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Judge rules on Howard deal

March 07, 2003|by TARA REILLY

tarar@herald-mail.com

Washington County Circuit Court Judge Donald Beachley ruled Thursday that parts of former Economic Development Commission Director John Howard's retirement agreement will be disclosed, but Beachley has not yet determined whether the retirement payment is public information.

Beachley's ruling came as a result of a suit filed in January against Washington County by former Clear Spring resident Thomas Firey. County officials have refused to reveal the terms of the agreement stating they are confidential.

Firey, of Alexandria, Va., claims the amount the county paid Howard should be disclosed because he was paid with county dollars.

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Beachley ruled that information relating to the county's legal fees, unemployment compensation and terms that the judge described as "fairly standard provisions" will be made public.

Firey will have the information in as early as a day, Beachley said. As of Thursday, another hearing had not yet been set on the remaining terms of the agreement.

The judge has not yet decided whether money paid to Howard by the county as a result of his retirement or the terms of Howard's continuing health care coverage should be open to the public.

A provision in the agreement which Howard must follow, and another provision that deals with contacting Economic Development Commission employees, has not yet been made public. Beachley did not elaborate on the details of those provisions.

William McC. Schildt, the attorney hired to represent the county in the case, argued that Howard's retirement payment is personal information and should remain a confidential document.

Schildt said retirement records of individuals are protected from being disclosed under Maryland statute.

Beachley acknowledged the statute, but he said he could not find a definition of a retirement record in the law.

Schildt said he also could not find a definition, but that he can determine the intent of the legislation.

"It's obvious that what is being protected there is information which is personal to the individual," he said. "There is a great deal which is personal to Mr. Howard, and it relates entirely to his retirement."

Firey, who is representing himself, argued in court that Howard might have received a retirement payment that was calculated differently than other county retirement payments.

"If Mr. Howard's years of service have somehow been (increased) ... I certainly would think that would be public information," Firey said.

Schildt told Beachley he would file an affidavit by Tuesday stating that Howard's retirement payment was based on the county's regular retirement system.

Firey also is asking that any lump-sum settlement that might have been made to Howard be released, saying such amounts are not retirement payments as established by the Internal Revenue Code.

In a Feb. 25 affidavit, Washington County Attorney Richard Douglas stated Howard's retirement agreement includes "provisions for monetary payments and health insurance and other fringe-type benefits."

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