Sunday, August 31, 2014

Closed-door "deal" in St Paul and solution

The Black Bear Crossings $800,000 settlement should create needed discussion with the public, policymakers, and government officials.  In this case as with many other similar type of settlements it's done and negotiated behind closed doors with no public insight as to what happened, how it happened, and what lessons are learned.

I wrote a post on an analogous situation dealing with huge settlements because of law enforcement misdeeds last year.  The secrecy involved in government civil settlements is very troubling.  Dollar settlements by government are reached in all kinds of situations such as employment, contract, and the inaction's and actions of government as it administers its functions with it's broad power.  Over the years I have seen many settlement agreements arising out of disputes with government.  I would say a frequent number of them are to make disturbing and shameful "cans of worms" go away, often with statements to deny liability and have government and parties involved gagged and not to talk with public and the media.

For example, these are two clauses in the settlement with Black Bear Crossings that illustrate the denial and gagging behavior.

"Plaintiffs (Black Bear Crossings) acknowledge the City (St Paul) has denied and continues to deny any liability for the Claims asserted in the Plaintiffs' Complaint, Plaintiffs agree that this Agreement shall not be in any way be construed as an admission by the City of any unlawful or wrongful act whatsoever........."

"The parties and their counsel hereby agree not to comment on the terms, impact, or basis for the Parties' decision to enter into this agreement to the media..........."

But what also the agreement calls for, if the public inquires along with the media, specific terms to respond with, such as the "case was resolved to the mutual satisfaction" of both parties and if continued questioning say "no comment"

Like I said there are different kinds of dispute settlements with government, a great number of them involve personnel/employment matters.  Years ago, when personnel settlements were being hammered out with gag clauses to keep the public from knowing anything and why thousand's of public dollars were being spent, a bill was introduced and became law to remedy that.  It may be time to do the same with other kind of settlements arising from disputes and disagreements with government.

The proposed bill could go something like this:  (modified from Minnesota Statute 13.43, subdivision 10)

"A government entity may not enter into an agreement settling a dispute arising out of the relationship with the purpose or effect of limiting access to or disclosure or limiting the discussion of information or opinions related An agreement or portion of an agreement that violates this paragraph is void and unenforceable.
(b) Paragraph (a) applies to the following, but only to the extent that the data or information could otherwise be made accessible to the public:
(1) an agreement not to discuss, publicize, or comment on ........ data or information;
(2) an agreement that limits the ability of the subject of..... data to release or consent to the release of data; or
(3) any other provision of an agreement that has the effect of limiting the disclosure or discussion of information that could otherwise be made accessible to the public."

This kind of law would do several things for the public.  Bring transparency, allow for public and government officials to comment as to what happened, but more important to learn the why and what the government will do so that headaches and complications that caused hundreds of thousands or millions of public dollars will not happen again.

Yes, Council Members Bostrom and Chris Tolbert I share your "frustration and disgust" as I know many members of the public do.  But what are you and the Minnesota Legislature going to do about it?

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