PIERCE COUNTY, Wash. - Pierce County leaders this week unveiled previously unseen public records linked to $4.9 million in payments made to settle damage claims over the past two years.
They’re also preparing to change the County Council’s rules of procedure and ensure that council members vote publicly on large settlement payouts. Under current rules, the public doesn’t see such votes.
Both decisions came in response to a recent News Tribune story that uncovered millions in unseen settlement payouts: a chapter of the county’s financial books that was inadvertently closed, according to County Executive Bruce Dammeier.
“Transparency is a big priority for me and my team,” Dammeier said Monday. “We have been consciously really working hard to be more transparent, to make more information available. We have an obligation to make sure the public can watch what we do.”
Two weeks ago, the tally of undisclosed payouts appeared to amount to $3.3 million. Dammeier said the number is greater: $4.9 million, tied to 272 separate settlements since January 2016. The biggest, $680,000, dates to November 2017. It resolved a claim filed by a county sheriff’s deputy who cited a years-long pattern of gender discrimination.
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Monday, the county used its public data portal at openpiercecountywa.gov to post online lists of all claims filed in the past two years, settled and unsettled. Shown in spreadsheet form, the lists include the name of the party who filed the claim, a brief description of the nature of the claim (“intersection accident,” for example), and the status.
For the past two years, that information hasn’t been accessible to the public without serious digging.
Dammeier and County Council chairman Doug Richardson cited several reasons for the oversight. Foremost among them was the absence of quarterly reports to the County Council from the risk management division, a standard practice that ceased.
“No one had any ill intent,” Richardson said.
One key culprit: new software that complicated the process of compiling risk management reports.
“There was a systems change right around that time,” Dammeier said. “We went from the prior legacy systems to a robust software package, a very big package. That was why I think it stopped. I’m sure the intent was to start it again.”
The 2016 election created another issue: As Dammeier took office in January 2017, leadership of the risk management division changed. Longtime risk manager Mark Maenhout departed, replaced by Marybeth DiCarlo, who wasn’t familiar with some aspects of past practice.
“From the executive side, that was where it got dropped,” Dammeier said. “That’s wrong. It shouldn’t have been dropped, and we’re fixing it.”
Posting the claims information is the first step. Restoring quarterly risk management reports to the council is next. The last move involves changing the way council members handle larger settlements.
Under county rules, the executive’s office and the county’s budget and finance division agree on settlements. If the amount exceeds $250,000, the proposed settlement must be presented to the County Council for approval.
In spite of that stipulation, council members traditionally haven’t voted directly on large settlements. Instead, after meeting in private executive sessions, they have agreed to grant unspecified “settlement authority” to county negotiators, providing an undisclosed range of potential payment to protect the county’s negotiating position.
That was the approach members took with the claim filed by the sheriff’s deputy and other payouts, but historically, council members haven’t followed up with public votes after parties reach agreements. The county’s process differs from methods adopted by other local governments such as the City of Tacoma, where council members take a public vote on the actual settlement payment once an agreement has been struck.
According to Richardson, council members will weigh changes to the council rules that will allow such direct votes. The proposal could be introduced by Nov. 27.
“We’ll have an amendment to the rules, which will require that all final settlements and appeals will be placed on consent for action by the council,” he said. “That will include case, name, amount of settlement. We’ll start doing that soon as I get the rules and procedures through.”