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.