex discrimination and ethics complaints that preceded Stubbs’ departure. On Aug. 23, nearly a year after we first asked for the records, the Star Tribune published the story on the metro cover.

I learned several lessons from this journey: Read the law. Hold lawmakers accountable for their pledge of openness. Keep up the pressure on governments to release records. And when you get the records, publish a story. It lets everybody know we mean business.