Matt Von Pinnon, Published October 04 2009
Von Pinnon: A follow-up to last week’s column on rut settlementLast week in this space, I discussed some questions posed in a Sept. 24 letter to the city of Fargo by The Forum, WDAY-TV and WDAY-AM (970) regarding the city’s settlement over a Dec. 10 traffic accident that killed 8-year-old Amanda Leininger.
We felt taxpayers ought to know the terms of the out-of-court settlement, but we were more concerned about the lack of transparency in the process used to achieve it. We felt if the city could keep such a matter private, and if no public votes of elected officials were required to spend $450,000 of taxpayer money, what else might that extend to if left unchecked?
In our Sept. 24 letter, we asked six specific questions of city officials to get to the heart of the matter. The mayor and city attorney replied in a Sept. 28 letter to us.
The city essentially argues commissioners by law had a right to settle this issue behind closed doors. We, on the other hand, interpret the law to say elected officials can discuss strategy and negotiate a settlement behind closed doors but, once reaching the terms of the settlement, those same officials must emerge from behind closed doors and vote on the matter in public. That’s where the public awareness and transparency comes in.
To make this particular settlement more complicated, it involved juveniles. East Central District Court Judge Douglas Herman sealed the record at the request of both parties. The city maintains that because the settlement was sealed, city commissioners could not reveal its contents.
Still, as a test of whether North Dakota’s open records laws supersede a state district court order, this past week we directly asked the city for a copy of the settlement, which we figured it must have in its possession.
The city on Friday sent us a copy of the settlement.
Little new is revealed in it, except that it specifically excludes two other parties – a construction firm and an engineering firm – that may be part of past, current or future lawsuits. It also appears some specific terms of the settlement remain confidential and may be contained in other documents not attached to the main settlement.
We understand why some might find the steps we’re taking on this matter a bit aggressive. We just think it’s important the public have as much information from its elected officials as possible. If we don’t ask those questions, who will?
For that reason, we’ll likely seek an attorney general’s opinion on whether city officials can legally approve such a settlement and expenditure entirely behind closed doors, as the city contends it can do. It will be good for everyone to know what is and is not allowed in such circumstances.
Von Pinnon is editor of The Forum. Reach him at (701) 241-5579.