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Let the sunshine in

Out-of-court settlements by L.A. County offer a window into government mistakes.

July 22, 2007|Marc B. Haefele

In the 1950s, Los Angeles County's raging growth and increasing national importance made it an essential local news beat. The Hall of Administration's news corps included dozens of broadcast, print and wire reporters from as far away as Long Beach, the Antelope Valley and San Diego.

Today, because of cuts in newsroom budgets and staffs, only two wire services and two newspapers, including The Times, regularly cover a county government whose constituency totals 10.3 million people and whose domain is 5,000 square miles. With so few reporters and with bureaucratic information hard to come by for average citizens, the operations of the county's 39 departments remain largely out of view, apart from their own underserved clienteles -- such as indigent medical patients, inmates, public assistance recipients, foster children and so on.

Now, a key window into the workings of county government, one that has exposed some of its worst mistakes and malfeasance, has been slammed shut. In May, the county counsel's office decided, without announcement, to stop disclosing details of its legal settlements.

For decades, the settlement memorandums sent to the county claims board (which then passes them on to the supervisors for final approval) were available to the public. For beat reporters, they were leads to news stories. Without this source, such information would be available only if a matter had gone to court or if lawyers and their clients decided to disclose it. Increasingly, however, details of out-of-court settlements have been sealed.

In defending the decision to "classify" all settlement information, the counsel said these were as privileged as any other attorney-client communication. "There are no other public or private law offices that make these things public," said Donovan Main, chief deputy county counsel.

The settlement memorandums, usually drafted by the counsel's office, advised the Board of Supervisors that something so bad had happened in a department that the best the county could do was to bite its lip and pay. Main contends that outside law firms have only recently discovered these memos and are using the information against the county in other suits.

Steve Levin of the West L.A.-based Center for Governmental Studies wonders how this could be. "These settlements have been already agreed to. The whole purpose of making them open is letting the public know where its tax dollars are going."

That is exactly how this information has benefited the public -- and the county itself. In the early 1990s, settlement memos revealed that the county was paying more than $10 million a year -- 80% of its total settlement costs -- to victims of "unlawful force" by the Sheriff's Department. After Times articles growing out of these disclosures, the Board of Supervisors introduced major reforms. Now settlement payout claims against the department amount to about 30% of the total.

Settlement memos revealing social-service incompetence, particularly in foster care, sparked major departmental management changes and organizational reforms. Decades of news reporting on the medical incompetence at King/Drew (now King-Harbor) Medical Center relied on settlement memos for complete, objective information on professional blunders that were maiming and killing patients.

If L.A. County had a more open form of government, with perhaps a real legislature like those of large East Coast counties, there'd be other avenues to such information. But there aren't. Perhaps that's why the supervisors themselves are increasingly skeptical of the counsel's move, or at least of its furtiveness. "It's a decision [that] must be made with public input -- in a public setting and in the light of day," Supervisor Gloria Molina said.

Supervisor Mike Antonovich told the Daily News that the move was "a step back to the old days of backroom deals."

And Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky agreed with Antonovich when I spoke to him last week. "The burden of proof is on the county counsel to prove a need for such a change. If there'd really been a major problem with these disclosures in the past, I expect that we'd all know about it by now."

County Counsel Ray Fortner will have a chance to explain his reasons for the policy change July 31, when, at Molina's request, he's due to appear before the board to defend it. Hopefully, he'll find a board majority that will uphold a tradition more important than attorney-client confidentiality.

This would be the basic legal principle of quieta non movere, or, "if it ain't broke, don't fix it."

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Marc B. Haefele is a regular commentator on KPCC-FM (89.3). His work appears in the Jewish Journal, in Citybeat and on CitywatchLA.com.

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