SACRAMENTO, Calif. (KTXL) — Most taxpayers may not realize that tens of millions of their money is spent to settle lawsuits against the city of Sacramento.
In a previous report, FOX40 revealed more than $30 million has been spent over the past four years.
In our second in-depth report, Mayor Darrell Steinberg explains what happens when the city settles a lawsuit and how taxpayers can be a part of that process.
“It’s not unique. It’s a part of civic life,” Steinberg said.
As part of the city council, Sacramento Mayor Darrell Steinberg said each lawsuit comes across his desk and it’s his and the council’s responsibility to agree on spending the money before the city attorney finalizes the deal.
And while all city council meetings are public, discussions on lawsuits and settlements are done behind closed doors.
“The reason for that is because the council does need the ability to talk confidentially about litigation strategies, or you’re throwing numbers around, money numbers around, that has to be done confidentially,” Steinberg explained.
After multiple emails and calls to the city manager and city attorney’s office, both refused to speak with FOX40. Mayor Steinberg is the only city official who agreed to an interview, and he said it’s part of his job to take the risks into consideration for the good of the community and city.
“In the end, we want to do what’s fair, and what’s right while we protect the city,” Steinberg said.
Having those discussions in a private meeting means the public isn’t allowed to listen in to them. It isn’t until after a lawsuit has been settled — months or years later — that taxpayers are informed.
“The city reports settlements, and if we agreed to pay money to a plaintiff, for example, somebody who’s been injured, the public knows that,” Steinberg explained.
If the blame falls on the city, the numbers don’t lie.
“Where we have responsibility or culpability, then we pay,” Steinberg said. “Sometimes mistakes are made. Sometimes the wrong thing happens. Sometimes really bad things happen.”
So, after spending more than $37.4 million on lawsuits in the past four years. What lessons has the city learned?
“A tragic situation can lead to both a lawsuit, but can and often does lead to policy change, positive policy change,” Steinberg said.
Many of these cases are tied directly to the Sacramento Police Department.
“Everything that we encounter, we take as a learning experience,” Timothy Davis said.
Sacramento Police Officers Association President Davis said it’s a chance for the department to change its policies.
“Whether it goes well, whether we make mistakes, we always try to learn from those experiences,” Davis said.
Every lawsuit is a new opportunity for the city, especially with cases that could’ve been prevented.
In 2020, the city paid a Las Vegas man $17,000 to settle a lawsuit involving an old city ordinance that would allow police to arrest him if he didn’t stand for the national anthem.
Shortly after that case, the city removed the 1920s ordinance.
“The city attorney is always focused on prevention, as is the city council,” Steinberg said. “We always discuss the lessons to be learned from a major case.”
Mayor Steinberg believes prevention starts with the city’s annual budget, which this year adds up to $1.3 billion.
“We decided, for example, to invest millions of dollars in creating a cleaner and safer city. Clean and safe means just that, to make it cleaner and safer and in doing so you hope it could result in fewer incidents that could result in somebody being hurt,” Steinberg explained.
Ultimately, the decision on how tax dollars are spent is in the hands of the people.
“We all stand for election. None of us hold these positions permanently,” Steinberg said. “You do have a say. You have a say during election time, and you have a say when we put together our city budget.”