Mum's the word for Harford Council

June 24, 1994

In what could be the absolute nadir of its four-year performance, the Harford County Council this week declared its intention to meddle in the county's legal settlement negotiations but will refuse to tell the public anything about those talks.

The council voted 6-1 to override County Executive Eileen Rehrmann's veto of its bill that calls for the council to review and approve any settlement over $100,000 paid by the county from its self-insurance fund. The legislation attempts to make belated political hay out of last year's payment of $400,000 by the county to the family of a man who died in the county jail.

It is apparent from this ill-considered action that the council does not comprehend its role in county government. Nor does it seem to understand the nature of delicate, confidential negotiations of potentially costly legal claims against the county.

The new law bars the council from disclosing the amount and details of the settlements it approves. To avoid the county charter's mandate for public meetings and decisions, the law authorizes secret consultations with county attorneys in groups of "less than a quorum" -- a circumvention we find offensive and in all likelihood illegal.

Even if all the council members are scrupulous in maintaining silence, even if the county executive allows the administration's lawyers to participate in this legal deceit, the process of settlement negotiations will be hindered, and will likely end up costing the county more money.

Admittedly, few cases involving $100,000 arise. The county attorney typically refuses to settle most cases, and presumably bargains tough when a pretrial settlement may be justified.

Last year's $400,000 settlement with the family of William M. Ford was unusual. The settlement was made prior to the filing of a lawsuit, with limited public disclosure; a county grand jury later ruled that the inmate's death was a suicide.

The lengthy, indeed sluggish, investigation of the strangulation death provoked political speculation, rumors and accusations. Mrs. Rehrmann tried to take over the jail and the police function from the sheriff, resulting in a ballot question this November on creating a new county police force.

In any case, the Ford settlement was a decision for the executive to make. Voters will decide whether she acted appropriately. If a county settlement is considered egregious or extravagant, there are legal remedies. But clandestine council caucuses in such negotiations serve no useful purpose.

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