Brookline rejects effort to ban secrecy clauses in harassment settlements

Photo by Getty Images, illustration by Emily Judem/WGBH News

The Brookline town meeting defeated a proposal Tuesday night to do away with secrecy provisions in settlements of racial or sexual harassment claims again the town.

The town has settled four cases in the past two years, at a total cost of more than $700,000, but town officials argued that the settlements and the privacy provisions prevent extended and potentially much more costly litigation.

Read: Brookline citizens push ban on secret settlements as town pledges data release.

Jonathan Margolis, a town meeting member who sponsored the measure along with a citizens group called the Brookline Justice League, said more transparency would help expose racism in public agencies. The settlements, advocates argued, let the town sweep allegations of racism or sexual harassment under the rug.

“If you believe that transparency is essential to democracy … if you agree that Brookline should practice what it preaches so loudly as it espouses its progressive ideals, then join me in voting favorable action on the amendment,” Margolis said.

The goal of the measure “is to allow claimants to speak, even after their cases have been settled,” said the Justice League’s Brooks Ames. “And the purpose is to improve things in Brookline.”

But the measure was voted down as town officials argued it would essentially rule out settlements, leading instead to protracted and costly litigation.

“There would be little reason or incentive for the town to enter into settlements of claims, if, after receiving the settlement check and resolving their dispute with the town a claimant could continue to disparage the town and go to the media and publicize their claims and grievances and their version of events, no matter how inaccurate,” said Susan Granoff, presenting on behalf of the town’s advisory board.

If the measure were passed, in cases against municipal employees, local officials would most likely be barred from discussing the allegations, leaving no way to dispute the plaintiffs’ claims, even if they were inaccurate or incomplete, Granoff and other opponents said.

After about 30 minutes of debate, the proposal was defeated in a vote of 102-83.

While many companies and government agencies have grappled with how to handle harassment allegations in the wake of the #MeToo movement, both sides in the Brookline dispute said they believe the proposal before the town meeting would have been the nation’s most sweeping rejection of non-disclosure agreements in civil rights settlements.