Misplaced privacy concerns

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By Dan Kennedy

An order requiring the town of Nantucket to release documents related to the termination of a high-ranking employee illustrates an all-too-common flaw in the argument that an individual’s privacy needs to be protected. In many cases, local officials, not the individual, are the ones who are trying to avoid disclosure.

The Nantucket Inquirer and Mirror interviews Linda Williams, who was fired last year from her post as the $85,000-a-year administrator of the town’s Zoning Board of Appeals. Williams and the town reached a “confidential” severence agreement some months ago. The Inquirer and Mirror filed a complaint under the state’s public-records law (PDF) And, on Monday, the state Division of Public Records ordered that the agreement be made public.

In defending the town’s actions, town manager Libby Gibson said, “We reached a confidentiality agreement with her [Williams], and we would have been breaking it if we had released this.” Yet Williams herself said she was perfectly happy that the documents had been made public. Staff reporter Jason Graziadei writes:

Williams, a longtime town employee, said she was pleased with the agreement, as well as the fact it was now public, and had not sought a larger cash settlement from the town because she was only seeking her benefits.

“I ended up with what I was owed: my retirement and health insurance, and I think it’s a fair settlement,” Williams said.

The Division of Public Records ruling gets to the heart of why it’s important that such documents be made public:

The public interest in the terms of the settlement agreement outweighs the privacy interest of the parties where the financial compensation in question is drawn on an account held by a government entity and comprised of taxpayer funds. Additionally, disclosure of the settlement amount would assist the public in monitoring government operations.

Exactly right. Local officials should not be able to spend taxpayers’ money without making a full accounting of what they’re spending it on. The Inquirer and Mirror deserves credit for fighting this. The only sour note is that the paper had to file a complaint in the first place. (Via Robert Ambrogi.)

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