Monday, November 16, 2009

Town enacts ordinance requiring public announcement of lawsuit settlements

On February 22, 2010, Andover Township (Sussex County) enacted an ordinance that requires the mayor, at the following Township Committee meeting, to "publicly announce the amount and terms of" any judgment or settlement arising out of a civil lawsuit against the Township or its employees. The proposed ordinance,as originally proposed is on-line here and the ordinance, as finally enacted, is on-line here.

This ordinance is beneficial because settlement agreements, which are often signed years after the lawsuit's initial filing, are not easy to track and often escape the public's and media's attention.  Currently, the only way for a citizen or reporter to find out if a given lawsuit settled is to periodically--perhaps monthly--check with the court or OPRA the settlement agreement. Since most people are not sufficiently motivated to follow up on a given lawsuit's status dozens of times, the settlements are often entered into without the public's knowledge.  And, because of the confidentiality agreements that are often inserted into settlement agreements, the public cannot rely upon the plaintiff in the underlying suit to inform the public of the settlement.

Knowing about settlement agreements helps identify patterns of questionable conduct.  If, for example, citizens become aware that multiple lawsuit settlements have arisen out of the acts or omissions of a particular municipal employee, those citizens can aptly inquire of their elected officials as to why that employee is still on the public payroll. 

I think that readers should provide a copy of Andover's enactment to their own municipal governing bodies and school boards and urge them to adopt something similar.

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