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City of Hawley didn't break laws when it released data on fired police chief

The city of Hawley did not violate Minnesota's Data Practices Act when it released information tied to the firing of its police chief, Mark Hanson, more than two years ago, a judge has ruled.

Hanson filed a lawsuit in Clay County District Court in 2006 claiming the city wrongfully released private data regarding his employment.

The suit focused on news reports published and broadcast on Aug. 16, 2005, four days after the Hawley City Council voted to fire Hanson for violating the city's zero-tolerance policy on the consumption of alcohol while on duty.

The termination was effective Aug. 19, 2005.

The action followed an independent investigation the city commissioned following a minor traffic accident in which Hanson was involved on May 24, 2005, while on duty. A breath test administered by the Minnesota State Patrol showed Hanson had a blood-alcohol level of .024 percent.

Hanson maintained it was because of cough medicine he'd taken.

At the request of The Forum, the city released information about the investigation on Aug. 15, 2005, and a story about the probe and Hanson's firing ran the next day. In addition, a story about Hanson's firing appeared on a TV newscast.

The suit maintained that the city's disciplinary action against Hanson was not final until Aug. 19, 2005, and therefore information contained in the stories was not public data under state law.

In a ruling filed Wednesday, Judge Steven Cahill said the city's final disciplinary action occurred with the City Council's Aug. 12, 2005, vote to fire Hanson and therefore release of information several days later was not a violation of state law. Information about the city's investigation into Hanson's traffic accident became public data when a report was given to the city on Aug. 3, 2005, the judge said.

Cahill said there was insufficient evidence of emotional distress tied to the alleged violation of law for the court to award Hanson damages.

The judge also denied Hanson's claim for damages related to lost earnings. "There has been no showing that the alleged premature release of data, by four days, had any bearing on plaintiff's subsequent inability to find employment in law enforcement," Cahill wrote.

Readers can reach Forum reporter Dave Olson at (701) 241-5555