A tenet of conducting the public's business, particularly spending its money, is that it must be done in the open.
How and why tax dollars are spent should be abundantly clear to the people footing the bill. That's true whether it involves paying a police officer's salary or paying to settle a lawsuit filed by a police officer.
Bluffton town manager Anthony Barrett refused to disclose how much money was paid in a settlement with former Bluffton police lieutenant Katherine Sours as a result of her wrongful termination lawsuit against the town. That is wrong and so would be the town's keeping secret the terms of the settlement, which was reached through mediation in May. Sours and her attorney also refused to discuss the settlement, citing a confidentiality agreement signed by both parties.
This newspaper has asked the town to disclose the terms, and we're waiting for an answer.
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Our request is anchored by the state's open records law, the state attorney general's interpretation of that law and a directive from the state Supreme Court to judges.
The state Freedom of Information Act specifically states that information dealing with the receipt or expenditure of money by a public body must be made public.
The attorney general, in a 2007 advisory opinion involving a lawsuit settlement between the Beaufort County School District and former principal Laverne Davis, stated that a settlement agreement is a public record subject to disclosure under the law. Anything in it that might be kept secret under the law can be separated from the rest of the settlement, which then should be released.
The state Supreme Court is unequivocal in its direction to judges on the issue of settlements involving public bodies:
"Under no circumstances shall a court approve sealing a settlement agreement which involves a public body or institution."
It could not be more clear that such settlements, regardless of whether the parties involved want confidentiality, should be open to the public.
The attorney general and the Supreme Court point to the purpose of the Freedom of Information Act and our open court system. The law's preamble states, "It is vital in a democratic society that public business be performed in an open and public manner."
Not only is it important that the public know the dollar amount spent to settle lawsuits, but we also should understand the circumstances surrounding the settlement of the issues raised, particularly when they involve important public policy questions -- in this case, the management of the Bluffton Police Department.
The lawsuit was filed in November 2009 after Sours was laid off that June. Before the lawsuit'sfiling and after Barrett became town manager in September 2009, Chief David McAllister was the target of numerous complaints from subordinates. Barrett and town attorney Terry Finger met with officers. Barrett said then that they discussed "concerns and fears about how discipline, individual treatment, promotions, departmental expectations and regulations are applied or not applied."
In the wake of the complaints, the town adopted a new grievance procedure, and Barrett determined that McAllister would not be "terminated, demoted, suspended, disciplined or put on probation."
Given that context and the seriousness of the allegations in Sours' lawsuit, the settlement terms could help the public assess whether the complaints were handled appropriately and whether McAllister was unfairly criticized over his management of the department.
Bluffton isn't the only public body to follow this legal course of secrecy, a course more often laid out by attorneys than the people who hire them. The issue gets more complicated when lawsuits are turned over to attorneys working for the public body's insurer.
We're seeing it, too, in the lawsuit filed against Beaufort County over paramedics' treatment of Brian Lanese, a Bluffton area resident who was badly beaten at his home. Discipline records of the two paramedics involved have been withheld from the public because they have been placed under seal by the court as part of the lawsuit proceedings. Case law says those records should be public.
Since the 2007 attorney general's opinion, the school district has released terms of settlements. Other elected officials should take note.
For its part, the public should demand the openness to which it is entitled under the law.