Now that we know how much...

April 16, 2003|by BOB MAGINNIS

The revelation that the last board of Washington County Commissioners gave former Economic Development Director John Howard $31,000 in severance pay tells the public a few things about the case, but raises a few questions that citizens should consider.

The payment makes it clear that Howard was "encouraged" to leave not because of any wrong-doing on his part. Had that been the case, there would have been no payment.

While how much Howard got was unknown until Circuit Judge Donald Beachley ordered it revealed, it's been clear for months that the last county board was divided over whether its EDC director should go.

Commissioner Paul Swartz, whose flip-flop on whether he'd resign over the issue probably cost him re-election, called Howard a "valuable employee" who Swartz said he'd tried to persuade to stay.


Swartz also said, and some EDC board members have confirmed, that they were surprised that Howard had left, indicating that they were not expecting his ouster. Performance apparently wasn't a factor either.

Howard, here since September 1997, oversaw the location of the Staples and Tru-Serv distribution centers here, as well as the expansion of Phoenix Color Corp.

Prime Outlets and the Centre at Hagerstown were built during his tenure, as were major industrial and distribution facilities for Anderson Windows, Lippincott Williams & Wilkins and California Microwave.

The local EDC was accredited by the American Economic Development Council, the only county agency to be so designated in Maryland.

Did Howard ever get it wrong? Three years ago he said that bringing the Role Models Academy to the former Fort Ritchie was a "terrific re-use of Fort Ritchie's space." But in his defense, he's not the only one who failed to foresee the flurry of lawsuits that would be spawned by the rocky relationship between the school and PenMar Development Corp.

So why was there a push to get Howard to leave? Sources on and off the EDC board told me it was because a majority of the commissioners felt he was too tough on the EDC's employees.

My question: Did the commissioners or other county officials call Howard in to discuss the alleged problem? I don't know what happened here, but in cases when an employee who's performed well previously gets "off the track," it's good practice to counsel that person and reinforce what's expected before taking any drastic action.

And why not involve the EDC board members who worked with Howard? Why trust them with details about potential new businesses but not with the nuts and bolts of a personnel matter? Was that strategy the commissioners' idea, or did it come from another county staffer?

The bottom line: Was a dispute over managerial style worth pushing out someone with five years' experience and a track record? You be the judge, because it cost you the taxpayers $31,000.

The point is so obvious that I'm almost embarrassed to make it, but here goes: The reason the Sister City program was created was to promote peace, by putting people from two different nations in contact with each other.

The relationship with Hagerstown's original sister city, Wesel, Germany, began in 1952, just seven years after the end of World War II, a conflict in which Germany and the U.S. were enemies. It was seen then as a way to bring the two peoples together, in hopes that future wars might be averted.

Now comes a proposal to make Saumur, France, Hagerstown's second sister city and some are already objecting because of France's non-support in the current war in Iraq.

To reject a bid for friendship between ordinary citizens because their governments disagree is ridiculous. Those who believe the government of France is wrong will have a lot better chance of changing French policy if they talk to some people from France. Unless of course they're afraid that the French might change their minds.

Another possibility comes from William Reel of Williamsport whose letter appears elsewhere on this page. Reel says we should have sister city in Afghanistan, where the people really need some American friends.

Are you tired of syndicated columnist Charley Reese? Judging by the complaints I get, many people are. He is The Herald-Mail columnist who draws the most comment - pro and con. And since the war began, he's irked many readers with his criticism of the president and American strategy.

Should we only hear opinions that make us comfortable? I say not, although I am weary of Reese's hammering on the idea that Israel is the focus of all evil in the Middle East.

Last time I checked, Israel is the only country in the region where people can vote freely and where there's some semblance of freedom of religion. That's not to say that the Palestinians don't have some legitimate gripes, like the settlement issue.

But neither side is made up exclusively of saints and the first step toward peace ought to be an acknowledgment that neither is perfect.

That said, should Reese go? Write and tell us at Editorial Page Editor, The Herald-Mail, P.O. Box 439, Hagerstown, MD, 21741, or e-mail to opinion@herald-mail. com. Please include your name, address and phone number, so we can make sure no one is stuffing the ballot box.

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