How much money has Philadelphia spent this year on settlement of civil lawsuits? To know that information you would need to file right-to-know requests — a cumbersome and often lengthy process. A new bill introduced by City Council member Helen Gym would make all that information available online.
Last June, Gym introduced a bill to create a reporting system of settlements that would be updated quarterly. The system would include information on each case individually — date, city agency or department, if there was a payment by the city and the amount, any nonmonetary relief, and descriptors to allow grouping of the case — and an aggregated report about the number of cases and payments made during the time period. According to Gym’s office, the goal of the legislation is twofold: make it easier for the public to find the information and help the city identify patterns of misbehavior.
Last year, the city paid out close to $50 million in settlements. According to a review by BillyPenn, more than $6 million were for personal injury complaints against the Streets Department. The city pays $10 million to $20 million a year on police complaints. A report released last summer found that the city spends on average $360,000 a year on sexual harassment cases. The report also concluded that the city does a poor job in tracking settlements. (The city since started tracking sexual harassment claims in a new electronic system.)
Once the reporting system is in place, the public would have access to a full accounting of settlements broken down by department and — at least — a general descriptor.
City Council should pass the bill, which is supported by the Kenney administration.
But the reporting system should be the beginning of a conversation about legal settlements, not the end. There is no reason for the information on the reporting system to be limited to the requirements in the bill. It should also include every publicly available document related to the case — including the original lawsuit. Further, it should include some explanation from the city on why it decided to settle instead of going to trial, especially important since most settlements are secretive.
And while it is true that not every settlement is an admission of guilt and bad behavior requiring personal accountability (for example, settlements after a city sidewalk fall), some settlements protect high-profile officials who behaved badly. For example, even though the city paid $127,500 last January to settle a sexual harassment against Sheriff Jewell Williams, he continues to deny allegations and says he didn’t want to settle. The more information is publicly accessible for elected officials, the harder it would be for bad actors to make that argument in bad faith.
The new reporting system could shed light on how the city spends millions of dollars a year, highlight problematic departments, and inform a conversation about when it’s appropriate for the city to settle cases knowing that the details of the agreement would likely be secretive. It would bridge the gap between data that are available and data that are accessible and shed light on the darkest moments in city government.