No smoke, no fire

City officials should have disclosed chief's severance in the first place

In the end, the revelation that the city of Medford paid departing Fire-Rescue Chief Dave Bierwiler $71,800 in severance came as an anti-climax. City officials would have been better served — and generated less attention — if they had just complied with the law in the first place.

That law is Oregon's public records statute, designed to ensure that government in this state conducts the public's business in public, not behind closed doors. Medford officials have a troubling tendency to prefer secrecy, which serves no interest but their own.

In Bierwiler's case, even the former chief made it clear he had no problem revealing the terms of his severance package, but city officials clung to a "confidentiality agreement" they illegally attached to Bierwiler's termination.

The Mail Tribune asked Jackson County District Attorney Beth Heckert to order the city to release the information, which is the first step in resolving public records disputes. Heckert concluded the information was public record, and instructed city officials to release it. They could have appealed the decision in court, but chose not to.

The severance payment is not excessive, and complies with city rules permitting payment of up to six months' salary to departing management employees.

Still, City Manager Eric Swanson made it clear he disagrees with Heckert's ruling, saying it "sets a bad precedent."

Swanson said courts enforce settlement agreements to encourage the resolution of disputes without the time and expense of a trial.

"By not allowing governments to participate in confidential settlements, our ability to resolve disputes will be hampered, with a result that local governments will spend more time and money fighting claims instead of serving the public," he said.

Even if that's true, and we don't agree that it is, it's the price that must be paid to keep the public's business in public. The money he is concerned about is, after all, the public's money, and the public is entitled to know how it is spent.

Swanson maintains the city paid the settlement to avoid an age-discrimination lawsuit by Bierwiler. Even if it did, the severance package was not a court-imposed settlement agreement because no lawsuit was ever filed and no judge approved the agreement. It was merely an expeditious way for the city to avoid a potential lawsuit.

If city officials are concerned about how this played, perhaps they should reconsider summarily firing longtime employees and offer them a more graceful way out instead. No one outside of a handful of city administrators — and the no one includes Bierwiler — even knows why he was fired.

The truth is the city was attempting to set a bad precedent by continuing to do the public's business behind closed doors. It's part of a disturbing trend in City Hall that no one in Medford should be prepared to accept.

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