2021 | Government

Council passes bill requiring more info on county settlements

Proposal aims to provide more transparency, achieve racial equity goals

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The Montgomery County Council unanimously passed legislation that requires more transparency on lawsuit settlements.

Council Member Will Jawando drafted the bill, which the council introduced in May. It would require the county attorney to report annually to the County Council and the county executive the following details about lawsuit settlements:

  • Which county division was involved, and who filed the lawsuit
  • The settlement amount
  • What the lawsuit was about

Information about many settlements involving the county are already required to be disclosed, per the Maryland Public Information Act.

But some are exempt, including cases involving medical and personnel records. The new law would not affect those exemptions, but it would require the county attorney’s office to explain what state or federal law would be broken by disclosing any information about the settlements. 

Under state law, county agencies have 30 days to respond to Maryland PIA requests. 

The bill, which the council approved on Tuesday,  would also require the disclosure of more information than is currently in quarterly settlement reports from the county attorney’s office, council staff reports stated.

The council’s Government Operations and Fiscal Policy Committee adopted several amendments to the bill in July, including:

  • Allowing the county attorney’s office to settle cases independently for up to $30,000. The previous limit was $5,000.
  • Limiting the bill’s scope to civil rights, employment and American With Disabilities Act  discrimination cases and similar cases, at the request of County Attorney Marc Hansen. Cases involving debt collection, worker’s compensation and code enforcement could place an additional burden on his office, Hansen said.
  • Requiring demographic data about claimants and employees accused of misconduct, as suggested by the Office of Legislative Oversight and the Silver Spring Justice Coalition. Those changes would help the county achieve racial equity and social justice goals, the groups said.

The bill would apply to cases like one involving a 5-year-old boy who was harassed by county police officers at East Silver Spring Elementary School in January 2020. In that case, a video shows two police officers berating the child, including placing a handcuff on his arm and yelling in his face. 

Those actions occurred after the officers found him walking away from the school. They then picked him up and returned him to the school.

Jawando told Bethesda Beat Thursday that that case was part of the reason why he introduced the bill. He called it a “good government, accountability and transparency” bill.

The annual report will allow elected officials and others to see potential trends in settlements among various county agencies and divisions, not just those in public safety, Jawando added.

Some information could still be redacted because of state or federal law, he said. But the bill also prevents the county from using non-disclosure agreements in future settlements, Jawando added. 

Council Member Nancy Navarro, chair of the Government Operations and Fiscal Policy Committee, said before Tuesday’s vote that Jawando’s bill is “timely” for another reason. She mentioned this week’s news that Roy McGrath, a former chief of staff to Gov. Larry Hogan, was indicted at the federal and state levels on charges of embezzling funds and illegally recording Hogan and his staff.

Before McGrath left the Maryland Environmental Service to lead Hogan’s staff, he convinced that agency’s board members that a $233,650 payout was legal and supported by Hogan, The Baltimore Sun reported. The federal and state indictments claim that that payout was illegal, and in violation of state ethics laws.

Montgomery County’s bill would become law on Jan. 4, 2022, if County Executive Marc Elrich signs it. Scott Peterson, a spokesman for Elrich, wrote in a text message Thursday: “The County Executive intends to sign the bill into law.”

Steve Bohnel can be reached at steve.bohnel@bethesdamagazine.com