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Wivell sues county for info release

September 11, 2002|by TARA REILLY

tarar@herald-mail.com

Washington County Commissioner William J. Wivell has sued the Board of County Commissioners over its refusal to disclose how much the county paid former Economic Development Commission Director John Howard as part of his retirement.

Wivell filed the suit in Washington County Circuit Court on Sept. 5.

The suit alleges that the commissioners were "wrongfully withholding from the public records which they are entitled to inspect under the Public Information Act."

The suit asks the court to direct the commissioners to comply with the act and release the information.

Wivell's action came as a result of the county twice declining written requests made by The Herald-Mail to reveal the amount paid to Howard, according to the suit.

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The Herald-Mail made the requests under the Maryland Public Information Act on June 18 and July 11.

"I think the matter needs to be put to rest," Wivell said Tuesday.

Wivell said he thinks the information should be revealed.

"I believe that a judge will probably find that as well," Wivell said.

The county has 30 days to respond to Wivell's action and then a judge will decide if the case will be heard, he said.

Commissioners Vice President Paul L. Swartz said Tuesday he supports Wivell's action because the information is public.

Commissioner Bert Iseminger said he wasn't expecting the suit but that Wivell was within his rights under the Maryland Public Information Act to file it.

"That's fine," Iseminger said. "If it's within the bounds of what the PIA allows ... that's the way it's supposed to work."

Iseminger said he didn't know how the judge would rule since Wivell is asking for a judgment against himself, but that the commissioners would follow that ruling.

"Whatever the ruling is, the commissioners are going to abide by that ruling," Iseminger said.

Commissioners President Gregory I. Snook said he didn't know Wivell was considering the suit, and that he wouldn't be opposed to releasing the compensation if the judge rules in Wivell's favor.

"I've told him ... if the judge says there's no problem with releasing that information, that's fine," Snook said.

Commissioner John Schnebly said Wivell contacted his fellow commissioners to tell them he was going to take the action.

"It's Bill's way to put a resolution to this matter," Schnebly said Tuesday night. "I wouldn't question his motive ... he's doing what he thinks is best."

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.

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

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

Douglas said that if the amount were revealed, the person or the county who did so could face actual damages, punitive damages, criminal liability, disciplinary action and contempt.

Iseminger said he believed the board made a mistake in the way it handled the Howard deal and apologized to the public.

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