Mar 1, 2021 - News

The mystery of Des Moines' legal settlements

Illustration of a catapult loaded with a stack of lawsuit papers

Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

Des Moines City Council often approves legal settlements without providing the public with some important info, like the cost and basic facts of a case.

Why it matters: Citizens deserve to know more about how their money is being spent. Ideally, that information should be provided before council votes, since the total payouts over a calendar year are significant.

  • 2017: $949,199
  • 2018: $4,197,036
  • 2019: $1,128,340
  • 2020: $373,493

Last week, for example, there were two "claim settlements & billings," but little detail:

What's happening: City Attorney Jeff Lester told Axios that the council is not voting blindly.

  • The council receives confidential communications before meetings and has often discussed cases in closed sessions, he said.

The state of play: Government settlements in Iowa are public record.

  • But Axios' request to DSM for proposed settlement agreements prior to a council vote was denied. Lester tells us that’s because there are technically no agreements before both sides have executed the agreements.

Here's what Axios obtained about those two settlements approved last week through a public-record request:

  • $10,000 to settle the personal-injury lawsuit. Moore-Johnson, of Des Moines, alleged tall grass at Good Park covered a deep hole that caused a foot injury in July 2018.
  • $39,439 to settle a sewer backup in the property damage claim. (The information Axios was provided does not include the address or the date of the backup.)

The bottom line: DSM — with its online publications, citizen news alerts, and video broadcasts of most public meetings — is among the most transparent governmental bodies in the state.

  • But transparency in litigation is important and is one area that the city could and should improve.

This story first appeared in the Axios Des Moines newsletter, designed to help readers get smarter, faster on the most consequential news unfolding in their own backyard.


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