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Closing the book on Howard

It seems there was nothing especially sinister about the agreement or its circumstances

It seems there was nothing especially sinister about the agreement or its circumstances

May 21, 2003|by Thomas A. Firey

In June of 2002, the Washington County Commissioners announced that John Howard had retired a month earlier from his position as executive director of the Hagerstown-Washington County Economic Development Commission. He had held that job since September 1997, but had gone on administrative leave in late March of 2002.

Later that August, the commissioners publicly conceded that Howard and the county had signed an agreement that guaranteed him some sort of "compensation" as part of his departure. The commissioners and other county officials refused to disclose the amount of that compensation or any of the terms contained in the agreement.

Revelation of the agreement set off a firestorm of public controversy. Several requests for release of the agreement were submitted to the county in accordance with Maryland's Public Information Act, but those requests were denied. Three lawsuits were filed seeking release of the information. And, in the November 2002 election, two sitting commissioners were turned out of office by voters who, in part, were displeased by the Howard matter.

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Last month, Washington County Circuit Judge Donald Beachley issued a well researched ruling that most of the Howard agreement must be open to public inspection under state law. Courtesy of that ruling, we can make several determinations about the affair.

First and foremost, we now know that the agreement guaranteed Howard $31,000 in "special pay" from the county - an amount that equals the pay he would have received from the time he went on administrative leave in March until what would have been his fifth anniversary of taking the job in mid-September. He also received a continuation of his government employee insurance benefits through the end of 2002. Finally, the agreement granted him a $1,500 reimbursement for legal expenses incurred in arranging the departure.

The agreement stipulated that Howard is eligible for pension and other retirement benefits under Maryland's public employee retirement system. That is significant because, at the time of his retirement in May, he was a little over four months shy of being vested in the system. In essence, the county credited Howard the extra months (and made the appropriate contributions to the system) to give him a pension and a stipend to cover part of his future health insurance costs.

Several other interesting provisions are contained in the agreement, including a confidentiality clause that prohibits Howard from disclosing "the existence, terms and conditions of this agreement" to anyone save under a few exceptions. The agreement does not include a similar confidentiality clause binding on Washington County government or its officials.

The agreement also prohibits Howard from making "any statements that are derogatory or harmful concerning the County or any of its officers or employees." He cannot bring legal action against the county or its employees related to his employment or departure, nor can he "assist, encourage or promote any litigation or investigation" by a third party against the county or any current or former employee.

The agreement was signed by County Administrator Rodney Shoop, who apparently did so on May 10. Howard countersigned the agreement on June 6.

With this information, we can make a guess as to the antecedents of the Howard departure. During his tenure at the helm of the EDC, Washington County attracted many blue-collar and service-industry firms that significantly increased local employment opportunities. However, the county did not attract many higher-paying white-collar jobs, and - fairly or not - Howard received criticism for that. There have also been rumors of tension between him and other members of the EDC staff, and criticism of his travel expenditures.

Perhaps for those reasons - or perhaps for others - it appears that last year he and the county decided to part ways. With Howard so close to being vested in the public employee retirement system, he and the county forged an agreement that granted him those benefits. To be sure, the public has both the right and reason to scrutinize that agreement, but it can certainly be argued that an employer's decision to grant a small pension and insurance stipend to an employee only a few months away from being vested is understandable.

If this is correct, then it seems there was nothing especially sinister about the agreement or its circumstances - Washington County officials simply determined that they wanted to go a different direction with the economic development commission, but they decided not to deprive Howard of the retirement benefits he was very close to earning. The only details that raise questions about that hypothesis are the stringent confidentiality requirement on Howard and the apparent fear of county officials that, if they released the contents of the agreement without a court order to do so, they could be subject to legal action. The public will have to mull over those matters.

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