Our right to know

January 28, 2010 10:03:00 AM



Maybe they think they''re protecting themselves. 


Or perhaps they''ve forgotten they''re managing public funds. 


In any case, the Columbus City Council and the Lowndes County School District Board of Education have been doing their constituents a disservice. 


Both entities recently settled discrimination lawsuits -- the city with Assistant Police Chief Joe Johnson and the school district with administrator Charles Jackson. 


And both entities have tried to keep the terms of the settlements under wraps. 


When the Johnson''s cash settlement and pay raise was leaked to the media in early January, the city, via its attorneys, refused to confirm the figures. 


Johnson was suing the city for a second time accusing the City Council of racial discrimination when they tapped Joseph St. John for the chief''s position. St. John is white; Johnson is black. 


Johnson -- on the force since 1974 -- already was passed over in favor J.D. Sanders. He sued then, too. But a jury found the city didn''t discriminate against him. 


This time the city threw Johnson a $32,500 bone and a $10,000 pay raise in exchange for not suing the city again. 


Mayor Robert Smith announced the final figures of the agreement at a Jan. 19 council meeting, after the city was hounded by The Dispatch and lobbed with accusations from Jim Waide, Johnson''s attorney, about the legality of keeping the terms private. 


Waide also represents Jackson, who also sued for racial discrimination. When Smith became mayor, Jackson''s complaint says, the county school board wanted to replace him with another black person. (West Lowndes schools are nearly 100 percent black.) Jackson didn''t fit the bill. 


During a pretrial hearing, the district cut a deal with Jackson. But, as a condition, the details have to remain private. 


But it''s not private dollars that will fund this agreement. It''s taxpayer dollars. And taxpayers have a right to know how much of their hard-earned money is being spent as ''hush money.'' Taxpayers, after all, pay the premiums on the insurance and bonding companies that settle these suits. 


Sure, we''ll issue a public-records request and get the dollars and cents eventually. 


But it shouldn''t have to come to that.  


We''d like to be able to have confidence in our elected officials. 


We''d like to trust them to make sound decisions and do what''s best for the people they serve. 


But it''s hard to trust so-called public bodies when they operate under a cloak of secrecy.