Councilmember Helen Gym Credit: JARED PIPER / City Council Flickr

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Update, Oct. 10: Councilmember Gym’s sunshine bill has passed unanimously.

Philadelphia shelled out more than $48 million to settle legal disputes against the city last year.

Payouts resolved a wide range of allegations, against either the government or its employees, from sidewalk slip-and-falls to wrongful convictions. Then there are the various sexual harassment settlements, which occur on a frequent basis.

Most of the details behind these resolutions stay tucked inside the fortress-like walls of City Hall — but that may soon change. Philly City Council is considering whether to bring the information out of the shadows and into the sunshine for good.

A new bill from Councilmember Helen Gym looks to mandate that the city publicly disclose all settlements and judgments — including those stemming from sexual harassment or employee misconduct complaints.

Gym has two goals: provide more accountability to the public, and identify some of the recurring problems that keep sucking up taxpayer dollars.

“The public deserves to know how much we’re paying for these cases and how to avoid them in the future,” Gym told Billy Penn. “Making settlements public allows us all to get a handle on where our money is going, and promotes accountability to ensure that we address systemic issues that cost our city.”

Does cutting a check change bad behavior?

Issues around sexual harassment are a considerable source of the city’s legal woes, along with various types of discrimination.

Those issues ricocheted back into public view last month with the abrupt resignation of former Police Commissioner Richard Ross, who was sued by a female subordinate claiming the two had an affair and Ross retaliated against her. That case remains ongoing in court.

While that case rapt public attention, female officers lodge complaints about the sexual misconduct and discrimination in the department with astonishing frequency.

Many of these cases are settled before they make it to court. Legal experts describe the arrangement as a cost-saving measure for the city to reduce its liability. But critics wonder whether avoiding the airing of dirty laundry by settling for cash removes an opportunity to encourage more changes in behavior.

“When the city writes a check, does that mean someone is being held accountable? Or are you just writing a check?” employment lawyer Stanley Cheikin told Billy Penn and WHYY in August.

Showing taxpayers their indemnity dollars

Currently, settlement records are available to the public if they file requests under Pennsylvania’s Right-to-Know Law. The first-term lawmaker’s bill proposes to publish the payout info quarterly, just like a lot of the city’s public data.

“These are all publicly disclosable,” Gym said. “What we’re changing is the idea that you have to be a [Freedom of Information Act] expert or a member of the media to access these things.”

Past news reports have highlighted some of the city’s more glaring settlement practices. Allegations against the Philadelphia Police Department account for the bulk of them, costing taxpayers more than $10 to 20 million a year.

But there are other trends that have gone unscrutinized, Gym said.

A 2018 breakdown of payouts reviewed by Billy Penn provided a few examples. The city’s aging sidewalks are a huge contributor to legal payouts, with the Streets Department on the hook for more than $6 million. Last year the city paid off $300,000 in personal injury claims at city libraries, and another $332,000 for damage caused by water main breaks.

Gym says the law, if passed, would require both disclosure and analysis. That means looking at the judgments and settlements more frequently and identifying ways to prevent future liability.

Councilmembers Curtis Jones and Kenyatta Johnson are co-sponsors on the legislation.

Mayor Jim Kenney’s administration is on board, too. City spokesperson Mike Dunn said the administration supports the sunshine legislation.

City Solicitor Marcel S. Pratt, the leader of the city’s law department that manages these settlements, will attend Wednesday’s hearing to take questions from Council.

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Max Marin (he/him) was Billy Penn's investigative reporter from 2018 to 2021. A graduate of Temple University, he has produced award-winning journalism on local politics, criminal justice, immigration...