EDITORIAL: Sorry, we can't tell you that

The York Dispatch

Twice in the past week, public officials in York County, acting on behalf of the taxpayers who elected them, voted to settle lawsuits.

In both cases, those officials refused to release details about the settlements or — in the case of the Dover Area school board — even reveal how much they agreed to pay.

The school board members actually slipped out a back door Tuesday evening after sealing the deal.

That agreement settled a federal civil-rights lawsuit with a former student repeatedly abused by former district music teacher Matthew Puterbaugh, who’s serving five to 10 years for statutory sexual assault and involuntary deviate sexual intercourse.

The woman sued Puterbaugh for sexually abusing her and sued the school district for allegedly failing to protect her from that abuse, which she maintains violated her federal civil rights.

She testified last week that she told district employees about the abuse in 2002 and again in 2004 but that she was convinced not to pursue her accusations because Puterbaugh was a “good teacher” and it would “ruin his career,” her lawsuit states.

The settlement ended the federal civil rights case mid-trial.

Matthew Puterbaugh

The Dover Area school board signed off on the deal in an executive session (behind closed doors) Tuesday, July 17, after which members did not return to the meeting room, instead filing out the back door.

More:York County reaches $30,000 settlement with activist without explanation

More:Dover school board won't release terms of settlement with teen sex victim

More:Ex-Dover teacher's teen sex victim recounts abuse

Before the executive session, board President Nathan Eifert directed questions to the district's solicitor, Benjamin Pratt, who said board members were bound by law not to release any information.

"No, we cannot," he said when asked if he could release the amount of the settlement. "Under the terms of the agreement, we cannot make any comment on the agreement."

According to Pratt, the judge specified in the agreement that "it is to be confidential and only to be released under the laws" — which would be the RTK law, he clarified.

York Dispatch reporter Lindsay VanAsdalan delivered a Right-to-Know Law request on the spot, and we were still waiting for a response as of Friday, July 20.

At this point, the public does not know how much the district agreed to pay the victim, why it made the decision to settle, whether it acknowledged missteps, whether it agreed to make changes to prevent such a situation in the future and what those changes might be.

Dispatch reporter Logan Hullinger had a similar experience at the York County Commissioners meeting on Wednesday, July 18.

That’s when the board approved a $30,000 settlement agreement between the county and activist Gene Stilp, who was denied a permit in 2017 to burn a hybrid Confederate-Nazi flag outside the York County Judicial Center.

Stilp sued in federal court, and he and county eventually reached a settlement allowing him to hold his demonstration, which he did in February. At that time, the county agreed to change the ordinance cited in the permit denial.

Gene Stilp, a Harrisburg activist and Democratic congressional candidate, burns a hybrid Confederate-Nazi flag outside the York County Judicial Center, Wednesday, Feb. 28, 2018. John A. Pavoncello

Last week, the county announced a $30,000 settlement with Stilp that included a confidentiality provision.

County spokesman Mark Walters said that means neither party can speak about the matter, and he refused to comment.

More:Burning Nazi-Confederate flag, activist asks if racism exists in York

More:Activist: York County denial of permit to burn flag violates First Amendment

County solicitor Glenn Smith said the same when asked about the reasoning for the settlement and monetary award, and he also declined to comment.

Immediately after the meeting, Hullinger delivered an RTK request for any documentation related to the settlement and any correspondence between Stilp or his representative and the county.

Again, the public deserves to know why the decision to settle was made; whether there were missteps; if so, what were they; and what the county is doing to avoid a similar situation in the future.

The answers to questions like these could show that public officials did the best they could — or they might show a need for new management.

Informed voters will make that decision.

County officials and Dover Area representatives both cited confidentiality agreements as reasons they couldn’t explain their actions.

Hands tied, end of story?

Not even close.

Public officials’ first responsibility is to the people who elected them.

If they can’t thoroughly explain a settlement, then they shouldn’t be cutting that deal in the first place.