Here’s a way for local governments to prevent people from bringing litigation against them for violating confidentiality agreements in out-of-court settlements.
Don’t agree to them.
The town of Milton is embroiled in a controversy over sexual harassment allegations made by a former town official against Town Supervisor Daniel Lewza.
To make the sexual allegation case go away, the Town Board in October 2016 agreed to a settlement with the supervisor, which all parties then agreed to keep secret from the public.
This settlement involved town employees and taxpayer money — in the form of some kind of insurance payment and a deductible payment toward the settlement. The case also required the town to incur legal expenses, also at taxpayer expense.
In the latest turn of events in this case, Lewza, who did not seek re-election, has filed a notice of claim against the town claiming that Town Board member Barbara Kerr leaked details of the confidentiality agreement to the Albany Times Union, which was investigating the complaint.
In his attempt to punish the town for the leak of a redacted copy of the settlement agreement, Lewza is seeking $140,000 for lost income and another $200,000 for embarrassment, humiliation and mental distress from the town.
All of this money — from the secret payouts, the legal investigation into the sexual harassment claims, and any other future expenses the town will incur from defending against the latest claim — has to come from somebody. Anyone want to venture a guess who?
It’s common practice for towns to make unpleasant matters go away by agreeing to a settlement and then keeping it hush-hush.
It’s true, there might be savings to taxpayers from a settlement agreement as opposed to dragging a matter out in court. That might compel government officials to view it as a benefit to sign off on settlements and agree to keep the terms confidential, just to save all the legal expenses and bad publicity.
But the other side doesn’t want to go to court either, also risking legal expenses, public exposure and other consequences.
So why should the government body — beholden first to its people — agree to keep a matter confidential when it’s in the interests of both sides to settle?
The people who don’t benefit from confidentially agreements are the citizens, who have a right to know about any allegations of inappropriate or illegal conduct in their government and a right to know how much they’re paying to have matters settled.
Remember that “We the People” part of the Constitution? That expresses a trust that the government belongs to the citizens.
Confidentiality agreements violate that trust. And ultimately, they cost us all more than just money.