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Editorial: Disclose terms of settlements

Editorial: Disclose terms of settlements

Public has right to know impact of litigation
Editorial: Disclose terms of settlements
Photographer: Shutterstock

There are consequences to a court officer assaulting an inmate at a county jail or while transporting him to court — and it’s not just the consequences to the inmate or the officers involved in the assault.

There are also financial consequences to taxpayers, and the taxpayers have a right to know exactly that they’ll be paying.

In Montgomery County, two inmates have reportedly reached settlements in two separate lawsuits, both involving police brutality allegations.

In one case, an inmate says he was punched, kicked, slapped, jolted and struck with a Taser multiple times by more than one officer while serving time in the Montgomery County Jail.

The other case alleges that officers pushed and punched a man as he was being transported to a court appearance, exacerbating head and bodily injuries the man had recently suffered in a motorcycle crash.

County officials are expected to decide on whether to approve whatever settlements have been negotiated, possibly as early as today.

So far, the terms of the settlement have not been disclosed.

According to advisory opinions from the state Committee on Open Government, government officials have a legal obligation under the state Freedom of Information Law to disclose the terms of such settlements to the public.

The requirement for disclosure actually falls under several categories of the law.

Given that the law operates on the presumption of disclosure, only matters specifically exempted from disclosure can be kept from the public. Legal settlements are not specifically exempted.

Governments also are required to disclosure the expenditure of public money. So if money is changing hands, the county must disclose it.

We’re confident that county officials don’t intend to continue to keep the information about the settlements from the public and that they disclose the full terms of the settlements — including what the county and/or its insurance carrier have to pay out, whatever it cost for the county to defend against the allegations, and whatever effects it might have on the county’s insurance premiums.

By disclosing the settlement terms, county officials would not just be telling taxpayers a dollar amount.

They’ll also be giving them information and possibly the inspiration they need to demand more accountability from county officials and employees in terms of how they treat citizens, including people in custody.

Taxpayers knowing they’ll be forced to pay out a specific amount of money as compensation for government actions, and knowing what the county was forced to pay in legal fees and court costs, could be the impetus for the public to demand better accountability and supervision and training of officers.

It could be the impetus for greater security measures at county facilities. It could be impetus for stricter hiring practices.

The public doesn’t like having to pay for lax supervision or poor hiring practices. And it doesn’t like the thought that what happened to these inmates could happen to themselves, a friend or a relative or some other citizens.

We hope that county officials see fit to disclose the terms.

It’s more than about money. It’s also about accountability.

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