Public bodies, lawyers & confidential settlements

The City of Newport News has recently settled a lawsuit brought by two youths at a juvenile facility who were raped by two of their fellow inmates. The amount of the settlement is not being released because the settlement and its terms have been sealed.

Of course, settlements don't seal themselves, and judges don't seal settlements without the parties first suggesting it.

Asked, then, why they agreed to a clause that keeps secret the amount the taxpayers will pay to settle this lawsuit, here's what the Newport News City Council members had to say:

Mayor Joe S. Frank: "The council relies on the recommendation of the attorneys. Each case is judged by its merits, and those decisions are made by the professionals."

Vice Mayor Joe Whitaker: "It's what they decided they wanted to do as lawyers. I'm not a lawyer."

Councilwoman Madeline McMillan: "I just act on the advice on the city attorney, and that was his advice. ... They may have had reasons for that that I'm not aware of. We're not always privy to the details of exactly what went on." Any issues with the private settlement, she added, "should be taken up with the judicial system and not with me."

Councilwoman Pat Woodbury "It was one of those cases that the lawyers were handling." A private deal, she said, "is a practice for cases that are settled."

Councilwoman Sharon Scott: "I don't have any objections to the taxpayers not being able to know, as long as it doesn't violate our policies."

Councilwoman Tina Vick and Councilman Herb Bateman Jr. said they didn't remember what was discussed at the meeting about settlements.

As for the comments of Frank, Whitaker, McMillan and Woodbury, like everyone, they are entitled to rely on the advice of their attorneys, and attorneys will always have to make certain decisions based on what they know of the client's wishes. But I'm not faulting the lawyers here.

I am skeptical of the council.

Didn't they direct their lawyers as to what they would and wouldn't do or tolerate? Did they direct them to keep the amount paid confidential or not? In other words, don't the council members have to take some responsibility for the fact that the amount of taxpayer money being spent to settle this suit is not available information to those same taxypayers?

As for Scott's comment that she doesn't have any objection to taxpayers not being able to know.... In the words of Good Ol' Charlie Brown, "GOOD GRIEF!!"

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