In Mendota Heights, secrecy kills careers

There’s good reason for data privacy laws in Minnesota, though city and school officials around the state have often appeared to use them to hide behind while settling scores, unaccountable to the people.

Popular school superintendents, for example, have been fired for no apparent reason. Local boards have given big payouts to employees to go away and we’re none the wiser why. Maybe there were good reasons; maybe not. Secrets must be kept. The public has a right to know except when it doesn’t.

By most accounts, Bobby Lambert was a good cop in Mendota Heights who may have made a mistake of some sort when investigating an overdose death in the community. He was fired by the City Council, which couldn’t reveal why.

Lambert said the police chief was retaliating for Lambert’s insistence in 2012 that police conduct an inquiry into the apparent theft of a picnic table by another police officer — Sgt. Eric Peterson.

That’s the same incident that led Officer Scott Patrick, later murdered during a stop, to claim the police chief engaged in workplace harassment.

In October, a third cop was put on administrative leave. Officials won’t say why.

What are people to do when its representatives and employees, for whatever legal reason, keep secrets? They use whatever shards of information they have to decide whether something smells bad.

It smelled bad to the voters of Mendota Heights, so they elected a new mayor — former cop Neil Garlock, who was one of the residents who showed up last summer at a raucous City Council hearing to support Lambert, the Pioneer Press reports.

Maybe it’s coincidence, maybe not, but the police chief, Mike Aschenbrener, resigned on Tuesday, the Pioneer Press said.

Some members of the City Council who lost re-election bids in a voter uprising, weren’t happy.

“I think Mike has done a spectacular job,” Council Member Mike Povolny told the paper. “I think he’s been beat up, abused and treated poorly by people in this town. I commend him for retiring and moving on.”

Council member Steve Norton said “if people knew everything that happened then they would have a different opinion about Chief Aschenbrener and the job he has done.”

But they don’t know what happened and they don’t have a different opinion because the system keeps secrets. What happens because it does isn’t on the voters; that’s on the government.

Whether that’s good or not we also don’t know because we don’t know the secrets. That’s unfair to Aschenbrener, the politicians, the employees, and the voters.

But it’s not the people’s fault that in the absence of transparency in government, tumult happens.

Mayor-elect Garlock said when knocking on doors during his campaign, the overwhelming complaint from residents was problems in the police department.

Voters ushered in two new council members in the election.

Povolny said the police department “ has kind of been the death of us,” the Pioneer Press said.

Secrecy will do that.

  • Rob

    Our data privacy laws are a Byzantine shame, IMHO. They do make the legal community happy, what with all the work they generate for attorneys, though that’s probably not most peoples’ idea of a silver lining.

    • Brian Scholin

      Speaking from almost forty years of practical, non-attorney, experience with both sides of these rules, I disagree. They are always a compromise, but that’s what government is supposed to provide. Could they be better? Yes, which is why they are in a constant state of examination and reconsideration. Attorneys are an important element in that process. You may not like them, but you would really not like a system without them. Chaos, clerics, and dictators are some popular alternatives.

      • Will

        Tax payers knowing where their tax dollars go is another option.

  • jon

    It’s kind of nice to see politicians getting the boot because of a lack of open government…

    I doubt that any one will learn a meaningful lesson from this though…

    • There’s nothing really the local governments can do. There’s some pretty stiff penalties for violating the state law.

      • jon

        But, local government doesn’t have to be the one learning the lesson, Again not that I think any one WILL learn a lesson… but it’d be nice…

        • Brian Scholin

          Usually, local government -with proper guidance – has learned the lesson. Your quarrel is actually with state government, which sets the rules under which local government has to operate whether they like it or not. I don’t think they have done too bad a balancing job, myself.

  • Mike Worcester

    Question for the legal beagles on here — at what point do personnel records become open to the public? If an employee who was subject to disciplinary action wants them to be revealed, can they be?

    • @richneumeister would know

      https://twitter.com/richneumeister?lang=en

    • Ben Chorn

      There should be a FOIA for a state level.

      • Brian Scholin

        There is. It just does not trump the Data Practices Act. In fact, I believe it is a part of it. But if the DPA says some info is not public, only the subject of the info can control its access beyond those with a need to know – which does not (under DPA) include the public.

    • Kassie

      This link outlines the data practices for personnel records for State of Minnesota employees. Local government should follow the same sort of rules. Some data is public, but much is considered private data and will never be open to the public. https://mn.gov/mmb/assets/Data-Practices-Personnel-Records_tcm1059-127062.pdf

    • Brian Scholin

      The employee “owns” that data. They can always make it public, if they want. It’s just usually not beneficial for either side.

  • Laurie K.

