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Accountability is only for the big city? We disagree

When is a town just too small for its citizens to expect accountability from its taxpayer-paid leaders?

Never?

That would be our answer, too. But under current Minnesota law, residents of small cities — those with fewer than 7,500 people — have less access to information about the personnel records of city leaders than people who live in larger towns. If you need a definition of “defies logic,” that’s a good place to start.

A change to the state law championed by Sen. Jeff Howe, R-Rockville, would tighten that exemption. But first, lawmakers will have to bypass resistance from the League of Minnesota Cities and the Minnesota Association of Small Cities. Those organizations say there’s a need to balance employee privacy with the public’s right to know about its government’s inner workings.

We don’t disagree. We do, however, think their idea of balancing those competing interests puts the public on the losing side. The compromises that are on the table to satisfy them — basing the exemption on the number of direct reports the employee has, rather than city size — takes the teeth out of this very necessary change. But more on that later. First, here’s a real-life, close-to-home example of how the current law falls short:

In June 2018, St. Joseph’s sitting police chief resigned after facing undisclosed allegations into which the city conducted an investigation. A not-insignificant number of people stood up for the chief, questioning the process and outcome. By resigning before that process was complete, the public was legally shut out of knowing the nature of the accusations and making their own judgement.

Ultimately, the protection that law provided for the former police chief proved pointless anyway. A different state law made records from a police licensing board public. Reporting into those public records by the St. Cloud Times’ Clairissa Baker eventually brought the circumstances of the resignation and investigation into the open, as it should have been all along.

We sympathize with the argument put forth by Cap O’Rourke, executive director of the Minnesota Association of Small Cities, who points out that in a small city, the person who plows the road might very likely also be a department head. The implication is that it’s not fair to expose those folks to the same accountability as public servants in larger communities.

While we sympathize, we don’t believe the direct-reports compromise will allow for enough change in the law to matter. In a small city, a department head — the person who controls a lot of taxpayer money and determines how to provide a city service — might not have any direct reports.

To the association’s credit, O’Rourke said, “we do think public safety officials, police chiefs and fire chiefs should be held to a different standard. And so regardless of city size, we do think this should apply to them.”

We think it should apply to every public official with significant oversight of public funds, public policy and public works in cities and towns of all sizes. Accountability isn’t just a privilege of the urban taxpayer.

— St. Cloud Times

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