Sunshine Week — a national initiative to promote the importance of open government and freedom of information — begins today. The Tribune and several other McClatchy Co. newspapers are taking part by highlighting cases in which governments have violated the spirit — if not the letter — of open government laws.
First, though, let us acknowledge that Sunshine Week probably isn’t written in bold on your calendar.
Yet open government is an issue that matters to us all. Transparency is the best way to ensure that governments play by the rules and to hold them accountable when it comes to spending our tax dollars.
But simply having rules on the books isn’t enough; government often must be reminded, cajoled and sometimes taken to court to be forced to comply.
Here’s one example from our own backyard: Last week, Tribune writer Matt Fountain reported that the city of Paso Robles agreed to settle a lawsuit filed by a former Paso police officer. The officer, Jon Tatro, alleged he was retaliated against after he accused the Police Department of implementing illegal traffic ticket quotas.
It was a serious allegation , and one that the public was profoundly interested in. Yet the trial abruptly ended with the announcement that the case had been settled, leaving many questions unanswered. Both sides declined to discuss terms of the settlement, saying they had agreed not to disclose the particulars. Such nondisclosure clauses are common in civil cases, and when private parties are the litigants, it’s their right to keep terms secret.
But we believe — and our attorney agrees — that public agencies are obligated to disclose terms of settlements. That’s only fair, since taxpayers are ultimately on the hook. Even when insurance covers the cost, as it may in this case, insurance rates, paid by taxpayers, could be influenced by big payouts.
This is also about accountability. It may not be fair, but lawsuit awards often are used to gauge the degree of culpability, and public agencies should be required to be forthright about such agreements.
The Tribune has sent a written request to the city of Paso Robles, asking for both the terms of the settlement and the amount the city spent to mount a defense in the case. The city has 10 days to respond. We’ll keep you posted.