It’s time for Baltimore County Council to “meddle” in the affairs of the Baltimore County government.

I wrote an op ed published by The Baltimore Sun on May 17th that criticized long-time Baltimore County Administrator Fred Homan for issuing a “policy” purportedly entitling high-ranking appointed officials in County government, including himself, to “severance pay” upon termination of County government.  If the 7% pay raise proposed for Mr. Homan in the FY2018 budget is adopted that means when he retires he will be entitled to a lump sum severance payment of $ 80,000 in addition to estimated monthly pension payments of $18,750.  That’s right, $18,750 per month.

I followed that up with a letter that I sent yesterday to members of the Baltimore County Council and County Executive Kamenetz detailing my concerns and stating what I believe needs to be done to resolve them, including halting the payment of severance pay until such time as it is approved by ordinance of the County Council.  Ltr to Balt County Council & Exec 5 22 17  Only the County Council has the legal authority to authorize severance pay for appointed officials, including Mr. Homan, and that would have to be done by law.  There is no law authorizing severance pay.

Then of course there are the questions raised by a County Administrative Officer issuing a policy from which he stands to benefit.  Will anyone in Baltimore County do anything about the problems?  I doubt it, and I will tell you why I am so pessimistic.

What drew me to this matter in the first place was my anger at reading that the attempts by Alison Knezevich of The Sun to obtain the source of the decision to award former Police Chief Jim Johnson a “severance package” valued at $117,000 were rebuffed by County officials on the basis that it was a “personnel matter.”  I knew that was not true and decided to make my own inquiries.

One of my inquiries was to Council President Tom Quirk, who is my representative on the Council.  I was both stunned and angered by his response, and decided that this was something that I needed to pursue.  The link to the entire email appears below, but this is the heart of his response:

“Severance pay is an executive prerogative.  This is part of separation of powers.  I know that the executive department policy is to permit severance pay for all department heads . . . I support the County Executive’s decision here and I also believe that this decision is the County Executive’s to make and his alone.  I think it would be inappropriate for the legislative branch to meddle in executive branch responsibility and duty.”

At first I was a bit insulted at being sent such drivel.  The more I thought about it the angrier I got.  Assuming that Chairman Quirk was not aware that I had some knowledge of Maryland local government law where does he get off blowing that kind of smoke up a citizen’s arse?  Did he think that I would just accept that nonsense and his thanks for my “passion and concern” for the County and go away?  It is not “meddling” for the County Council to decide upon the propriety and limits of the compensation of department heads, it is their duty and responsibility.

What is the chance that any remedial action will be taken when this is the attitude of the Council Chairman?  As usual the wagons are circling in Towson.

After the op ed appeared in the newspaper I received an inquiry from a member of the Baltimore County Charter Review Commission asking if I thought it would be useful to amend the County Charter to state that no compensation shall be paid to any County official other than that expressly authorized by the County Council by ordinance.  My reaction was a negative one based on my general opposition to passing new laws when the problem lies in the enforcement of existing ones:  The Charter already states that establishing the compensation to which a County official or employee is entitled because of his or her service to the County is a legislative function assigned to the County Council.  Adding language explaining that means that it is not an “executive prerogative” (Chairman Quirk’s term) is redundant and unnecessary.

No, I’m afraid the problem lies in the people elected to govern Baltimore County and the high-ranking officials that they appoint.  Where was the County Attorney during all of this?  Did he ever have a discussion with his immediate supervisor, the County Administrator Officer, about the legality of the County Administrative Officer issuing a policy entitling appointed officials including both the County Administrative Officer and the County Attorney to severance pay upon leaving County employment?

What about the County Auditor?  The County Auditor is the fiscal watchdog of the County.  Did she ever express any concern about the legality of the Executive Benefit Policy and the Legislative Branch Benefits Policy?  Again, complicating the issue is the fact that she is one of the appointed officials covered by the Legislative Branch Benefits Policy.  Didn’t she ever wonder how members of the Council could approve that policy just by signing it, rather than approving it by ordinance?

Baltimore County has a long history of doing things behind closed doors and of making government as opaque as possible for its citizens.  There also is a fair amount of voter apathy that allows such practices to continue.  I’m not optimistic that anything is going to change anytime soon.  A taxpayer’s suit undoubtedly would bring a halt to payments of the severance pay but is unlikely to effect any longer-term change.

Links to:     Executive Benefit Policy                                                                                                                       Legislative Branch Benefits Policy                                                                                                     Council Chairman T. Quirk email

May 23, 2017

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