Pierce County legal claims must be exposed to more light

For those who view democracy in black and white, elected officials either conduct the public’s business in a vault or a fishbowl. When they’re deciding how to spend taxpayer money, we naturally prefer they take the latter approach, on full display to the people they represent.

If only it were that simple. An optimist might believe transparency always prevails in Washington, thanks to our strong state Public Records Act and open meetings laws. But the realist knows politicians inhabit a gray area between the two extremes.

Take lawsuits and damage claims, for example. Rather than grind the gears of local government on every payout when someone slips on a sidewalk or blows out a tire in a pothole, elected leaders authorize risk managers and administrators to resolve claims up to a certain sum of money.

In Pierce County, the threshold for council members to sign off on a settlement is set quite high: $250,000.

Unfortunately, the Pierce County Council has grown sloppy with its delegation powers. The result is an inexcusable lack of oversight involving $3.3 million in settlements during the last two years.

The solution? Lower the steep accountability threshold and stop letting executive office staff make these decisions in a dark and airless vault.

Bring them out into the fishbowl, pronto.

A News Tribune report last weekend by staff writer Sean Robinson showed that since December 2016, Pierce County has settled 187 claims with little or no involvement by the council’s seven members. Their safety net — quarterly public updates from the risk management department — has had a gaping hole, to say the least.

“I’m admitting to you that it hasn’t been happening,” Council Chairman Doug Richardson told the TNT’s Robinson — a lapse Richardson pledged to fix.

Equally troubling is how the the biggest payouts were done under the radar, including three that exceeded the $250,000 threshold. The largest settlement, awarded to a female sheriff’s deputy in a workplace harassment case, went forward based on council members’ approval of a negotiating range, but they weren’t clued in on the final $680,000 sum.

Even worse, there was no public discussion or written information. Just a cursory one-sentence blurb at the bottom of the council’s Nov. 14, 2017 consent agenda.

Legal settlements should receive more intense scrutiny, especially in an era rife with police shooting and sexual misconduct cases, when nearly everyone has recording technology at their fingertips. The risk that juries will issue huge awards at public expense — such as a $15.1 million verdict for an unarmed black man shot and killed by Lakewood cops in 2013 — only adds pressure for municipalities to settle.

Elected leaders must be vigilant about these potential big-dollar cases, certainly, but there can be legitimate public interest in the smaller ones, too. Consider a $39,000 settlement Pierce County reached with a sheriff’s detective in 2011; it turned out to be a linchpin in a public-records controversy that engulfed Pierce County Prosecutor Mark Lindquist and went all the way to the Washington Supreme Court.

But it fell well below the County Council’s $250,000 trigger point. If not for TNT reporting, it likely wouldn’t have drawn any public notice, like so many other county lawsuit payouts.

That’s why the county should significantly lower the accountability threshold to $100,000, $50,000 or even less, down to a level that many cities are able to manage just fine. In Tacoma, council consent is required above $30,000.

We admire what a City Council member in South Florida said last month about a proposal that she and her peers rejected; it would have allowed the city manager of Fort Myers to settle any lawsuit under $100,000 without the council’s blessing.

“I think (lawsuits) should come to council with any amount,” she protested. “We are working for the people, and they have a right to know these things.

It might be inconvenient for the Pierce County Council to start placing all or most proposed legal settlements on a public agenda. It also might be a hassle to resume the quarterly risk management updates. But it’s nothing this full-time elected body can’t handle.

Some extra exposure in the fishbowl could be good for them right now.