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County learned expensive lesson in Howard deal

April 14, 2003|by Terry Headlee

$31,000.

That's the figure the Washington County Commissioners were finally forced by a court order this week to admit they paid John Howard when he "retired" from his county position last year.

It's too bad it took 10 months, at least five Freedom of Information requests and three lawsuits to pry the amount out of the county government.

The ordeal also was partly responsible for the political demise of former commissioners Paul Swartz and Bert Iseminger (who both agreed, along with the three other commissioners, to keep the payout amount a secret) and partly responsible for the election of Commissioner John Munson. Munson, if you recall, attracted the attention of voters when he sued the county to release the Howard agreement, though his lawsuit is now on hold.

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What is even more interesting is the amount of attention this simple severance package generated from taxpayers and the newspaper.

When I typed the name "John Howard" into our internal library system Friday morning I received 137 "hits" since June 13, 2002 - the day we ran our first story saying county officials were refusing to release Howard's severance agreement.

As you can probably guess by now, having a lot of "hits" is not necessarily a good thing. In this case, most were news stories, letters to the editor, and Mail Call items that mentioned the secret Howard deal in both our morning and afternoon publications.

The only reason I mention this is that under normal circumstances the $31,000 payout given to the former executive director of the county Economic Development Commission would have merited a one-paragraph mention in a single news story last summer.

It's possible the severance package may have generated a couple of letters to the editor, a couple disgruntled comments in Mail Call and possibly a follow-up story. That would have been a worst-case scenario.

Instead, the decision by county commissioners (Gregory Snook, Bill Wivell and John Schnebly were the other three commissioners at the time) to spend tax dollars without accountability was the beginning of an onslaught of stories, columns and letters from outraged taxpayers that never let up before, during and after the fall election.

To say this matter was mishandled from the beginning is an understatement. In retrospect, it proved to be a ridiculous decision to tie the severance pay into a confidentiality agreement by classifying the payout as personal income and not salary.

The very existence of the secret agreement was never totally resolved. Depending on which commissioner you talked to, they either had never seen it, seen it but never signed it or wouldn't acknowledge that such an agreement even existed.

Normally, the right thing to do after a mistake has been made is to acknowledge it and move on.

It would be a good idea in this case, however, for the current board of commissioners to determine whose brilliant idea it was to violate state law (Maryland Public Information Act) and then make that person or persons accountable for the horrible advice. Of course, if the idea was concocted by the former board and former staff members then the current commissioners need to seriously re-examine their role as the guardian of public tax dollars to ensure that tax money is properly spent.

It bears repeating that the moral of this story is simple: "You can't spend tax dollars without accountability."

Washington County Circuit Judge Donald E. Beachley said it better when he ruled against the county earlier this week. In his ruling, Beachley wrote, "From a public policy standpoint, the public has a significant interest in ensuring that its government properly accounts for the spending of public funds."

That's good advice that the current board of commissioners should heed when making future decisions on the expenditure of taxpayer money. For Swartz and Iseminger, it's a lesson they learned too late.




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

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