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When government starts spending in secret, it may never stop

January 13, 2003|by TIM ROWLAND

Thomas Firey is the third individual to sue the Washington County for release of the secret John Howard severance deal, and the first to do so without an ulterior motive.

That is, unless you consider good governance to be a motivater, but that concept is so alien around here that it strains credibility.

Commissioners Bill Wivell and John Munson sued for this information as well, but in retrospect it seems these were just cheap campaign ploys designed to win votes, not regal efforts to represent the interests of the people.

Firey did what these two would have done, had their motives been to protect the public, rather than shameless self-promotion. He intensely researched case law from across the nation, and discovered that for once the law and common sense are one and the same: The people have a right to know how elected officials are spending their tax dollars.

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Last spring, relations between Howard, the county's economic development director, and a majority of County Commissioners became strained and he left office, but only after receiving a severance package which included financial compensation that the county has categorized as "income," a legal hedge-word it believes protects them from having to reveal the amount.

Here is all Firey, and the rest of us, want to know: How much did he get? How much did the county agree to pay Howard when he left the service of the people of Washington County.

Obviously we want to be able to judge whether we are being well-represented by the commissioners, so it would help if we knew what offended them so about Howard. If he was paid, say, $40,000 after he left office and he was forced out for mixing the paper clips with the thumb tacks, we would feel fairly confident that the commissioners were making poor use of our money.

But how Howard ended up in the commissioners' doghouse is a personnel matter and under law the public does not have a right to the details of his performance.

In its legal argument, the county is trying to say that severance pay is part and parcel of the employee's job performance or his own personal finances and therefore can be kept secret.

This gets back to the county's kooky-crazy argument that the severance pay was privileged because it was Howard's "income," not his "salary."

The law does say the public has no right to inspect a public employee's finances, including assets, income, liabilities, net worth, bank balances, financial history or creditworthiness.

I don't think Firey or anyone else wants to go rooting around in John Howard's bank book. Nor do we care how much "income" he makes from his stock investments, consulting fees or any other outside source.

But we have an absolute right and interest in knowing the total number of our dollars that wound up in his pocket.

This is not "income" in the terms of Howard's overall financial condition, this is our money that we, through the County Commissioners, directly paid him.

If the best the commissioners can do is imply that severance pay is equivalent to a retirement investment account, they will be in for a long day in court.

It seems less like a legal argument and more like singularly wishful thinking on the county's part that a judge will equate Howard's severance pay taken from the public trough with how he did in his 401(k).

In Firey's words, "a severance agreement is a binding document that notes that a person is being terminated from his employment, that he has given up any right to appeal the termination, and indicates what sort of payment or benefits he has agreed to receive as part of the severance. Far from being protected, it seems that is the sort of information that Maryland lawmakers intended for the public to have access to..."

Firey further points out that a 1998 Maryland Attorney General's opinion sided with the people, after Anne Arundel County tried to keep secret the amount of bonuses it paid to employees.

If bonuses are compensation open to public review, it is hard to see how severance pay is not.

Most deadly to the county's argument, however, is precedent established in a 1989 Missouri case, in which the courts ruled rather unequivocally that severance pay can in no way be construed as a confidential personnel matter.

All the legalities aside though, the real crime is that it had to come to this. That the county was so rock-headed that it believed it needed to keep what is really a fairly insignificant piece of information secret, and then doggedly dug itself into a deeper and deeper hole trying to defend a morally and apparently legally indefensible position.

The county administration's stonewalling and bullying may work on Wivell and Munson, but Firey is a different breed - someone who's standing up for a cause because it's the right thing to do, not to further a personal political career.

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