Pharos-Tribune

September 23, 2012

Secrecy bad idea for city


— Logansport city officials acknowledged last week that they had reached an out-of-court settlement with retired firefighters who claimed the city owed them for accumulated vacation time.

The city needs to release that settlement.

“The agreement is a public record,” said Stephen Key, executive director and general counsel of the Hoosier State Press Association. “Since we’re talking  about the expenditure of public money, the public has a right to know how that money is being spent.”

The Pharos-Tribune filed public records requests Thursday with both Mayor Ted Franklin and the city clerk-treasurer’s office. The city clerk-treasurer, Carol Sue Hayworth, was out of the office Friday and could not be reached for comment. Franklin said he had forwarded the request to Wayne Uhl, who is representing the city in the lawsuit. Uhl, too, was out of the office.

“I’ve asked him to call you as soon as he gets back in the office on Tuesday,” Franklin said.

Seven retired firefighters had filed the lawsuit in July 2011 claiming the city owed them $4,500 for six weeks of vacation they believed they had earned before accepting an early retirement offer the year before.

The city countered that the former firefighters’ claims ran counter to city ordinance. It said they had agreed to a $26,000 lump sum payment and that was all they had coming to them.

The city acknowledged, though, that it had tried to settle the dispute in advance of the lawsuit by offering the firefighters three weeks of vacation pay.

Court documents indicate that the two sides had agreed to mediation and that a report was filed Sept. 6. The two sides then filed an order of dismissal, which was granted last week.

Such endings are not uncommon when two parties find themselves in court. Attorneys frequently work out agreements, and the terms are frequently sealed. Both sides agree not to talk about the outcome, and the parties go their separate ways.

Such agreements often run counter to the public interest. Someone sues a manufacturer for an unsafe product, and the company buys the victim’s silence with a cash settlement.

Sometime later, someone else is injured by the same faulty product, and the process repeats itself. Meanwhile, other buyers of the product go on with their lives, unaware that they might soon join the list of victims.

The former city firefighters are under no obligation to talk about the settlement. They’re private citizens, who are perfectly within their rights to maitain their silence.

The city, though, is a government entity, and as such, it has an obligation to the general public. Key suggested that city officials never should have agreed to the so-called “no media” clause.

“I would think there would be some sort of written agreement, and that agreement is public record,” he said. “The city cannot agree to make a public record confidential. That agreement would be superceded by state law.”

Key noted a similar case in Knightstown some years back in which a former employee sued town officials. Town officials refused to release the agreement because it had been sealed, he said, but a court eventually ruled that the confidentiality agreement violated state law.

Franklin acknowledged that he had signed an agreement not to talk about the settlement, but he said he wasn’t sure he had ever had a written document outlining its terms.

“I don’t know that there’s anything here I could give you,” he said.

We’ll look forward to that phone call on Tuesday.

Kelly Hawes is managing editor of the Pharos-Tribune. He can be reached at 574-732-5155 or kelly.hawes@pharostribune.com.