Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Mantua Committee requested to adopt lawsuit disclosure ordinance

On August 5, 2009, the insurer for Mantua Township (Gloucester County), paid $10,000 to an Arab-American man who sued the Township alleging that a Mantua police officer harassed him due to his ethnicity. I blogged the settlement here.

I then began to wonder whether a) a reasonably alert Mantua citizen, absent my blog entry, would have learned about the settlement and b) whether Mantua had any mechanism in place to make sure that their elected Committee members were informed of lawsuit settlements.

Accordingly, I submitted an OPRA request to the Township seeking, among other things, the following four records. (I have placed Mantua's response beneath each of the four requests, and the original OPRA request and the Township's response is on-line here.)

1. Any resolution that authorized, informed or otherwise mentioned the $10,000 settlement agreement with Mohammed Ahmad Kobeissi.

Response: There is no resolution created for this purpose.

2. If there are no records responsive to No. 1, then the pages from any public meeting at which the $10,000 settlement agreement with Mohammed Ahmad Kobeissi is referred to.

Response: At no public meetings of the Township Committee of the Township was this referred to.

3. The pages from any nonpublic (executive session) meeting minutes where the $10,000 settlement agreement with Mohammed Ahmad Kobeissi was discussed.

Response: This matter was not discussed at any closed session of the Township Committee of the Township of Mantua.

4. Any correspondence from the insurer to the Township regarding the $10,000 settlement agreement with Mohammed Ahmad Kobeissi.

Response: Please find correspondence filed with my office in regards to the settlement. (Note: the "correspondence" consisted of nothing more than a copy of the two-page August 5, 2009 settlement agreement.)

According to the Township's response, it is reasonable to conclude that a member of the public, even if he or she dutifully attended every public Committee meeting and read the minutes of every executive session, would not have been informed of this settlement, and presumably any other settlement that the Township's insurer entered into. It is also reasonable to suggest that there is no procedure in place to inform the members of the Township Committee of lawsuit settlements.

I believe that this problem is not limited to Mantua Township but exists in many--perhaps most--municipalities, school boards and other public bodies throughout the state.

Information on settlements and other dispositions of lawsuits is of public importance because it allows elected officials and citizens to judge the reasonableness of public officials' actions and to detect patterns of wrongful behavior by particular government officials and employees.

For example, suppose a given police officer was sued three times for excessive force and the Township's insurer pays a settlement on each suit. Had the Township Committee known about the first suit and settlement, it could have taken steps to more closely monitor the officer and perhaps avoid the incidents from which the second and third lawsuits arose. If, however, the public and elected officials were not informed of these three hypothetical lawsuits and settlements, it is much more likely that the police officer's conduct would escape any scrutiny.

Accordingly, I have sent a letter to the Mantua Township Committee, which is on-line here, asking it to adopt an ordinance that will require lawsuit settlements to be reported on at the following public meeting.

I recommend that interested readers learn whether or not their municipalities and school boards routinely report lawsuit dispositions to the public. If those bodies do not publicly report, I recommend that they be asked to pass the ordinance described in the previous paragraph.

John Paff
Somerset, New Jersey

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