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Commissioners should come clean on payoff

October 21, 2002|by Terry Headlee

The Washington County Commissioners should look next door at the state of Delaware if they still have doubts that the taxpayer-funded compensation they gave to their former economic development director should remain a secret.

New Castle County officials last week were forced by a Delaware attorney general's ruling to disclose they had paid a county councilman's aide, Sharon R. Hughes, and her attorney $260,000 to avoid a lawsuit over allegations of employment discrimination and harassment.

The county also had to disclose the contents of the settlement, which included providing the former employee with health-care benefits for more than six months and giving a favorable recommendation to any future employer, according to The (Wilmington) News Journal.

Hughes, who resigned from her New County Castle position on Sept. 14, 2001, also had agreed that she would not disclose the existence or the terms of the agreement except to her tax, financial or legal advisers, according to The News Journal.

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The News Journal reported in its Oct. 12 edition that the Delaware Department of Justice ruled the documents (both the checks and the confidential agreement) are public information after the county had earlier rejected the newspaper's request for the information via the state's Freedom of Information Act.

In the ruling, the Department of Justice rejected the county's contention that the checks and the settlement agreement were exempt from public inspection because releasing such personnel information would invade an employee's privacy.

In other words, the ruling meant that the public's right to know how government officials are spending tax dollars outweighs an employee's privacy rights in legal settlements.

While such secret compensation agreements between elected officials and employees are illegal in Delaware, they apparently are not in the eyes of the Washington County Commissioners, who continue to fight the release of the payout to former EDC Director John Howard.

The Delaware case is interesting because many of the case's facts mirror those of the Howard ordeal.

Howard retired from his $82,067-a-year position from the county earlier this year and received an undisclosed payment that apparently can never be revealed because of a secret agreement between the county and Howard. The very existence of the agreement is still in question. Depending on which commissioner you talk to, they either have never seen it, seen it but never signed it or won't acknowledge that such an agreement even exists.

The Herald-Mail filed two requests under the Maryland Public Information Act and both were denied by the county. The reason: County Attorney Richard Douglas says the payout to Howard is his personal income and not his salary so the county can refuse to release the amount.

In the meantime, County Commissioner Bill Wivell recently sued the commissioners - including himself - asking that the county's financial agreement with Howard be released to the public. Wivell never filed a PIA for the information so the county is arguing in court that he has no legal standing.

In addition, a County Commissioners candidate, John Munson, filed a request for the information through the Maryland Public Information Act, but it was denied by the county earlier this month. Munson is deciding whether to appeal to circuit court.

I'm not a lawyer and I realize that public disclosure laws vary from state to state.

But it does seem like a blatant violation of Maryland's law for elected officials to write checks out of a taxpayer-funded account without disclosing the amount to the public. This is what some readers have expressed to us, which is why we continue to pursue the story.

It also seems like a waste of taxpayer money to take this issue to court since the likely outcome is the County Commissioners will have to divulge the payout whether they want to or not. They should just go ahead and do everyone a favor and release it.

The final outcome, however, may rest with the local court of public opinion since a less expensive alternative - as some readers have suggested - may be the ballot box on Nov. 5.

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

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