Colorado Springs’ high-dollar lawsuit settlements would be decided in public rather than closed-door meetings under new ordinances the City Council is considering.
The council asked City Attorney Wynetta Massey this summer how best to change its practices after The Gazette reported that it had paid about $5.4 million in lawsuit settlements since 2013, all in closed sessions. Those settlements included claims of racial and gender discrimination.
The state’s open meetings law prohibits public officials from voting or taking any final action in executive sessions.
Tracy Lessig, an attorney for the city, unveiled three ordinances Monday that would make public the settlement decisions. She said the city’s current process follows the state’s open meetings law, and the new ordinances stem from the council’s desire “to be more transparent than the law requires.”
But First Amendment experts and legislators disagree. They have said approving high-dollar settlements behind closed doors violates the law and obscures residents’ understanding of how tax dollars are spent.
The first proposed ordinance covers two scenarios: when the city’s attorneys seek permission to negotiate settlements of more than $100,000, and when they already have reached a settlement for more than $100,000 and need permission to finalize it.
In both cases, the city’s attorneys still would brief the council in an executive session on the specifics of the case. But the council then would reconvene in public before voting on whether to grant the attorneys permission.
In the first scenario, before negotiations are underway, a specific dollar amount wouldn’t be cited in the public session, Lessig said.
“In some cases, we may be able to settle a case for $80,000, but we’ve asked for $120,000 worth of (settlement) authority in the hopes that we can get it lower than that,” she said.
Disclosure of the acceptable settlement range could spur plaintiffs to seek more money, Mayor John Suthers has said.
So neither the case number nor details of the negotiations would be made public in such a scenario, Lessig said.
But when a settlement amount is established, such information would be public, she said.
A second ordinance would stipulate that once a settlement higher than $100,000 is finalized, the city attorney must report to the mayor and council within three days, Lessig said.
Massey has defended making high-dollar settlements in secret as legal, saying the final amounts eventually are publicized through court records, quarterly reports from her office and the city’s budgeting process.
But those quarterly reports do not contain settlement documents and often do not detail settlement amounts.
Legislators have said any vote to settle a lawsuit should be public so residents can see how their elected officials voted.
A third ordinance would consolidate the city’s code, making it clear that the city attorney can settle lawsuits or other matters up to $50,000.
The council’s desire to make high-dollar settlements more open is encouraging, said Jeff Roberts, executive director of the Colorado Freedom of Information Coalition.
“(The council’s) past practice of approving settlements behind closed doors — doling out millions of dollars of public money without ever taking a public vote — was contrary to the spirit and letter of Colorado’s Sunshine Law, which prohibits public bodies from making decisions in secret,” he said.
Suthers said he’ll sign the three ordinances into law if they’re approved by the council. The council is expected to vote on them in January, Lessig said.
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