If your city, county or school board gets sued and then, in an effort to end the case quietly, settles the suit, you’d think taxpayers would have the right to know what they were paying for.
In most states, taxpayers do indeed get to know what their elected leaders spend on nearly all legal settlements. But not in South Dakota. Here, the folks we hire to do our business have tremendous latitude to operate in secret. This is particularly true when it comes to legal matters.
Our state’s open records law contains an exception for legal settlements in which both parties agree to keep the terms confidential. This makes sense for private parties, it can save time, money and reputation.
But there is no prohibition in the open records law against a public entity entering into a confidential legal settlement. This is a tremendous problem. One that flies in the face of the democratic ideals our country was founded upon. As taxpayers in a representative republic full of all sorts of democratic institutions, we have the right to know where our money goes. In fact, we need to be able to follow our tax dollars through the political system or we can’t make sound decisions in the ballot box.
This right to know where our money goes must extend to legal settlements when governments are involved. How are we supposed to know where our government screwed up if we’re not allowed to see settlement terms? How are we supposed to hold our elected leaders accountable if we’re not allowed to know what they’ve agreed to in our name?
The lack of a prohibition on governments entering into secret legal settlements also can force city governments to enter such a settlement against their will. That happens because many cities buy liability insurance as a hedge against lawsuits. The insurers often handle legal matters once a city has been sued. If the insurer’s legal team decides to settle in secret, city leaders can find themselves between a rock and a hard place. They can be forced to either settle the lawsuit under the terms negotiated by the insurer and not tell their constituents what they did and why or run the risk of losing coverage.
This year a solution has been offered to these problems. It’s called Senate Bill 56 and it’s scheduled for a hearing with the Senate Judiciary Committee Jan. 29 at 8 a.m. The bill would bar government entities from entering into secret settlements, while allowing some discretion to keep the names of crime victims confidential. Senate Bill 56 is a necessary piece of legislation for accountability in government. Tell your legislators to vote for Senate Bill 56 and stop governments from spending tax dollars in secret.