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County attorney says payment won't be divulged

August 22, 2002|by TARA REILLY

tarar@herald-mail.com

Washington County Attorney Richard Douglas said Wednesday he would not reveal how much the county paid former Economic Development Commission Director John Howard for his retirement, because Howard has the right to privacy under the Maryland Public Information Act.

On Tuesday, Commissioners Vice President Paul Swartz said the commissioners would stand by whatever Wednesday's decision by the attorney was.

Douglas said Howard's retirement compensation was his personal income, not salary, and that the Maryland Public Information Act protects personal income from being revealed.

He said he made the decision at the request of the commissioners.

"They said this was a Public Information Act decision, you advise us," Douglas said. "And I made that decision."

The County Commissioners have said a confidentiality agreement with Howard prevents them from disclosing the compensation.

Commissioner William Wivell said Wednesday he didn't sign the agreement and that he doesn't think any of the commissioners did. He said he was told a confidentiality agreement existed, but he didn't know if that was before or after it had been signed.

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Wivell said the agreement probably was signed by Douglas and County Administrator Rodney Shoop.

He said Commissioner President Gregory I. Snook might have signed the agreement on behalf of the commissioners.

Commissioner John Schnebly said that the county attorney usually signs agreements on behalf of the commissioners.

Snook said Tuesday he could not comment on who signed the agreement because it was a personnel issue. Shoop could not be reached for comment. Douglas would not confirm whether a confidentiality agreement existed.

On Tuesday, Swartz said he couldn't remember signing an agreement and questioned whether it would be valid if none of the commissioners signed it.

Douglas said Wednesday that the County Commissioners normally don't sign agreements. He said agreements usually are signed by county employees and sometimes by the president of the board.

"So the fact that they didn't sign anything doesn't mean anything," Douglas said.

"He's the attorney," Wivell said.

Wivell said he thinks The Herald-Mail should ask a court for an opinion to force disclosure of the payment.

"That would put the matter to rest," Wivell said. "I truly think that it would have to be released."

Wivell said the spending of tax dollars should be public, but that he doesn't want to be personally sued for disclosing the information.

"I don't necessarily agree with the attorney's opinion," Wivell said. "I do have to abide by it."

Douglas said if the amount were revealed, the person who discloses it could face actual damages, punitive damages, criminal liability, disciplinary action and contempt. He said the person would have to pay attorney fees and litigation costs.

He said that his decision to keep Howard's compensation secret would stand up in court.

"I think the county's position would be protected, and that would finalize it," Douglas said.

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

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