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Public scrutiny: What it's all about

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By Becky Cassell, Editor

If I could give an award to Casey Circuit Judge James G. Weddle, I would. He knows what it's all about.

Weddle refused to sign a settlement order recently for a lawsuit involving a Liberty teenager who sued the County government. Driving a Mack truck, a County road worker rear-ended 17-year-old Jeremy Wilson's Chevy Blazer in December 2006.

Weddle denied the motion presented by attorneys because the order of dismissal provided for a settlement that is confidential.

"Any settlement involving the Casey County Fiscal Court and its employee must be subject to public scrutiny," Weddle wrote. "The Fiscal Court's actions are subject to the Sunshine Laws."

In his ruling, Judge Weddle noted that the public has a right to know what the Fiscal Court does with its tax dollars.

"To argue that a settlement by the Fiscal Court shall be confidential creates the impression that the Fiscal Court is trying to hide something," he wrote.

But this hasn't been the only case in which Weddle made it very clear that he believes settlements against public officials should be public.

There was a lawsuit settled recently against the Casey County School District involving five students who sued after they claimed to have suffered harassment. In that case as well, Weddle refused to approve the agreement because lawyers wanted it to be private.

He flat out said he would not approve any agreements involving public officials or any public entity that was to be sealed or made confidential.

Why am I on this soapbox?

Any long-time readers of the News-Journal will know that we have been fighting the courts to disclose the settlement terms of a lawsuit former teacher Katherine Moss filed against the Campbellsville and Taylor County school systems and several of its public officials.

Moss sued the Campbellsville Independent Board of Education in February 2003, claiming that then high school principal Greg Chick sexually harassed her on multiple occasions.

The following year, Moss sued the Taylor County Board of Education, claiming she was not hired when she was more qualified than another person who was.

Both school boards denied her claims.

Ultimately, the cases were settled - TWO YEARS AGO.

And we've been fighting for the terms of the settlement to be made public ever since.

Because school districts are funded by tax dollars and because the defendants are public officials, the Central Kentucky News-Journal believes the public is entitled to know how the suits were settled.

We followed the steps laid out by the Kentucky Open Records Law.

We first made an open records request to the school boards. Those were denied.

Then we made a request for an Attorney General's opinion. Opinions of the attorney general do not have the force of law, but they are persuasive and public officials are expected to follow them.

The official opinion stated that, though the settlement agreement should be made public, there was nothing the Attorney General could do because Circuit Judge Doughlas George had sealed the terms.

So, then we appealed to George. He declined to reverse his judgment.

Next came the Kentucky Court of Appeals. The first time, a three-judge Court of Appeals panel gave us partial relief. It said that George erred by not permitting us to intervene and that he erred by not entering the settlement agreements into court records. The Appeals Court ordered George to do both of those things, but it left up to him the question of whether the records should be sealed or unsealed. He entered the agreements into the record sealed.

So, then we then took that decision back to the Court of Appeals. A different three-judge panel ruled that we had failed to show that George acted wrongly.

So, now, our case is headed to the Kentucky Supreme Court.

We'll keep you posted.

If only all judges believed - as Weddle - that the public's business should always be done in public.