Editorials

KC has spent millions to settle lawsuits. Was that taxpayer money well spent?

Kansas City has paid more than $10.6 million in taxpayer money since 2016 to settle various claims, but news of the payouts went largely unnoticed.
Kansas City has paid more than $10.6 million in taxpayer money since 2016 to settle various claims, but news of the payouts went largely unnoticed. Big Stock Photo

Kansas City has paid more than $10.6 million in taxpayer money since 2016 to settle various claims, including about $929,000 this year.

But for what, exactly?

Details are sparse. And those who receive settlements are forced to sign non-disclosure agreements that prevent them from talking. The city won’t discuss specifics, either.

The city clerk’s office maintains rudimentary information about each settlement on its website. But the system is not user-friendly for the average citizen.

Officials say confidentiality agreements are standard operating procedure. They are routine provisions in almost every settlement agreement, city attorney Douglas McMillian said.

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But that shouldn’t be the case when public money is involved. The settlements are a matter of public record, and details should be readily accessible to the taxpayers who are footing the bill.

Kansas City and other cities in the area should make that information and other relevant details available on their websites. Disclosures should include the type of lawsuit and its resolution, the department involved in the lawsuit and any remedial or preventative actions taken to address the issue.

The Star recently obtained data that revealed the Kansas City Area Transportation Authority paid nearly $3.3 million in settlements from 2012 to 2017. The city is responsible for handling claims against the agency. Payouts were made discreetly, and yes, non-disclosure agreements were part of the deal.

Other city departments have been quietly settling lawsuits as well. Eliminating such settlements is not a realistic goal; some claims are unavoidable and are essentially part of the cost of doing business for the city.

But without more transparency, additional details and easily accessible information about the settlements the city has paid, citizens have little visibility into whether their tax dollars were spent judiciously and whether steps have been taken to limit similar claims in the future.

Since 2016, at least six Water Services Department employees have been awarded a total of about $1.56 million for various claims. A separate discrimination and retaliation claim this year was resolved for $150,000.

Because of privacy issues, details about the cases, the settlements and the aggrieved parties may never be known.

During the last three years, the city has spent an astonishing $1.53 million to settle property damage claims from water main breaks and flooding caused by sewer backups. Aging infrastructure is likely to blame.

Fire department personnel received settlements totaling nearly a half-million dollars in 2017. A workman’s compensation claim was settled for $244,593; a discrimination claim was settled for $136,000; and a paramedic at the center of a class-action lawsuit was paid $79,900 after filing a harassment and retaliation claim.

The city already has paid $234,118 to three firefighters this year for discrimination, workman’s comp and breach of privacy.

Motor vehicle accidents since 2016 have cost taxpayers nearly $2.2 million, including agreements of $475,000 and $340,000 to settle wrongful death suits.

Was all of this money well spent? The city should provide taxpayers with the information needed to make that assessment.

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