    When a discussion is being held with regard to the discipline of an employee, the governmental agency has no choice but to close the meeting unless the subject employee requests an open meeting. A member of the public may feel that it is their right to know why an officer is being disciplined, but, if the reason for termination is about job performance and non-criminal, then that employee has a right to some privacy. The legislative intent, as I understand it, was to give privacy rights to public employees.

    • Right, whether they’re legally obligated to do what they do really isn’t the point of the post however. The point is the unintended consequences of having to follow such a law.

      • Laurie K.

        I think it’s a balancing act though. When does the need for the public to know why someone is terminated outweigh an employee’s right to privacy? Would those in the private sector want their employment disciplinary records open for all to see? What if someone is terminated due to addiction issues, or mental health concerns, should we all be privy to that information? I am not saying that there isn’t anything wrong with all of the privacy laws, but I am wondering what the trade-off is.

        • Sure, of course. Can the employee approve a school board, for example, making the discussion of his termination public?

          • Laurie K.

            As I understand it, it is always an option for the subject employee to allow the meeting to be open.

          • Brian Scholin

            Yes, definitely. The employee always has that option. Few use it, and by the time they do, the positions on both sides are usually so entrenched that it is to no one’s benefit.

    • Kassie

      My understanding of the data practices law is that dicipline actions and the reasons for those actions are public. The link I posted above states the following is public:
      The final disposition of any disciplinary action together with the specific reasons for the action and data documenting the basis of the action, excluding data that would identify confidential sources who are employees of the state agency…

      • Brian Scholin

        “Final disposition” usually means “employee was terminated”, and “specific reasons” usually gets you “unsatisfactory job performance” or “failure to make progress in correcting deficiencies.” Seldom does anyone push beyond that. When they do, the attorney has a lot of other euphemisms available. If you stick with the collective will of the Council, you have to use what they give you.

  • Brian Scholin

    Having been on both sides of this issue for several decades, I see both the need for this law and the problems it causes. But I believe you always have to err slightly on the side of individual privacy, if you have to err at all. In my small-town-city-council experience, the facts seldom stay secret for long anyway, and usually hardly at all for those who attend meetings regularly. Which is almost no one, with newspaper cutbacks…

    What I see as the main drawback to the data practices rules is its stifling effect on open discussion, by those on the Council who don’t fully understand the rules, and therefore violate them unknowingly when no one’s looking. There may be some intentional flaunting as well, but most of it is a lack of clear understanding. I have yet to find a fix for this in my situation. There are few qualifying tests for elected positions, so we do the best we can.

  • Will

    So pass a state law to fix this, none of this is due to national security so there’s zero need for secrecy laws at all.

    • Kassie

      As a public employee, I disagree. Personnel files contain tons of private information about employees that is none of your business. People forget that public employees are also private citizens and have the same right to privacy as other private citizens.

      • Will

        You want the nice benefits of a government job then you need be open with the tax payers.

        • Kassie

          How about this, you want good government employees who perform their jobs efficiently and effectively, you need to treat them like human beings.

          The second my personnel record, which includes private health data, my social security number, and my home phone and address becomes public information, I’m leaving. As are a whole lot of my co-workers. We already have to have our salaries published in the paper, all our emails subject to FOIA requests, and everything we do scrutinized, all the while being villainized by conservatives. We don’t need our private data shared also.

          • Will

            If you are given a large sum of money due to a buyout in your contract the tax payers deserve to know why.

        • Kassie

          And to those “nice benefits,” I’m significantly underpaid for my profession, no longer only work 40 hour weeks, have had significant health care costs increases in the last few years, and am just waiting for my pension to be decimated by the Republican legislature. The only reasons I stay is I can look myself in the mirror in the morning since I do things that benefit citizens of Minnesota and the vacation/sick/holiday package I get.

          • Will

            Haha, a pension, what’s that? I’ve never seen one in the private sector. I pay for 36%-50% of my health insurance premiums depending on the year/plan, I’m guessing you pay a much lower percentage. I do get 4 weeks of vacation plus a week for Christmas…but I’m pretty sure I’ll lose that once we transition into the buyout…yep, as I said you have a sweet deal and don’t even realize it. On our tax payer dime to boot!

          • Will

            Pensions are rescued by the feds, we both know that happens even if a private company goes bankrupt. The medical coverage is a bit messy but it sounds like the government is going to cover that too.

          • Kassie

            Sure, but what about the part where I am also significantly underpaid? If I was paid the going rate for someone with my skills and years of work, I could pay my insurance in full and still be making more money. And most companies probably put more money into their employees’ 401k than mine puts into my pension. I really do not have a sweet deal. I’m very aware of what I could get in the private sector and it is much better.

          • Will

            I’m getting underpaid too, for my title I’m in the bottom 10 percentile…my company contributes 2% of my income to my 401k, that’s awful and I’m 100% sure your pension is being funded at a higher rate than that.

            Now tell me again you have a bad deal.

          • Will

            BTW, if you could get a better job in the private sector why not do it?