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Swartz says never again to deal

September 02, 2002|by TARA REILLY

tarar@herald-mail.com

If the Washington County Commissioners had the John Howard retirement deal to do over again, just one of the five said he'd oppose the use of a confidentiality agreement to keep the financial terms of the package a secret the second time around.

"It will never happen again," Commissioners Vice President Paul Swartz said. "We're never going to have this again. Never."

Commissioners President Gregory I. Snook could not be reached for comment.

Howard, former Economic Development Commission director, 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.

County officials and the County Commissioners have refused to disclose the retirement compensation paid to Howard, claiming a county-signed confidentiality agreement with the former director prevents them from doing so.

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County Attorney Richard Douglas has also argued that the payment is protected under the Maryland Public Information Act because it was Howard's personal income, not salary.

Commissioner Bert Iseminger said the board made a mistake in how it handled the Howard deal and apologized to the public.

"In retrospect, we could have done things differently," Iseminger said. "I think we all clearly made a mistake by agreeing to keep certain things confidential."

He said he could not say what the commissioners could have done differently because of the confidentiality agreement.

He did not say whether the county would again use a confidentiality agreement that keeps compensation paid to outgoing employees a secret.

Iseminger, however, shot down claims from Swartz and Commissioner William J. Wivell that they had not seen Howard's confidentiality agreement before it was signed by county officials.

"All the commissioners were aware of the agreement and what was in it," Iseminger said. "We all saw it. We were all apprised of the agreement."

Wivell said he has never seen the confidentiality agreement and doesn't know if the compensation was part of it.

Swartz said he didn't see the agreement until after it was signed, and both Swartz and Wivell said they didn't sign it.

Swartz said the confidentiality agreement was the work of county administrators, not the commissioners, and that the compensation was part of it.

"We can't defend this situation because it wasn't ours," Swartz said. "If it was up to us, it would not have happened in the first place."

Swartz said county staff members often make decisions that should be made by the commissioners.

"Is the staff in charge or are the commissioners in charge?" Swartz said. "We are not always the final say, and we need to be the final say."

Wivell said the commissioners relied on advice from Douglas not to release the payment given to Howard. He said compensation should be made public, but did not say whether the county would use a confidentiality agreement again.

"It's my understanding that it's Richard Douglas' legal opinion that the payment should not be disclosed," Wivell said.

Douglas has said the commissioners asked him for advice in the matter, so he responded.

Iseminger said the commissioners made the decision to allow the agreement.

"Legal is not to blame," Iseminger said. "Ultimately, the decision rests with the commissioners. I will accept my part in that, and I will accept my responsibility for the decision I made."

"We've got ourselves into that situation," Iseminger said. "And for that I apologize to the citizens. We did not exercise good judgment in this."

Iseminger said that if a complaint was lodged with the Maryland Open Meeting Compliance Board and that the board ruled the payment must be disclosed, the commissioners would not have a problem with revealing the amount.

Commissioner John Schnebly said the commissioners didn't do anything wrong and that he'd handle a similar situation the same way.

"In my mind, it was done properly," Schnebly said.

He said there would have been risks to the public's interest if the county handled the deal differently. He did not elaborate on what those risks would have been.

"There are risks involved to the public by doing it another way," Schnebly said. "That doesn't mean I'm right. I could be wrong."

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