A judge was persuaded to hear a former Faribault County employee’s case behind closed doors last Thursday in Blue Earth.
Attorney Jeffrey Schiek of Minneapolis and Watonwan County Judge Darci Benz met in the judge’s chambers 25 minutes prior to the start of the hearing.
Schiek evidently was able to convince Benz that a scheduled open hearing should not be open to the public.
Benz offered no explanation for her decision and responded, “No you may not,” when asked if she would answer questions after the hearing.
Mark Anfinson, an attorney for the Minnesota Newspapers Association, called the judge’s action “definitely troubling.”
“This is very rarely allowed and requires a clear demonstration of significant, specific reasons for confidentiality,” he says. “The simple agreement of attorneys is not at all sufficient.”
Anfinson says there’s a state Supreme Court ruling that spells out what procedures need to be followed to close a hearing.
Schiek is representing former Veterans Services Office head officer David Hanson, who is trying to block release of any investigation findings relating to a complaint filed against him.
In court documents, former County Attorney Troy Timmerman and the county are listed as the defendants.
Benz is hearing the case for Timmerman, who was appointed judge for the Fifth Judicial District in January and recused himself to avoid any conflict of interest.
Soldo Consulting, P.C., of Woodbury was looking into the complaint when Hanson resigned last August and agreed to a $36,000 separation agreement with the county.
The investigation was halted after Hanson stepped down and Michelle Soldo billed the county $6,334 for the work she had done.
Information as to the nature of the complaint, when and who filed it has never been made public.
Anfinson says under the state’s Data Practices law information about a complaint must be disclosed even if no discipline occurs and an employee who is considered a “public official” resigns.
Under the law, in a county with a population of more than 5,000, a “public official” is defined as managers, chiefs, heads or directors of departments, divisions, bureaus, or boards, and any equivalent positions.
Also, if a public official resigns or is terminated from employment while the complaint or charge is pending, all data relating to the complaint or charge are public, unless access to the data would jeopardize an active investigation or reveal confidential sources.
After a 30-minute hearing with Schiek and the county’s attorney Susan Hansen, Benz took the case under advisement.