Gagging over secrecy

Last week Reno’s city government agreed to a settlement in Guy Zewadski’s lawsuit over the tax assessment of his condominium.

Zewadski had sued alleging that his condo had been over-assessed to help pay for the railroad trench. He has been effective enough at nipping at the city’s heels that it paid him $5,000 to go away after he filed his third lawsuit.

But it’s neither the lawsuit nor its settlement that is most troubling. It’s this comment in a joint news release issued by Zewadski and the city:

“The parties have agreed to this mutual press release. No further statements will be made by any party or their attorneys regarding this lawsuit.”

It takes a certain arrogance for public officials to say they won’t answer questions from the public about their expenditure of the public’s funds. Announcing in advance that the public should not bother to ask shows an intolerable disdain toward citizens.

If Zewadski and his attorney, Diane Vaillancourt, want to gag themselves after this dispute is ended, that’s their right. It’s not the right of city officials to do the same.

The city attorney who negotiated the settlement and the city council members past and present named in the suit are elected officials. The city manager, who is also named in the suit, is a public employee. It is part of their responsibility to be accessible and responsive to the public. When members of the public have questions about their conduct, policies and lawsuits, they have an obligation to be forthcoming. To hide behind a self-imposed gag order is unethical, irresponsible and contemptuous of the members of the public who allow these public officials to keep their jobs. In this particular case, secrecy is preposterous. What could be more fundamental to the operations of government than issues of property taxes?

The ethics of some professions, such as law and medicine, are spelled out clearly in codes and canons. The ethics of public officeholding is more nebulous, but in the United States of America, we can reasonably expect that it includes answering the legitimate questions of concerned citizens.

The Nevada Legislature in the past has considered legislation to prevent the sealing of lawsuit agreements that involve public entities like municipal governments. One of the things supporters of such legislation were told by members of the legislature is that such measures aren’t needed because governments legally have no choice but to be open with settlements. Besides, they said, public officials have an obligation to be open about these matters. They did not reckon with the arrogance of public officials who negotiate themselves a gag agreement.

Legislation to address gag agreements as opposed to court seals is harder to draft. We have to depend on the officials themselves to do the right thing. At Reno City Hall, apparently, we can’t.