Howard deal takes money from your checkbook

August 25, 2002|by Terry Headlee

Imagine coming home from work one afternoon and being greeted by your teenage son who tells you he just wrote a check out of your checkbook and handed it over to his friend Arnie.

"It's not important that you know the amount,'' he tells you. "You can trust me."

While you're pondering this development he adds: "Oh, one more thing. Arnie and I made a pact that we're going to keep this a secret so even if I wanted to tell you the amount, I can't. Sorry. "

I'm using this example to make a point about the ongoing saga involving the Washington County Commissioners and former Economic Development Director John Howard.

The only differences are that the teenage son is really the county commissioners, the checkbook belongs to county taxpayers, Arnie is John Howard and the pact is the so-called "confidentiality agreement."


I will go ahead now and concede the point that this whole episode has been absorbing a lot of newsprint. You can make a good argument the controversy surrounding the closing of the trauma center at Washington County Hospital is a higher priority.

But when you cut through all the rhetoric surrounding the Howard ordeal you'll soon realize this also is an extraordinary story that can have long-term ramifications on how your tax dollars are spent in the future by elected officials.

If nothing else it is, without question, a significant breach of the public trust, particularly since one of the most sacred duties of an elected official is the accountability of taxpayer money.

If you haven't heard the story by now, the commissioners are refusing to release the amount of compensation they gave to Howard when he "retired" from public service in May.

For the record, the newspaper agrees the events surrounding Howard's departure is a personnel matter that doesn't need to be publicly disclosed.

What we dispute is the county's ongoing claim that money paid out to Howard should be kept a secret.

The state law is very clear on this point: The government can't write checks out of a taxpayer-funded account and hand it over to an individual, business or organization without accountability. This is why government-issued checks are subject to public inspection by the Maryland Public Information Act.

Taxpayers have a right to know how much is coming into and out of the general fund - which is essentially the equivalent of their own checkbooks.

Compounding the problem is that the commissioners apparently found a way to circumvent the disclosure by approving a confidentiality agreement with Howard that forever bars them from publicly stating the amount.

In a strange twist, at least two of the commissioners, Paul Swartz and Bill Wivell, now agree the amount should be made public.

But in the same sentence, both commissioners say they can't because of the confidentiality agreement that both of them now say they never signed.

It gets more bizarre. Both Swartz and Wivell have also publicly asked The Herald-Mail to sue the county so the commissioners can be forced to reveal the amount.

In case you're wondering, yes, this is a first. I can't ever remember any elected official, with a straight face, inviting the newspaper to sue them.

Swartz blames the county attorney for giving the commissioners bad advice.

Maybe so. But wouldn't you have thought that at least one of the five commissioners would have asked, "Wait a minute. Can we legally do this?" when concocting this plan months ago.

And even if the response was "yes," you have to wonder why any elected official would knowingly spend taxpayer money in secret.

When news of the deal first broke, the commissioners initial reaction was to respond by stating "no comment" or arguing that it was a matter of privacy for Howard. Several of them referred the questions to County Personnel Director Alan Davis who in turn referred the questions to County Attorney Richard Douglas who in turn declined to say whether Howard received any payment from the county because it was confidential information dealing with personnel.


In the first few days, county officials were sprinting away from this story like marbles dropped on a cement floor.

But the accountability of taxpayer money is a serious issue and soon some explanations came forward.

The most ridiculous is Douglas' assertion that Howard's retirement compensation can be withheld from the public because it is his personal income, not his salary.

Even Swartz had a hard time swallowing that one. In an interview with a newspaper reporter last week Swartz said in reference to Douglas' comment: "I think they're both the same. I don't know how you separate them."

So here we are. As of this writing it doesn't seem likely the commissioners are going to reveal the amount.

By keeping it secret they likely will avoid a lawsuit from Howard.

That's the good news for Commissioners President Gregory Snook and fellow commissioners Bert Iseminger, Swartz and Wivell. John Schnebly is not seeking re-election.

The bad news is the primary election is just 16 days away. The general election is Nov. 5.

Some of the voters we heard from aren't happy with the way the money is being spent from what is essentially the checkbook of county taxpayers. In addition, not one of the commissioners has stood up to say an incident like this will never happen again.

Is it an issue worthy of ousting the four incumbents from the board?

That's your call. But voters should feel free to vote their conscience.

It may be, after all, a small price to pay for the accountability of your tax dollars.

Terry Headlee is the executive editor of The Herald-Mail. He can be reached at 301-733-5131, extension 7594, or by e-mail at

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