Advocate Editorial Board opinion: Agreement involving government is open
Discrimination, wrongful termination of employment and other forms of lawsuits are becoming increasingly common in today's world. These lawsuits are often settled outside of court, and many include nondisclosure agreements. But a recent case in Calhoun County is raising concerns about government and open records.
On June 11, a settlement was reached in a lawsuit between Calhoun County and Precinct 2 Commissioner Vern Lyssy, the defendants; and former county employee Amanda Guillen. Guillen, who used to share an office with Lyssy, said she was fired shortly after she discovered Lyssy had installed a camera in his computer speaker -which he said was to ward off thieves - even though he knew she used the office to change clothes because the office bathroom was too small and dirty. Lyssy said her employment was terminated because of an unrelated, longstanding disciplinary reason.
Attorneys involved in the lawsuit said the terms of the settlement are confidential, but certain statements made by county officials and others are troubling to us. Assistant District Attorney Shannon Salyer told reporter Jessica Priest the settlement was handled by the county's insurance company, which is a private company that Salyer said is not subject to open records requests. Salyer also said he does not have a copy of the settlement. Neil Emerson Giles, who represented Calhoun County and Lyssy, said the information is not available through open records requests because the county did not pay any money.
These arguments are questionable at best. Any lawsuit in which a government body is a party should be available to the public. The settlement may have been handled by the county's insurance company, but the county pays taxpayer money to that company, which makes this the public's business. If taxpayer money is involved in paying an insurance company that must then use those payments to settle a lawsuit, the public has a right to know where its money went and how much was paid in the settlement.
We also question officials' statements that they do not have or know what is in the settlement. A lawsuit, especially one dealing with an elected official, is a big deal, and governments keep meticulous records, especially when it comes to taxpayer funds. It is one thing to claim the terms of a settlement are confidential but claiming ignorance of the end result of a major lawsuit they were involved in is suspicious and doubtful.
The Victoria Advocate has filed an open records request to acquire a copy of the settlement, and we encourage Calhoun County to comply. This case may be settled, but the public has a right to know what its government and elected officials do in court and where its hard-earned dollars are being spent.
This editorial reflects the views of the Victoria Advocate's editorial board.