A begrudging step forward in Baltimore County?

At least for the moment, I believe that my efforts at promoting openness, transparency, and accountability in local and state government have produced some results, extremely modest though they may be. The Baltimore County Charter Review Commission released its report and recommendations last week, and one of its recommendations represents progress in introducing some semblance of accountability for the compensation paid to high-ranked County employees.

The final recommendation of the Commission was that the Baltimore County Charter be amended to require the Baltimore Council to do its job and adopt a “system” to govern the compensation of department heads and other County employees in the exempt (non-merit) service. Currently, there is no system, and the County Executive pays those employees pretty much what he pleases.

The recommendation by the Commission was the culmination of a chain of events that began with a story in March by Alison Knezevich of the Sun, who reported that a “severance package” of $117,00 was being paid to former Police Chief Jim Johnson upon his retirement. The story piqued my interest, and I used the Public Information Act to obtain a copy of the Executive Benefit Policy on which the purported entitlement to severance pay was based. The policy had never been approved by ordinance of the County Council, or made public.

In May, the Sun published an op ed that I wrote describing the Executive Benefit Policy. I pointed out that the $117,000 paid to Mr. Johnson was in addition to a pension that, using publicly-available information, I estimated to be about $19,200 per month – that’s right, per month.

I also pointed out the County Administrative Officer Fred Homan, who stood to benefit from the severance pay provisions, was the official who had approved the latest version of the policy. I later learned and made public that Mr. Homan approved a change to the policy in 2015 that increased his own entitlement to severance pay by about $26,300.

Thereafter, events took off at a serious pace, with Mr. Homan first amending the policy to remove himself from its coverage, and County Executive Kevin Kamenetz then deciding to eliminate the policy entirely. The County Council quickly followed suit, rescinding a similar policy that it had adopted (also in secret) for its own employees. And now, there is the proposed charter amendment.

When the Charter Review Commission refers to a “system” in the proposed amendment the Commission presumably is referring to a pay scale, with positions assigned to pay grades that have specific salary ranges. Currently there is nothing that controls the discretion of the County Executive in deciding upon the salaries of his appointees, even though the responsibility for establishing the compensation of all employees in the exempt service is imposed by the Charter on the County Council, not on the County Executive.

Members of the County Council are trying to spin the proposed amendment as giving the Council an oversight role that it now lacks – in other words, as if the severance pay and other abuses by the County Executive and County Administrative Officer were not the Council’s fault. It is a common tactic by politicians: Pretend the problem is the existing law, not their failure to apply it properly. Then, create a smokescreen by enacting a new law that “fixes” the problem.

It boils down to this: The Council should have enacted a pay plan for department heads and other high-ranking employees long ago; the Council had the power to do so, but it just didn’t. The proposed amendment would require the Council to do so.

The Commission was a bit vague in its report, and left enough wiggle room in its explanation of the amendment for Council members to spin it in the way most flattering to them.  [Ps. A-6 and A-7 of report, linked above.] This was Baltimore County after all, where wagons are circled better than anywhere else, one washes the other, and everyone gets their stories straight before talking to the public. All’s well that ends well, however, and what matters most is that the Council votes to put the resolution on the ballot, and that the voters approve this small step in the right direction.

I sent a letter to the Council supporting the amendment. I also suggested, however, that it is important to be honest with the voters, a novel concept in Baltimore County. Therefore, the Council should swallow hard, and make it clear that the amendment would not give the Council a “new” power – rather, it would force the Council to exercise an existing power in a reasonable way to protect the interests of the taxpayers. For once, the Council should try being straight with the citizens of the County. A link to my letter appears below.

Many a slip twixt the cup and the lip, and things can still go wrong, but I am going to count the proposed charter amendment as a small victory in Baltimore County. Lest anyone think that I am bragging, I readily admit that, in almost three years of writing on issues of openness, transparency, and accountability in the city, I have not moved the ball forward one inch, as far as I can tell.

Also, the matter of the now-defunct Executive Benefit Policy will not be closed until the County Auditor does an audit of the administration of the policy in light of an admitted irregularity in the way it was administered before it was terminated.  That irregularity could have cost the County tens or even hundreds of thousands of dollars; we’ll never know until an audit is done.

Predictably, the Council has refused to date to approve an audit, so stay tuned.  A link to my memo summarizing the need for an audit also appears below.

November 15, 2017

Ltr Balt County Council 11 12 17

Memo, grounds for audit 9 21 17

 

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