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Secrecy was not required

May 30, 2003|By TARA REILLY

tarar@herald-mail.com

The Washington County Commissioners were not bound by a confidentiality agreement to keep secret the $31,564 special payment they gave former Economic Development Commission Director John Howard as part of his retirement package, according to his retirement agreement.

The County Commissioners said last year the county signed a confidentiality agreement that forced them to keep the payment under wraps.

But according to the retirement agreement signed by Howard on June 6, 2002, there was no such provision that prohibited the county from revealing the amount to the public.

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The confidentiality agreement in Howard's retirement agreement applies only to Howard, not to the commissioners, according to the agreement.

"It doesn't make no sense, does it?" Commissioner John C. Munson said Thursday of the county's refusal to disclose the payment.

Munson also had refused to disclose the amount, saying County Attorney Richard Douglas told the commissioners not to make the payment public.

Munson was not a commissioner when Howard retired, but he said during his campaign and after he was elected in November 2002 that the amount should be made public.

Washington County Circuit Judge Donald Beachley ordered last month that the payment amount be released after a former Clear Spring resident sued the county for its disclosure.

Douglas released the retirement agreement to The Herald-Mail last week after the paper filed a request under the Maryland Public Information Act.

Howard went on paid administrative in late March 2002. The county announced his retirement on June 11. His salary at the time was $82,067.

Commissioners Vice President William J. Wivell said this week he had first thought the confidentiality agreement applied to both the county and Howard, which is why he didn't release the amount of the special payment.

As controversy surrounding the payment increased last summer, Wivell said he found out that the confidentiality agreement applied only to Howard.

He said the commissioners were advised by Douglas not to reveal the payment amount to the public, stating the county could have been sued by Howard if they had done so.

Wivell and Munson said they didn't agree with Douglas' advice but stuck by it anyway.

"I had to kind of be careful," Munson said. "I thought maybe Douglas knows something I don't."

Wivell and Munson both sued the county for the payment to be released. Wivell's case was dismissed and Munson is no longer pursuing his case because the payment amount was released.

Douglas said Thursday he knew the confidentiality agreement didn't apply to the county, but the commissioners did not. He said the commissioners had not seen the agreement when they were asked last summer by The Herald-Mail whether one existed.

"I had the benefit of the agreement in front of me, and they didn't," Douglas said.

He said his advice not to discuss Howard's special payment was based on the Public Information Act. Douglas had argued that the payment amount shouldn't be disclosed because it was Howard's personal income, not salary.

Douglas said he didn't make public that the confidentiality agreement didn't apply to the commissioners, because even mentioning that one existed was confidential.

"I wished I could at that point, because it certainly would've saved a lot of debate and a lot of wrangling, but I couldn't," Douglas said.

Commissioners President Gregory I. Snook said Thursday he could not discuss Howard's payment last summer or now, because the matter involved other employees. He said he wanted to protect the confidentiality of those other employees.

He would not elaborate on that statement.

"It wasn't just John Howard, it was the other employees," Snook said.

Commissioner Doris J. Nipps said she, Munson and Commissioner James F. Kercheval didn't discuss the retirement agreement when they took office in December 2002 because they were not on the board when the agreement was signed.

Snook and Wivell were the only members of the former board who were re-elected.

"That was a decision by the former board," Nipps said.

She said, however, she thought the former board of commissioners could have avoided controversy over the payment amount if the county had released it after Howard retired.

Former Commissioner Paul L. Swartz said this week his copy of Howard's retirement agreement contains a confidentiality agreement that barred the commissioners from disclosing the special payment. He said the agreement stated the county could be sued by Howard if it had released it.

"There was one there, trust me," Swartz said.

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