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Commissioners 'not at liberty' to obey the law

August 15, 2002|by TIM ROWLAND

You wondered how long the Washington County Commissioners could keep it up. For a couple of years now they've been dangerously competent, with no $54 million debts, no trips to the Masters and no arrests of black people protesting outside their offices.

It couldn't last, and thank heavens it didn't.

Three or four months ago, the county's EDC chief John Howard left office, ostensibly to "retire/contemplate his future."

But although his presence in the office ceased three months ago, his paychecks from the county did not. The county - make that us - apparently paid him after he left the job. Why? The commissioners won't say. How much? They won't say that either. If you pro rate Howard's $82,000 salary, it would come out to more than $20,000 so far.

Under law, government (well, most governments anyway - the commissioners apparently believe the laws don't apply to them) has to account publicly for every dime of money it spends.

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The commissioners can keep the amount they are paying Howard a secret, the county says, because "it's not Howard's salary, it's his income."

Um.

OK, don't bother raising your hands. I'm not sure I can explain this one.

I think I'll try a reverse of this on my income tax. "But Mr. Auditor, how many times do I have to explain it to you? I don't need to pay taxes on this money because it's not my income, it's my salary."

That's like saying the Vehicle Emissions Program testing doesn't apply to you because "it's not my vehicle, it's my car."

Further, the commissioners say they are duty-bound to keep mum because they signed "a confidentiality agreement." I bet Traficant wishes he'd thought of this one. "I really wish I could tell my side of the story, but I signed a confidentiality agreement with the fellows who were bribing me."

You have to love Commissioner Bill Wivell. He says it is the public's unequivocal right to know how much post-job money the county has paid Howard. OK Bill, so how much is it? He won't say. This is almost exactly like the way he said he supports a new baseball stadium, he just doesn't support paying for it.

Makes me think that I definitely want to see Wivell re-elected. I just won't vote for him, is all.

Commissioner John Schnebly, bless him, said he is "not at liberty at this time" to divulge the amount. Not at liberty to comply with the law? Somewhere Clinton is slapping his forehead, thinking he should have told the public "I was not at liberty not to have sex with that woman."

You might expect some direction here from Commissioners President Greg Snook, but anytime there's a hot issue, Snook is mysteriously never around to comment at all. At least the remaining four routinely stand up to face the fire.

It was the commissioners who not so very long ago clucked their tongues in disapproval at the board of education for spending $35,000 to buy out the contract of Superintendent Herman Bartlett, who is also off contemplating his future some place.

Add to that the county's buyout of its former sewer director, and there has been so much taxpayer-subsidized, future-contemplation going on in this county it makes us look like an Edgar Cayce convention.

Making the county look even worse last week, an employee with 43 years of service retired on Friday, and the commissioners refused to continue his health insurance until he turns 65 in four more years. Total cost? Less than the county might have paid Howard over the past three months for purposes of contemplation.

Apparently it didn't occur to the commissioners that if you're going to stiff a longtime, loyal employee you probably shouldn't do it at the same time you are suiting up a five-year employee with a golden parachute. Well, maybe not golden, but copper anyway.

In a statement that just leaves your mouth agape, Commissioner Bert Iseminger justified the insurance rejection on the grounds that "We're not making any special rules for anybody."

I'll just let that statement hang there as you contemplate the treatment of John Howard.

Tim Rowland is a Herald-Mail columnist.

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