County paid Howard $31,000 in severance

April 11, 2003|by TARA REILLY

The Washington County Commissioners agreed to give former Economic Development Director John Howard a $31,000 severance payment when he retired nearly a year ago, information the county refused to disclose since June 2002.

Washington County Circuit Judge Donald E. Beachley on Wednesday ordered the county to release the payment information to former Clear Spring resident Thomas Firey, who sued the county in January over the issue.

Firey said he found out the payment amount on Thursday. Three of the five County Commissioners confirmed the $31,000 payment Thursday night.


The county had argued both in and out of court that the payment was confidential retirement information.

Beachley, however, disagreed with the county's argument.

"From a policy standpoint, the public has a significant interest in ensuring that its government properly accounts for the spending of public funds," Beachley wrote in his ruling. "The county has failed to meet its burden justifying its denial of access to this information..."

Firey, of Alexandria, Va., said he was pleased with Beachley's ruling.

Howard said by phone Thursday night that he had no comment.

"I am not in any position to comment on this matter," Howard said.

County Attorney Richard Douglas, who had said for months that the information wasn't public, said Thursday he was hoping Firey would go public with the severance amount.

"This is what I've been waiting for for nine months," Douglas said.

Howard had been on paid administrative leave since late March 2002. He resigned May 8, 2002 and the county announced his retirement on June 11. His annual salary at the time was $82,067.

The Herald-Mail twice requested under the Maryland Public Information Act information on any payments made to Howard, but Douglas denied both requests.

County officials had said they could not release the information because it was part of Howard's retirement agreement, which is confidential information.

They also said they signed a confidentiality agreement with Howard, which prevented them from releasing the information.

Douglas said last year that the payment was protected under the Maryland Public Information Act because it was Howard's personal income, not salary.

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

Beachley ruled Wednesday that while the amount of Howard's pension will remain private, the severance payment isn't confidential.

He wrote that such payments are not retirement records or part of a personnel record.

Beachley also ruled that the confidentiality agreement between the county and Howard be released to Firey, stating that the county had failed to demonstrate that should not be made public.

Commissioners John C. Munson and James F. Kercheval said Thursday night they were glad the severance amount was finally made public.

"I'm glad it's finally out and done," Kercheval said. "I was tired of hearing about it. Now we can put that to rest and move on."

Munson, who also sued the county for release of the information, said he disagreed with the payment amount.

"That won't be happening anymore as long as I'm in there," Munson said. "You shouldn't have to give someone severance pay when they leave."

Munson's case was put on hold by the Circuit Court.

Commissioners Vice President William J. Wivell had sued the county to make the information public, but his suit was dismissed.

"I thought it should've been released from the beginning," Wivell said Thursday night. "It's unfortunate that it took this long."

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