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Column: Questions remain about 'rut' accident settlement

FARGO, N.D. -- If not for a Forum reporter, the public might never have known the city of Fargo settled a matter out of court involving the family of 8-year-old Amanda Leininger.

Leininger died in a Dec. 10 three-car accident that Fargo Mayor Dennis Walaker said was caused by a rut along South University Drive.

Forum reporter Mike Nowatzki attended last Monday's City Commission meeting. During that meeting, Walaker mentioned some budgetary reasons that might prevent city workers from getting raises in the coming year.

Walaker mentioned the high traffic fines settlement expected to cost the city $1.5 million, a $663,000 hike in workers' compensation premiums and something concerning a "case down south" that "the court has basically sealed."

Nobody present at the meeting asked Walaker to clarify what he meant by a "case down south."

But, Nowatzki, curious about the comment, later asked Walaker if it was in reference to the Dec. 10 accident and a settlement agreement. Walaker confirmed that, yes, "It's all settled," and then referred our reporter to the city attorney's office for more information.

The city attorney's office on Wednesday said that in July the city made an out-of-court agreement with the Leininger family, and that a judge had sealed the agreement because the matter involved a juvenile.

City Attorney Erik Johnson said he would send us a joint statement from the city and Leininger family, but the terms of the settlement would not be revealed.

We appealed that Fargo taxpayers ought to know the terms of the settlement, since their money and resources were likely part of that agreement.

The city attorney's office relented and provided the monetary amount of the settlement ($450,000), but no other terms that may be part of it.

Had Nowatzki not been alert and curious about Walaker's Monday comments, the public might never have known about this settlement. We remain concerned about the lack of transparency on this matter.

For those reasons, on Thursday The Forum, WDAY-TV and WDAY-AM radio wrote a letter to the city with the following questions. We're told the city hopes to give us a response this week.

"In the interest of public disclosure, we ask that the city please answer the following questions regarding the settlement between the city of Fargo and the Amanda Leininger family:

"1) Why was the settlement never discussed in public, nor voted on in public? It involved a large expenditure of taxpayer money. Shouldn't that have come to a public vote of city commissioners?

"2) Did a majority of city commissioners sign off on the settlement? If so, how did that happen?

 "3) Why are the details of the settlement closed to public review? Shouldn't the public have a right to see what it is paying for, what remedies are required, if any?

 "4) Did the city oppose the move to seal the settlement records? If not, why? All parties and circumstances of the case were already known to the public. What would require it to be sealed?

"5) Who was the judge who presided over this settlement and agreed to seal it? The public doesn't know who approved this and there is no paperwork we can find that shows such a settlement even exists.

"6) Who was the lead attorney in the negotiations? Were other attorneys involved on behalf of the city? How much did the city pay for this legal work? Did the city incur any other costs related to the negotiations?"

We don't want to cause the Leininger family more pain. That's not what this is about, and we would avoid that at all costs. It's about government transparency. It's about doing the right thing.

Matthew Von Pinnon is editor of The Forum. His e-mail is The Forum and Daily Globe are both owned by Forum Communications Co., and Mike Nowatzki is a former Daily Globe reporter.