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Baltimore County charter change would give council oversight of executive branch benefits

Baltimore County officials are considering a change in the county charter that would give the County Council oversight of salaries and benefits for top executive branch employees — an issue that has been controversial for the administration of County Executive Kevin Kamenetz.

Council members learned earlier this year that some appointed officials were eligible for severance payments upon leaving county government, even if they retired. Kamenetz eliminated the policy after it became public.

The council also scaled back a program that allowed Kamenetz and a few county department heads to receive separate pensions and payouts for having served the county in multiple positions.

Both programs came under criticism from some council members, who are now considering whether to require future executives to get council approval for compensation plans for appointed employees.

“There’s concern that the system is being abused,” said Councilman Todd Crandell, a Dundalk Republican.

The change could come as a revision to the county charter, a legal document that spells out how the government conducts business. The last update to the charter was about 25 years ago, and this year a Charter Review Commission was set up to comb through the document and recommend changes.

The commission made its recommendations this week. Among them is a proposal to have the council approve the county executive’s compensation for appointed employees.

Ted Venetoulis, a former county executive who led the charter commission, said making the change “may help alleviate whatever controversy surrounds that issue.”

County Council Chairman Tom Quirk, a Catonsville Democrat, had asked the panel to review the issue. In a letter to the commission on behalf of council members, Quirk said the county has had “some inconsistent and perhaps arbitrary” policies “particularly with respect to certain benefits afforded to some executive branch employees.”

In an interview, Quirk said he was “absolutely” motivated to investigate a possible charter change after learning about the severance pay and pension double-dipping benefits available to some top employees. Quirk said he’s concerned about appointed employees being treated differently.

“We just want to make sure policies that apply to everyday county employees apply to everyone,” he said.

Requiring future county executives to get council approval for pay and benefit plans for top workers would add a layer of scrutiny that’s currently lacking in county government, say supporters.

“It’s more transparency and it will keep things from happening that have happened in the past year,” said Councilwoman Vicki Almond, a Reisterstown Democrat who is running for county executive. “Anything we can make more open to the public and more transparent in government is better.”

Kamenetz, who is running for the Democratic nomination for governor, declined to comment on the charter recommendation, saying he had not yet read the full commission’s report. He said that, generally, the county charter is a sound document that likely needs few changes.

The decision of whether to require the county executive to seek approval for salaries and benefits of top employees may rest in the hands of county voters. Changes in the county charter must be approved by voters, so any revisions approved by the council would be on the ballot next year.

The pay and benefits of most county employees are governed either by union contracts or a civil service system. But department directors and other top officials are considered at-will employees who serve at the pleasure of the county executive. Some details of their benefits — such as the severance pay some could receive — have not always been public.

The Baltimore Sun reported on the unusual severance pay policy when the county disclosed that former police chief Jim Johnson was paid severance when he retired in January. Before Kamenetz rescinded the policy, some top employees were eligible for up to four months’ worth of severance payments upon leaving their county job.

In addition to Johnson, four other former employees received severance pay during Kamenetz’s time in office, according to data provided by the county in response to a Public Information Act request from The Sun. They include former public works director Ed Adams ($56,400), former administrative law judge and permits official Tim Kotroco ($47,342), former environmental director Jonas Jacobson ($15,224) and former corrections director James O’Neill ($6,643).

The Sun also reported on the pension program, which allowed people who served in multiple positions to receive two pension checks and a lump-sum payout when they leave the county for good. In September the council voted to ban that practice in the future, except for employees who have been retired for at least one year who come back to the county to take a different job. They also allowed a version of the policy to continue for retired employees who return in part-time public safety or seasonal jobs.

If approved by voters, the charter amendment would affect the next county executive.

The five announced candidates for the office offered mixed reviews of the proposal. Almond supports the change, as do the other two candidates vying with her for the Democratic nomination.

State Sen. Jim Brochin said the change “makes a lot of sense” and would offer a check against high salaries or generous benefits for top employees.

“You’re not supposed to go into county government to get rich,” said Brochin, a Cockeysville Democrat. “We need to pay employees a decent salary so we can attract talent, but it should be subject to the legislative branch.”

Johnny Olszewski Jr., a former state delegate, also supports the change.

"My vision for a better Baltimore County is a county government that is both transparent and accountable,” said Olszewski, a Dundalk Democrat. “I support any reforms that uphold these principles, including this proposal."

The two Republican candidates for county executive were less enthusiastic, expressing concern about encroachment on the autonomy of the executive branch.

Al Redmer, the state insurance commissioner who is running for executive, said he’d need to know more about the details before supporting such a change.

“If that means severance packages and special bonuses and all those kids of things, I can see that,” said Redmer, of Middle River. “If they’re talking about whether an at-will employee makes $70,000 or $75,000, that probably errs on the side of being inappropriate.”

And Del. Pat McDonough, also of Middle River, said County Council approval of executive branch salaries represents an overreach.

“I believe that’s interference by the legislative branch,” he said. “If the legislative branch felt there was something inappropriate, they would have the authority to pass legislation to address the problem.”

Baltimore Sun reporter Alison Knezevich contributed to this article.

pwood@baltsun.com

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