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Attorney: County can't reveal payment made to official

August 09, 2002

tarar@herald-mail.com

Washington County Attorney Richard Douglas said Thursday the county cannot reveal how much money former Economic Development Commission Director John Howard received as part of his retirement because it was his personal income, not salary.

Douglas' statements were in response to two letters from The Herald-Mail requesting under the Maryland Public Information Act information on any payments made to Howard by the county since January.

Howard had been on paid administrative leave since late March and retired on May 8. The county announced his retirement on June 11. His annual salary at the time of his retirement was $82,067.

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The Herald-Mail made the requests on June 18 and July 11.

Douglas denied the requests based on a provision in the act that exempts government bodies from disclosing "information about an individual, including assets, income, liabilities, net worth, bank balances, financial history or activities or creditworthiness."

"This is his personal worth," Douglas said Thursday of the county's payment to Howard. "It's income to him."

Mary R. Craig, attorney for The Herald-Mail, said she disagrees with Douglas' argument.

"There's a special provision in the Public Information Act that says that the salary of a public employee is public information," Craig said. "If Mr. Howard was paid his salary for a period of time when he didn't work, then that's not confidential financial information."

"The question would be 'isn't any payment made to a public employee the same?'" Craig said.

The Washington County Commissioners have said that Howard's payment cannot be disclosed because the county signed a confidentiality agreement with him that prevents them from revealing that information.

Craig said she didn't think either of the arguments would stand up in court.

"I don't think you can write yourself an exemption to the Public Information Act by agreeing with an employee to keep something confidential," Craig said. "I don't think a court would say that government can spend public funds and not tell the public where it spent the money."

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