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Open Government Advocacy Project:
Berkeley Council requested to adopt lawsuit disclosure ordinance

Issue Detail:

On January 13, 2010, the insurer for Berkeley Township (Ocean County), paid $10,000 to a man who sued Berkeley police officers for allegedly beating him severely. I blogged the settlement at http://njcivilsettlements.blogspot.com/2010/03/berkeley-pays-110000-to-settle-police.html I then began to wonder whether a) a reasonably alert Berkeley citizen, absent my blog entry, would have learned about the settlement and b) whether Berkeley had any mechanism in place to ensure that their elected Council members were informed of lawsuit settlements. Accordingly, I submitted an OPRA request to the Township seeking, among other things, the following four records. 1. Any resolution that authorized, informed or otherwise mentioned the $110,000 settlement agreement with Michael Forte. 2. If there are no records responsive to No. 1, then the pages from any public meeting at which the $110,000 settlement agreement with Michael Forte is referred to. 3. The pages from any nonpublic (executive session) meeting minutes where the $110,000 settlement agreement with Michael Forte was discussed. 4. Any correspondence from the insurer to the Township regarding the $110,000 settlement agreement with Michael Forte. On April 1, 2010, Township Clerk Beverly M. Carle, in her e-mailed response, stated: "I have received your OPRA request regarding Forte v. Berkeley. The settlement has never been discussed at a open public meeting or closed session. All settlements were handled through attorneys or insurance representatives." (The original OPRA request and the Township's response is on-line at ) According to the Township's response, it is reasonable to conclude that a member of the public, even if he or she dutifully attended every public Council meeting and read the minutes of every executive session, would not have been informed of this settlement, and presumably any other settlement that the Township's insurer entered into. It is also reasonable to suggest that there is no procedure in place to inform the members of the Township Council of lawsuit settlements. I believe that this problem is not limited to Berkeley Township but exists in many--perhaps most--municipalities, school boards and other public bodies throughout the state. Information on settlements and other dispositions of lawsuits is of public importance because it allows elected officials and citizens to judge the reasonableness of public officials' actions and to detect patterns of wrongful behavior by particular government officials and employees. For example, suppose a given police officer was sued three times for excessive force and the Township's insurer pays a settlement on each suit. Had the Township Council known about the first suit and settlement, it could have taken steps to more closely monitor the officer and perhaps avoid the incidents from which the second and third lawsuits arose. If, however, the public and elected officials were not informed of these three hypothetical lawsuits and settlements, it is much more likely that the police officer's conduct would escape any scrutiny. Accordingly, I have sent a letter to the Berkeley Township Council, which is on-line at , asking it to adopt an ordinance that will require lawsuit settlements to be reported on at the following public meeting. I recommend that interested readers learn whether or not their municipalities and school boards routinely report lawsuit dispositions to the public. If those bodies do not publicly report, I recommend that they be asked to pass the ordinance described in the previous paragraph. John Paff Somerset, New Jersey




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