The day after critics denounced his administration’s continued use of “gag orders” in police misconduct settlements, Mayor Bernard C. “Jack” Young ordered a change in the Board of Estimates handling of those settlements meant to demonstrate “the city’s commitment to transparency.”
Effective immediately, Young’s office announced this afternoon that police-involved settlements will appear on the BOE’s “non-routine agenda,” allowing a claimant of the suit or his attorney to address the board.
Previously, such financial settlements were mingled in with other items, such as sewer pipe repairs and road resurfacings, on the “routine agenda” – a dense document that can run to 80 or 90 pages and is approved by the board in a blanket vote.
Young’s news release said the policy change was “the recommendation” of Solicitor Andre M. Davis, who is leading the administration’s defense of the gag order policy and was blasted last night by justice groups, victims and the ACLU of Maryland at City Council hearing to end the practice.
“What came through very clearly during Monday night’s hearing on Bill 19-0409 is that some citizens believe they don’t have sufficient opportunities to speak their truth to the powerful,” Davis said in a letter released by Young’s office. “As a result, we need to afford other opportunities for residents to do so.”
His letter continued, “Under the procedure we recommend, any claimants who settles their claims would be invited to address the board (perhaps for two to five minutes, with or without their counsel present) in advance of the board’s approval of the settlement.”
Media Availability Time?
Davis’ letter also noted that “after the settlement is approved, the claimant could meet with the media who routinely cover Board of Estimates sessions.”
The “gag orders,” or non-disparagement agreements required in order for claimants to receive a settlement, were also criticized last night by Mark Reutter, a Brew reporter, and Melissa Wasser, representing the Reporter’s Committee for Freedom of the Press.
“These gag orders present the worst of all worlds,” Wasser said. “They impair accurate and balanced reporting on government activities and they affirmatively skew the public record in favor of the city and police.”
The Reporter’s Committee was one of many media organizations who signed on to an amicus brief in support of the lawsuit the ACLU brought on behalf of police abuse claimant Ashley Overbey and Baltimore Brew.
In July, the U.S. Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals struck down Baltimore’s gag orders, calling them unconstitutional and unenforceable “hush money.” The ACLU lawsuit has been returned to federal court in Baltimore for further action.