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County's stonewall unfair to taxpayers

August 12, 2002|by BOB MAGINNIS

Help wanted: An attorney with a thorough understanding of the law, to educate newspaper employees and the public on the difference between "personal income" and "salary."

Washington County Attorney Richard Douglas used both those terms this past Thursday, while refusing a request to reveal how much the county - which gets its funds from taxpayers - shelled out for the retirement package of John Howard, former director of the Economic Development Commission.

Douglas denied The Herald-Mail's June 18 and July 11 requests for that information under a provision of the Maryland Public Information Act which exempts governments from releasing "information about an individual, including assets, income, liabilities, net worth, bank balances, financial history or activities or creditworthiness."

The intent of this provision seems clear. Although governments must disclose how much they're paying their employees, they need not tell the public how much, for example, an employee's credit-card balance is or whether he or she owns more than one vehicle.

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Income from outside sources would also be exempt from disclosure, as in the case of a Roads Department employee who has a part-time job mowing lawns. Since his income comes from private citizens and not the government, the taxpayers have no interest in how much he makes grooming someone's turf.

But in Howard's case, the "personal income" Douglas referred to was provided by the county government, which was Howard's employer until he retired.

Was Howard's deal in the best interest of Washington County or not? We don't know, nor do the citizens who pay the bills. We do know this isn't the first time Douglas has played this tune.

In 1996, he cited the same section in refusing to reveal the retirement package for Lynn Palmer, the former executive director of the now-defunct Sanitary Commission. The secrecy wasn't justified then and if the commissioners keep silent now, they risk the possibility that voters will speak loud and clear against what they've done on Election Day.

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