This post might seem like an intensely local issue, important only to people who live in Fargo, but as you read this remember the same tactic could be deployed by your local leaders.
Around the 4th of July holiday Fargo Park District executive director Joel Vettel – a well-known face in the community after a long-time tenure with the Fargo Police Department – abruptly left his job.
The park district board has approved a separation agreement which pays Vettel nearly $75,000 in salary through the end of the year, plus roughly $11,400 in benefits if I’m doing my math right based on the figures in this report from Fargo Forum reporter David Olson.
The park board wasn’t exactly forthcoming with the agreement – the Forum had to invoke the state’s very strong open records laws to get a copy of it (it’s at this link) – and part of the agreement is a stipulation that neither Vettel nor the board talk about, well, much of anything.
There’s a section indicating the park board will make no public announcement of the resignation:
There’s a section prohibiting the park board and Vettel from making disparaging comments about one another:
And there’s a section about the confidentiality of the agreement, which seems kind of pointless because it also acknowledges that the agreement is subject to state open records laws, which is why we have access to it:
Fargo taxpayers are on the hook for tens of thousands of dollars in payments and benefits to an employee who will no longer be working for them the rest of the year, and yet the taxpayers aren’t allowed to know what’s going on. It’s all a big secret. In fact, the park board has signed a legal agreement stipulating that it’s a secret.
Which is a handy way for them to avoid accountability, don’t you think? They can’t answer questions because they’re legally prohibited from doing so.
It’s absolute bunk.
There was a 1997 state Supreme Court case, Toth vs. Disciplinary Board of the Supreme Court of North Dakota, which dealt with an attempt to circumvent state open records laws by including a confidentiality clause in a settlement agreement. “The legality and enforceability under the North Dakota open records law of such a broad implicit agreement is questionable,” the court found.
In this instance we’re not dealing with a record – the settlement agreement between Vettel and the park board has been made public upon request – but rather with the willingness of public officials to talk about what’s going on. Open records laws only deals with records. It cannot compel public officials to explain themselves.
But voters can. The park board has no business using a legal settlement with a departing employee to avoid explaining to their bosses, the voters, what’s going on.
This is the public’s business. It should be done in public. If these elected officials won’t hold themselves to that standard, perhaps it’s time for Fargo voters to find people who will.