Feb. 12, 2013 — The Lassen County Times seeks the details of the settlement agreement of a recently resolved wrongful termination lawsuit filed by a veteran Lassen County employee.
The county declined to release a copy of the settlement agreement between the parties — which is not included in the court file — when the newspaper asked for it last month. Then the employee’s attorney also declined to comment or reveal the terms of the deal.
Why should the newspaper and its readers care about this? Neither party has disclosed the details of this settlement so no one knows for sure, but it’s reasonable to suspect the employee may have received taxpayer money to resolve the dispute and dismiss his lawsuit. Clearly the public deserves to know how government entities spend the public’s money, and without a transparent response, the newspaper must ask the question and seek an answer.
In response to these denials, the newspaper has filed a second California Public Records Act request for the settlement agreement between the county and the employee — this time in writing — and that request currently is under review by Lassen County Counsel.
The county says it considers the issue a confidential personnel matter, and it need not disclose the settlement terms. County counsel also alleges the release of the settlement agreement is contrary to county policy. While the county may be free to create all policies and procedures it desires, those polices and procedures cannot trump the state law that requires it to disclose the terms of the settlement in this case.
While the employee and his attorney have no obligation to disclose the details of the settlement, the county does.
According to Jim Ewert, general counsel for the California Newspaper Publisher’s
Association, the county is not required to disclose the terms it is willing to accept when discussing a possible settlement of such a lawsuit because the disclosure of those terms would put the county at a disadvantage during the negotiations. California’s Open Meeting Law, commonly known as the Brown Act, provides just such an exemption for the county.
If, for example, the opposing party knew the amount the county was willing to pay to settle a matter, that disclosure severely limits the county’s ability to effectively negotiate a settlement.
According to Ewert, when the county directs its attorney to settle a lawsuit within certain terms — usually in closed session — it has taken an action that is exempt from disclosure.
But once the matter is resolved, the county must disclose the terms of such a settlement upon request because that exemption no longer applies. Releasing a copy of the settlement agreement cannot harm the county’s ability to negotiate a settlement because a settlement has already been reached. The negotiations a public disclosure may jeopardize have ended.
The public has no way to know how this matter was resolved and if justice was served unless the county releases a copy of the negotiated settlement as required by Brown Act.
We take our constitutional watchdog responsibility seriously. The public has a right to know how this matter was resolved, and rest assured this newspaper will continue its effort to obtain a copy of that settlement agreement.
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