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November 28, 2014

Oxford officials decline to release details of settlement

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Posted: Wednesday, July 2, 2014 5:30 pm | Updated: 5:46 pm, Wed Jul 2, 2014.

OXFORD – City officials declined this week to disclose details about a settlement agreement between the city and an architectural firm Oxford sued for negligence.

The information is a matter of public record, according to the Alabama Press Association's legal counsel, and refusing to release it breaks state law.

Oxford in 2011 filed a lawsuit against Barge, Waggoner, Sumner and Cannon alleging the firm was negligent in its design of plans for the city’s planned recreation complex. The matter was to have gone to a jury trial on June 23, but on June 24, Oxford’s City Council members agreed to allow Mayor Leon Smith and city attorney Bruce Rice to sign documents to “resolve the matter.”  City officials and Rice after the June 24 meeting declined to comment on the outcome of the court case.

Asked on June 25 about the court case, Tom Burgess, an attorney for the architectural firm, wrote, “We have some required confidentialities involved in the matter.”

Attempts Wednesday to reach Burgess for comment were unsuccessful.

An open records request Friday asking for a copy of the settlement agreement prompted Smith to refer the matter to Rice.

In a response to The Star’s request, Rice wrote Wednesday that the city is aware of its obligation under the state’s Open Records Act, but that “there are certain exemptions under said act. Including, but not limited to ‘records the disclosure of which would otherwise be detrimental to the best interest of the public.’”

Rice said the city would not release the requested information, but that Oxford “does not routinely fail to make records available to the public, and we would respectfully request that you honor the city’s determination concerning the records request.”

Asked by phone Wednesday afternoon how the release of the information would harm the public, Rice said he could not answer that without going into the details of the settlement agreement.

Any settlement agreement between Oxford and the firm, regardless of a confidentiality agreement between the two, are a matter of public record, said Beth Bolger, an attorney with the Alabama Press Association.

“I don’t think that a confidentiality provision in a settlement agreement involving litigation brought by the city of Oxford against a private company is enforceable,” Bolger wrote, in an email to The Star Wednesday.

Bolger referenced an Alabama Supreme Court decision in the 2010 case Tennessee Valley Printing Co., Inc. v. Health Care Authority of Lauderdale County and the city of Florence.

In that case, the Health Care Authority would not release financial information about the sale of two public hospitals. The state Supreme Court ruled that as a government entity, the Health Care Authority had to make those records available to the public, as required under the state’s Open Records Act.

Bolger explained that Oxford’s response to The Star’s request falls short.

“The Health Care Authority in that case tried the same ‘exemption’ but the court was not persuaded because the authority never really could explain how or why ‘the disclosure would be detrimental to the best interests of the public,’” Bolger wrote.

Quoting that exemption, in itself, is not sufficient, she wrote.

In 2010, workers discovered ancient human remains buried at the sports complex site, near the Oxford Exchange south of Interstate 20.

Discovery of those remains halted construction of the complex. Construction delay fees, and the cost of returning the site to its pre-construction state, cost the city about $2 million. According to court records, Oxford asked for $2 million in its lawsuit.

In the city’s complaint, it alleges that due to the “lack of proper supervision, direction and oversight on the part of the defendants” the contractor responsible for grading at the site invaded an historical area, including Native American artifacts and an “interred Native American.”

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