Settlement agreements involving governmental agencies or officials are public records. However, public agencies often balk at releasing these records or disclose only the final signed agreement at best. Settlements often involve large sums of public money, whether paid by a governmental agency or its insurer (taxpayer-funded premiums are commensurate with payments under the policy), but formalization of the terms in a document for signature — and signing of the agreement by all parties — can take many weeks or months from the time an agreement is reached.
We live in a world where news is shared instantaneously and where reporting favors current news over old. Delaying release of relevant news — such as news of an incident or large settlement — may reduce media coverage or public scrutiny. As a result, accountability suffers because the employment, conduct or culture that gave rise to the incident may be allowed to quietly continue. Taxpayers will bear the future cost of that, and thus they have an interest in timely notice.
The question of whether the public has a right to documents setting forth the terms of a settlement prior to the formal agreement being signed is before Burlington County Judge Ronald E. Bookbinder in OPRA case Libertarians For Transparent Government v. Willingboro Township (BUR-L-1415-16), currently scheduled to be heard on Oct. 12, 2016 at 2:00 PM in Mount Holly. The lawsuit that gave rise to the settlement agreement concerns a police excessive force claim and was marked settled by the court on May 20, 2016. However, it took Willingboro another two months to finalize the settlement agreement. Meanwhile, the Township’s decision to pay $75,000 to settle the case was kept from the public.
The case summary and documents related to the case are available HERE.
The hearing date, time and location are subject to change. If you plan to attend, please call the court offices at 609-518-2984 the day prior to check if there have been changes.
ON THE SAME TOPIC (settlement terms):
September 6, 2016
Two OPRA cases seeking draft settlement agreements and correspondence to be heard this month.
September 6, 2016
OPRA win: Passaic judge orders disclosure of draft settlement agreement.
January 27, 2016
OPRA lawsuit seeks “informal” correspondence that revealed Bayonne lawsuits’ settlement amounts.