Editorial: Secrecy is not an option

Who’s telling the truth?

The City of Baltimore says Yakov Shapiro demanded secrecy as a condition of settling his wrongful-arrest lawsuit for $200,000. Shapiro’s lawyer says the city insisted on a “gag order,” and provided copies of correspondence that seem to prove it.

There are those who say the dispute doesn’t matter. In one sense they are right: No matter who sought secrecy or why, it was the city’s job to say no — to insist that the public’s right to know is not negotiable.

The city neglected that duty in this instance, and that’s bad enough. But what’s worse is that the city refuses to accept any responsibility to change.

After The Daily Record broke the settlement story last week, the city solicitor and the mayor each said they had no regrets. Both reserved the right to decide “on a case by case basis” which settlements will be disclosed in the future.

Such discretion is nowhere to be found in the Maryland Public Information Act. The act lists the exceptions to disclosure in great detail. There is none for “information a governmental entity decides to keep secret, as determined on a case-by-case basis.”

The very idea knocks a hole in the foundation of the public information act — a hole the General Assembly should repair when it convenes next month.

The fix could be as simple as a one-line amendment, spelling out that confidential settlements are permitted only if the underlying subject matter is exempt from disclosure. That would protect the existing MPIA exceptions, but prevent the settlement agreement itself, or the judge’s approval of it, from being used as a shield against public view.

The judiciary, too, has a role to play. When a governmental entity is involved, courts must reject any confidential settlement without proof that the underlying subject matter is exempt from disclosure.

Members of spending boards such as the city’s Board of Estimates and the state’s Board of Public Works should do likewise when voting on proposed contracts and agreements.

As things stand now, the job of questioning government secrecy generally falls to the media. But no private entity should have to educate the government on such a fundamental principle of law.

If the public’s right to know means anything, it means that governments cannot pick and choose what they want to disclose.

Beyond the current dispute — beyond any dispute — that is what matters.