The Daily Item, Sunbury, PA

News

June 21, 2014

Taxpayers will learn secrets in suit pacts

— SUNBURY — Agreements to settle lawsuits involving Northumberland County should be resolved only by a commissioners’ vote at a public meeting, an official action that would enfeeble confidentiality clauses, county solicitor Frank Garrigan says.

As such, demands for secrecy within a settlement agreement would not be enforceable in the face of a Right To Know request, he wrote.

Commissioners Vinny Clausi, Stephen Bridy and Rick Shoch were relieved after receiving the three-page memorandum from Garrigan on June 10.

“I am glad he spelled it out for everybody,” Shoch said. “It’s exactly what I thought was the correct legal analysis. It said what I thought it would say and what I wanted it to say.”

Clausi said he disagreed with the practice of settling lawsuits and entering confidentiality agreements for the past six years.

“The attorneys tell us we can’t talk about it or we’ll get sued,” Clausi said. “Now, we’re going to tell the public everything. No more hush-hush.”

The commissioner said he was no longer “scared” of lawyers.

Such a decision should have been made decades ago, Bridy said.

“If it’s public funds, it should be public knowledge,” he said.

The commissioners’ delegating authority to employees to settle lawsuits is “unwise and could lead to abuse,” Garrigan wrote.

The Daily Item reported June 8 that a $90,000 award to settle a wrongful termination case involving Esther Rhodes in the probation department was buried in a list of regular and routine expenses that was unanimously approved at a commissioners meeting in March.

A second report May 28 detailed another settlement reached with Jenny Foote, a former behavior health and intellectual services employee, which human resources director Joseph Picarelli approved and forgot to tell commissioners about.

“Unless the county’s insurance carrier, pursuant to its insurance policy, has exclusive authorization to settle cases that have exceeded the county’s deductible, without the county’s authorization, I believe the settlement of all lawsuits must be approved at a duly authorized public meeting at which a quorum is present,” Garrigan said.

A vote should be held on the a motion that states that the board is authorizing settlement of the suit as recommended by the solicitor, labor counsel and/or the human resources director, he said.

The expenditure of money in defending lawsuits, up to the amount of the insurance policy’s deductible, does not require a specific vote because the board’s action in entering into an insurance policy has already bound the board to expend those funds and is considered routine, Garrigan said.

However, he noted, the act of settling a lawsuit is official action.

Garrigan referenced the Open Meetings Act in rendering his legal opinion, in which official action is defined as “recommendations made by an agency pursuant to statute, ordinance or executive order; the establishment of policy by an agency; the decisions on agency business made by an agency; or the vote taken by any agency or any motion, proposal, resolution, rule, regulation, ordinance, report or order.”

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