Pierce County is settling claims more transparently. Tacoma Public Schools should do same

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Pierce County spent nearly $1.8 million the first half of this year to settle lawsuits and claims for damages filed by citizens and employees, ranging from car crashes to character defamation.

The total payout was $1,763,234.44, to be precise, which covered 49 claims in the first two quarters of 2019.

County residents are entitled to see this information — every jot and tittle of settlement deals, down to the last penny. Because your taxes and fees pay for government, you have a right to know what the liability picture looks like, which departments are racking up the highest costs (prosecutor’s office) and most claims (sheriff’s department), and how much is being spent to make them go away.

Little do most folks know they have access to this and loads of other data through an online portal. The County Council receives payout information on a quarterly basis; then it’s uploaded to the Open Pierce County website for public viewing.

But wait, there’s more. Elected council members decided in August they’re not content just to receive this information from risk management staff after the fact; they want to review and approve a wider range of settlements in advance.

From now on, a public council vote is required for any claim above $100,000 — down from the previous $250,000 threshold.

Kudos to the council for getting around to making this change. Last fall, after The News Tribune reported how council members had grown lax in settlement oversight, we urged them to drop the threshold to $100,000, or even lower. “Some extra exposure in the fishbowl could be good for them right now,” we wrote in a November editorial.

Other local governments, including the City of Tacoma, already require a strict level of claims scrutiny.

Unfortunately, Tacoma Public Schools do not.

A $250,000 settlement with a TPS employee, which was kept quiet and went unnoticed for two years, shows the school district is not being as transparent with taxpayers as it should.

In 2017, TPS paid $100,000 in past wages, plus $150,000 into a trust for illness, distress and attorneys fees, to Ken Wilson, the district’s former safety and environmental health manager. Wilson won redress for wrongful termination after he was scapegoated for reports of high lead levels in school water, which he allegedly mishandled in 2016.

But as TNT staff writer Allison Needles recently reported, Wilson’s deal eluded a public vote because it fell below the $300,000 threshold set by school district policy.

TPS spokesman Dan Voelpel said Tuesday “we believe that our risk management practices are appropriate for a school district of our size;” he noted that neither the Spokane nor Seattle school district needs school board approval for settlements.

But why not set a high bar of accountability rather than duck under a low one? In our view, the Tacoma School Board should change the policy to require a vote on any settlement above $100,000.

More sunlight is appropriate not only for settlements approved, but also claims denied. Pierce County’s revised standard for council oversight applies to both.

Buckley resident Joe Flaherty testified to the council in August that he filed a $220,000 claim against the county in 2018, only to receive a one-sentence rejection from the prosecutor’s office. If the county’s new threshold were in effect, he said, “I would have got an opportunity to come down here and at least talk to you personally and maybe get some better explanation, and see real people rather than just get a letter in the mail.”

Yes, executive staff and risk-management professionals are paid to do a job. They’re equipped to handle a $272.57 claim for poor road conditions, for example, or write a $919.86 check for a parks department vehicle collision.

But elected leaders have a job, too, and that’s to supervise the expenditure of public funds in a transparent manner.

Now would be a great time for Tacoma Public Schools leaders to take a page from Pierce County, and reassure the public they’re up to the task.