To the Editor:
Last week's cover story ("Prescription for Disaster"), which stated that Shelby County taxpayers have "paid out $40 million to settle lawsuits filed by jail inmates" over the past five years, is irresponsible. As the chairman of the county commission's Law Enforcement Committee for three of those five years, I can assure you that the amount paid by the county for such claims is nowhere remotely close to that figure.
Any payment by the county must be made in a manner that is disclosed as a matter of public record. Any settlement of over $50,000 must be approved by the County Commission. There have been less than 10 such payments, to my recollection, over the past five years, and probably closer to five. According to the county attorney's records, since 1996 the county has paid less than $7 million for all claims against all departments of county government, whether by settlement or judgments.
In addition, and importantly, the county's contract with CMS, its third-party health services provider for the downtown jail, contains an indemnity provision requiring CMS to carry at least $3 million in coverage per year for any such claims. It lists the county as an "additional insured" under the policy. Any payment made by the county for CMS's negligence is going to be made by CMS's insurance company, not the county. I don't believe we have exhausted the $3 million limit at any time under the agreement.
I contacted the reporter for this piece, who has apparently left for a job with another publication, in order to see where she got the information for her inflammatory assertions about the CMS contract being "an especially costly pill for Shelby County taxpayers to swallow," since all of the things referenced above are easily accessible through public records. She at first agreed to show me her documentation but then declined on the grounds that sharing her notes would not be "ethical." I can only assume that she confused the amounts inmates seek in legal filings, which is an arbitrary number that means nothing in and of itself, with payments made by the county. This, frankly, is incredible and if true, absolutely indefensible. I suppose the "taxpayers" should consider ourselves fortunate that some prisoner hasn't made a claim for $100 trillion, because, under your reporter's reasoning, we would all be in big trouble.
There are plenty of problems with the downtown jail that can and should be the subject of media scrutiny. Making up numbers about taxpayer payments in order to draw attention to one aspect of the jail's operations, however, is quite another thing, and that's essentially what the reporter of this piece appears to have done.
I am a regular Flyer reader. I find its political reporting generally first-rate, and sometimes the Flyer finds an angle on a newsworthy issue that other local media outlets miss. You seem to be relying, however, more and more on young journalists with limited experience on important investigative pieces, and you are going to have to do a better job of double-checking some of their assertions. This particular reporter had an obvious talent for observational reporting. She is a good writer. That does not make her a good reporter, at least not yet, as this piece demonstrates.
The article warrants a retraction of the "$40 million in taxpayer money" message. I hope the retraction will be as prominent as the cover of your last issue.
Buck Wellford, Shelby County Commissioner
Editor's note: Shelby County, as Commissioner Wellford asserts, has not paid out $40 million in lawsuit settlements for inmates, as last week's cover story reported. Please see this week's "Viewpoint" (p. 13) for more information.
To the Editor:
The United States is now the last major nation of the world refusing to sign the Kyoto agreements ("Deja Vu All Over Again," April 5th issue), agreements that do very little very late. This is outrageously arrogant for a nation that produces many times its share of greenhouse gases and pollution. By refusing to sign on with the overwhelming majority of nations around the world, President Bush is not only the quintessential tool of the fossil fuel industry, he is a traitor to our country and economy and he is a traitor to the planet.
The truth is that the recycling of our obsolete fossil- and nuclear- fueled technology and the building of new, appropriate, cleaner, safer technologies, fueled with renewables, could be a boom to our economy like no other in our history. If we allow this oilman and dimwit to get his way, we truly are "the great Satan" of the earth.
Don Johnson, Minneapolis, MN
To the Editor:
In Bruce VanWyngarden's "Deja Vu All Over Again" he recognizes that the pursuit of truth is what our democracy embraces, not an "us" against "them" mentality when it comes to environmental issues. In Andrew Wilkins' "Poisoned" (April 5th issue) it's obvious that the bottom line of industry should not be more important than the health of the common man. Can't we as citizens bond together to produce a common working relationship where both parties gain? We can if people take an active role in our democracy and prevent the far right from instigating yet another war that doesn't realize the gray areas! Common sense is not universal unless parties agree on respect for debate to achieve truth.
Ran W. Foster, Memphis
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