Editorial: Taxpayers shouldn't be on the hook for hush money

Apparently silence isn’t priceless.

In fact, it costs a few hundred thousand taxpayer dollars and some billable hours from state-funded lawyers.

Or so we learned this week as news broke of cushy separation agreements brokered by Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s administration in an effort to help at least a couple of state agency leaders out the door.

Those agreements — one with former Michigan Department of Health and Human Services director Robert Gordon, and the other with former director of the state Unemployment Insurance Agency Steve Gray --are the equivalent of a golden parachute paired with a golden muzzle for folks whose job descriptions included serving the people of Michigan, not fleecing them.

It’s a stomach-turning trend we’ve watched play out in local governments — former Traverse City Area Public Schools Superintendent Ann Cardon walked away from the district with $180,000 thanks to a “separation agreement”.

Sure, brokered exits are somewhat commonplace in the private sector as companies and employees try to keep reputations intact during a split.

But these exit deals have no place in government.

Who are they protecting and from what? What could Robert Gordon, Steve Gray and the governor possibly say about one another or the operations of their state departments that should be shielded from the public?

The deal signed by Gordon and Mark Totten, Whitmer’s top lawyer prohibited Gordon from discussing the circumstances of his departure “in the interest of protecting deliberations among government officials.”

Since when are “deliberations among government officials” something we believe should be protected from public view, especially when we’re talking about the exit of a state employee who leads the department in charge of the state’s pandemic response?

Michiganders deserve to know what they paid Gordon and Gray to keep quiet.

This is a frustrating development from a governor who, as she took office, made pronounced public overtures about making meaningful reforms to the state’s dismal transparency laws. Those are the laws that exempt both the legislature and the governor’s office from the Freedom of Information Act.

Yet, when given the opportunity to live up to those declarations, Whitmer and her administration seem persistently attached to the murkiness that has permeated Michigan government for decades.

The governor didn’t appreciate Republican lawmakers’ characterization of payouts to Gordon and Gray as “hush money”, but we find ourselves struggling to find a better term for a cash-for-silence scheme.

So we will stick to calling taxpayer-funded confidentiality pacts what they are: a disservice.

— Traverse City Record-Eagle