The County Council has approved unanimously a bill that would give the council the authority to review and approve any settlement over $100,000 paid by the county from its self-insurance fund.
The county maintains a self-insurance fund to pay general and automobile liability claims and county property damage losses.
The legislation, which was sponsored by six council members, grew in part out of concern over the $400,000 the county paid the family of inmate William M. Ford, a 28-year-old Delaware laborer who died in the Harford County Detention Center in March 1992.
The administration authorized the payment in April 1993 after Mr. Ford's family alleged he had been raped and killed by jail guards, and threatened a federal lawsuit.
County Executive Eileen M. Rehrmann said later that the Ford matter presented "one of the worst cases of civil liability in the history of Harford County" and that Detention Center policies had been violated in the handling of the inmate and the investigation of his death.
The sheriff's office and some council members, however, charged that the administration's settlement was premature. A grand jury report in February concluding that the cause of Mr. Ford's death was suicide or accidental suicide fueled critics' interest in the self-insurance fund.
The amended legislation that was passed Tuesday requires that three or fewer council members review a settlement in private consultation with representatives of the county law department. When only three members of the seven-member council meet, there is no quorum and no need to make the meeting public.
A motion to approve a settlement and the vote will be made in a public session, but the council will not disclose the settlement amount or any other information about the settlement during that session or at any other time.
The disclosure provision was a concession to county attorneys. During a public hearing last month, they expressed concern that council review and discussion, by law a public process, would jeopardize the privacy of the litigants and force the county to show its hand in what they said is largely "a poker game."
The need for council approval would hinder lawyers' ability to negotiate -- sometimes at the last minute before a trial begins -- and would make for an "unwieldy and unworkable" settlement process, said Assistant County Attorney Paula Etting.
BTC But council members said very few cases involve more than $100,000 and that some degree of council review is necessary as a safeguard.
In the past 4 1/2 years, the county has made 32 general liability payments totaling $1.5 million, according to a list of settlements provided by County Administrator Larry Klimovitz. Six of the 32 involved more than $100,000, including the Ford case.
Mr. Klimovitz said the legislation, even as amended, does not address more serious problems with the idea of council review.
"The biggest problem might be that they [council members] are injecting themselves into the settlement process when they don't have the background or the history of the case to do this," he said.
"It's kind of dangerous, and it won't help the county settle claims. In fact, it may result in more cases going to trial, which costs more money," he said.
Council President Jeffrey D. Wilson said, "This bill will put into place an important system of checks and balances on the settlement of important cases." He praised the council members for working together.
Joanne S. Parrot, R-District B, said she was concerned about "the fine line between what is and isn't public record."
"I also feel uneasy about the council having to meet in groups of three," she said.
Councilman Robert S. Wagner, R-District E, said he, too, has lingering concerns.
"I still have some questions about the mechanics of it," he said Thursday, noting that it is not clear when in the settlement process the council will get involved.
"I'm not even comfortable with the $100,000 base," he said. "After all, 75 or 80 thousand dollars is not shabby.
"But we needed a safeguard. We needed to do something so you don't give away the whole farm."