York County has spent nearly $72,000 in its legal fight with the Culture and Heritage Foundation over issues related to York County museums. But that’s just a fraction of what the lawsuit might eventually cost.
County officials have said the lawsuit ultimately could cost taxpyaers up to $250,000. Yet despite the fact that such a large amount of public money is on the line, the York County Council has refused to divulge any information about the offer it made to the foundation to settle the dispute before resorting to a court battle.
The terms of the proposed settlement were hammered out during hours of meetings behind closed doors. Once council members and the county atttorney had written the proposal, they gave it to officials with the foundation.
But county residents – those who would foot the bill for any legal action – were not permitted to see it.
County officials have refused to release any documents related to the failed settlement offer. They cite attorney-client privilege and refer to “proposed contractual arrangements” to justfy keeping the plan from public scrutiny.
Ironically, the attorney for the foundation has stated that he doesn’t regard the documents as confidential.
Two council members have publicly expressed reservations about the wisdom of filing suit against the foundation. Councilmen Bump Roddey and Chad Williams say they opposed the idea of suing the foundation from the beginning, but both voted for it in name of solidarity with fellow council members.
Roddey now has said he is increasingly alarmed about the rising cost of the legal battle. He said he warned fellow council members that any potential gains would not be worth the high cost of suing the foundation.
“I was the one kicking and screaming when we started down this road,” he said last week.
Williams echoed Roddey’s concerns. He added that he thinks county officials made an acceptable settlement offer that could have kept the two parties out of court.
So, why can’t members of the public see the terms of the settlement offer? Why is the county keeping them in the dark?
The county has shown the settlement offer to a select group of York County residents – members of the foundation. So it’s not as if council members were concerned about revealing a bargaining position or giving out information that might have been detrimental to their legal challenge to the foundation.
Roddey said he hopes that once the public knows how much taxpayer money has been spent on the lawsuit, residents will begin calling council members to express their concerns. He hopes they will pressure the council to resume settlement talks before the cost of the lawsuit gets much higher.
Well, residents would be in a much better position to do that – to protect their interests in this dispute – if they had some idea what the county is prepared to do to resolve it.
Williams has said that if both sides can agree to start settlement discussions again, he’d be willing to go back to the negotiating table. So, at least one councilman, who knows the details of the county’s offer, thinks negotiations have a chance of succeeding.
It would be nice if the taxpayers knew those details, too, and could make an informed judgment about whether the county should spend nearly $180,000 more on this lawsuit. Council members were elected to represent the public, and they ought to let taxpayers know what’s going on.