Wednesday, January 4, 2012

Minnesota Legislature: Sunshine on Personnel Matters

There has been a bit of banter and hub bub in the media and the public about the employment situations of Michael Brodkorb, Executive Assistant to the Senate Majority Caucus Rules and Administration Committee and Susan Thornton, Director of the Legislative-Citizens Commission on Minnesota Resources.

There have been comments by people who want to know the rationale or reason as to why Mr. Brodkorb was fired.  Many elements of the media have characterized his departure as being fired. In regards to Ms Thornton there have been op-ed articles and comments questioning her dismissal and wanting to know why.

With these decisions happening within the Legislature-the public may never know why.

As recently as a week ago I got a question from the public asking if they can get any information on the Brodkorb/Thornton employment situations.  I said virtually nothing because the Legislature is not subject to the Minnesota Government Data Practices Act, and more specifically 13.43 which governs personnel matters of local government, school districts, and state government.

If there was a firing of a high executive official in any other part of our state government or the Judiciary per their own rules which mirror the Data Practices Act, the public would know "the specific reasons for the action and data documenting the basis of the action."  There are some limited exceptions, but overall, the data is public.  Not the case with the Legislature.

Let's say a director of a division of a city government or a county planning commission was dismissed or resigned.  The public had an interest to know why.  Using the Data Practices Act, the public could find out "the existence and status of any complaints or charges against the employee, regardless of whether the complaint or charge resulted in a disciplinary action."  Not the case with the Legislature.

Another example, a school board is discussing among themselves by e-mail, text-message, or memos the status of employment of the school districts coordinator of community outreach.  The superintendent and some school board members believe the person is in the way of of their community goals.  The person is summarily dismissed.  The public may want to know why, under current law, they may not be able to get the answers.  But the individual subject, the coordinator of community outreach, could get access to all those e-mails, text-messages, and memos with very limited exceptions.  Not the case with the Legislature.

The Legislature employs hundreds of people, many of a professional career nature such as House and Senate Research and the Legislative Auditor which are considered non-partisan positions.  Other positions though are of a political nature, such as committee administrators, or researchers who do work on issues for the majority and minority parties in each body of the Legislature.  The abundant majority of these people do great service for the people of Minnesota.

Over the years I have gotten and continue to get many questions from the public how they can get access to public data from the Legislature, that is public in the judicial and executive branch.  I basically say to them it depends on who you ask.  There is a large amount of discretion within the Minnesota Legislature. 

But the outstanding question remains:  Should the public not be able to have accountability and transparency for Legislative personnel matters as is done with the executive and judicial branches?

The Legislature can take a small step by implementing rules similar to parts of the Minnesota Government Data Practices that govern personnel matters.

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