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The housing authority settlement: A victory for openness

| Wednesday, Oct. 8, 2003

The state's highest court has affirmed that the people's right to know trumps officials' desire to keep things quiet -- in this case, a sexual harassment settlement involving the Westmoreland County Housing Authority and its former executive director.

In its 5-2 ruling, the state Supreme Court came down strongly on the side of sunshine: "The people of this state, through their elected representatives, have stated in the clearest of terms that it is more important that they have access to this type of information than that it remain confidential."

It's been 21/2 years since the Trib first pursued the rightful disclosure of the settlement. While the public's right to know has been deferred, it's not been thwarted.

The federal lawsuit charged former Executive Director Leonard "Skeets" Paletta and the housing authority with sexual harassment and discrimination. A settlement involving an undisclosed sum was reached between the plaintiff and the authority's insurance company -- even though the authority's insurance policy specifically excluded claims for age, race and sexual discrimination. Moreover, the insurer (on whose board Paletta formerly served as president) waived the authority's $1,000 deductible.

Considerable effort went into keeping the settlement secret. Nevertheless, three courts found that argument groundless, and for good reason.

Equally important, the courts found that the public's right to know is vital, powerful and not easily turned aside by the whims of government or its agents.

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