LINCOLN -- No more secret settlements with taxpayer funds.
That's the goal of a bill given final approval Tuesday by the Nebraska Legislature.
Legislative Bill 742 was inspired by the agreement reached by the City of Papillion in a sexual harassment claim that a female office assistant made against former Mayor James Blinn.
The $200,000 settlement was not disclosed until The World-Herald launched an investigation of the deal.
“Nebraskans deserve to know where their taxpayer dollars are going,” said State Sen. Beau McCoy of Omaha, chief sponsor of the bill.
Under the legislation, cities, counties and other government entities must maintain a record of legal settlements and disclose the existence of such settlements on a meeting agenda.
Only settlements of $50,000 or more, or those representing 1 percent of a public entity's annual budget whichever is smaller would have to be disclosed.
Bellevue City Council President Carol Blood praised the bill but wanted the minimum for public disclosure set around $20,000.
“I think the $50,000 threshold might be set too high,'' Blood said.
Regardless, the bill is a good start. It will help make Bellevue's local government more open and honest, she said.
“I think it's paramount that communities put an end to these secret settlements, since the government truly belongs to the people and taxpayers,” Blood said.
La Vista City Councilman Kelly Sell said he hopes city officials never present his council with a scenario similar to Papillion.
Officials in Papillion tried to shield taxpayers from learning of a $200,000 settlement to resolve the harassment claim brought by Blinn's secretary and former girlfriend, Racheal Cascio.
“Obviously, there are appropriate times to meet in executive sessions, in certain personnel issues and during labor negotiations,'' Sell said.
“But something like that, (in Papillion), to sign off on a settlement, I was shocked how that happened in the first place.''
Jack Gould of Common Cause Nebraska, a government watchdog group, said he's pleased with the bill considering the fierce opposition it drew from lobbyists for local governments and education groups before the $50,000 threshold was included.
“This is a step in the right direction,” Gould said, adding that “in the best-case scenario, you would have no confidential agreements at all, but everything you get in the Legislature is usually a compromise.''
World-Herald staff writer John Ferak contributed to this report.
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