Secretively settling discrimination complaints brought by employees against Jackson County government, for more than $2 million since 2011, was not the best way to handle taxpayer funds.
A better alternative in the future is to be more forthcoming about why the complaints are made, why settlements are offered and what is being done to make sure similar problems don’t happen again.
Unfortunately, County Counselor W. Stephen Nixon calls the shots and he prefers keeping secrets. That includes confidentiality agreements that prohibit discussions of the settlements. Kansas City doesn’t require them, and neither should the county.
Calvin Williford, the county’s chief of staff, says Nixon is following in the footsteps of some predecessors. Williford adds that neither Executive Mike Sanders nor the Legislature can tell Nixon to change his ways. And Sanders recently re-appointed Nixon to his job, a scheduled four-year term in office.
It’s disappointing that Sanders would essentially endorse this process. Yet Nixon is pretty upfront about why he does it: Trust us, we know best.
True, he didn’t put it that bluntly in a statement to The Star. But he did offer the boilerplate, lawyer-friendly explanation that a confidentiality agreement is “a common practice.” Conveniently, that also shields Nixon from criticism if he settles for too much or for bad reasons.
Essentially, the public paying the bills has little way of knowing how competently Nixon, his staff or even the Legislature that approves the settlements handled these cases.
Outside experts say this secrecy can prevent the public from knowing whether county officials changed personnel or policies. “There was a wrong that needed to be remedied … and we should be entitled to know about it,” J.P. Clubb, a former assistant Missouri attorney general, told The Star.
Williford says the Sanders administration has a strong record of resolving problems brought to it.
The public can take Williford’s word for it. Or, if Nixon were more forthcoming, Jackson Countians could have new information to help determine whether their tax dollars were being properly used.