Thursday, January 7, 2010

Owasso officials find way around confidentiality agreement, reveal amount paid to settle federal lawsuit

Owasso officials Wednesday released documents indicating the city paid $175,000 to settle a federal lawsuit by a former police officer, the
Tulsa World reported today.

The former police officer's name was not in the documents, but the records show a payment was made from the city's self-insurance fund to his attorneys on the same day the case was dismissed in court, the newspaper explained.

In early December, Owasso officials refused to disclose the amount, saying it would violate a confidentiality agreement the city had agreed to as part of the settlement.

However, state law requires that "judgments, orders, and settlements of claims shall be open public records unless sealed by the court for good cause shown." (OKLA. STAT. tit. 51, § 158(G))

A federal judge had refused a request by city officials and the former officer to order confidentiality for the settlement terms.

On Wednesday, Owasso City Manager Rodney Ray said expenditure and transaction records for the city's general liability self-insurance fund were covered by the Open Records Act and disclosure wouldn't violate the confidentiality agreement.

"While the City of Owasso is bound by the terms of the settlement agreement, the city concomitantly has a compelling duty under state law to respond to requests made under the Open Records Act for documents and records," he told the Tulsa World in an e-mail. "In addition, as always, the city of Owasso seeks to be as transparent as possible in its decisions and actions."

In early December, this blog questioned why local governments are allowed to enter into secret settlements in the first place.

It's the public's money -- even if paid from a self-insurance fund or by an insurance company to which the city pays premiums.

Taxpayers are entitled to know -- need to know -- how their elected officials spend public funds and how those officials agree to settle claims against governments.

Legislators should specifically prohibit state agencies and local governments from agreeing to keep settlements secret.

Joey Senat, Ph.D.
Associate Professor
OSU School of Journalism

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