Severance pay for top Baltimore County officials questioned

Baltimore County has eliminated a provision for a severance package for its chief administrative officer amid calls to change the practice of paying top officials when they leave government employment.

County officials announced last week that the administrative officer position would no longer be eligible for the severance deal. The announcement Friday came days after the Baltimore County Progressive Democrats Club criticized the practice.

The Democrats’ club had expressed concern that the policy was signed by current administrative officer Fred Homan, who stood to benefit from it.

Under the policy, top appointed officials can receive between 80 and 120 days of severance pay, in addition to any pension benefits they have earned. They also are paid unused vacation time accrued before 1995, when top officials were no longer allowed to accrue vacation time.

In a letter last week, the club asked County Executive Kevin Kamenetz and members of the County Council to explain how Homan had the authority to approve the policy, whether the council approved it and whether the practice would be changed.

Marc Lester, the club member who spearheaded the letter, said making Homan ineligible for the payment doesn’t satisfy the club’s concerns.

“It still applies to other people,” he said. “The question still hangs out there: Why does the severance package exist?”

The policy was first made public in March, when The Baltimore Sun reported that former county police chief Jim Johnson was given $117,000 when he left the county in January. Officials said some of that package included vacation time, but much of it came under the severance provision. Johnson worked in the county for more than 30 years.

The policy had not been reviewed or approved by the County Council. Versions of the policy have existed since 1987. In the months since it was made public, Kamenetz and council members have faced calls to revisit it.

The Democrats’ club noted in its letter that “severance pay is not usually a benefit that is provided to an individual retiring. Severance pay is generally defined as a benefit given to employees who are involuntarily separated from their position due to a ‘no fault of their own situation.’”

“If no answers are provided, or if the answers are unsatisfactory,” the group said, it will ask for an investigation by the county’s ethics commission.

A survey of local jurisdictions suggests the Baltimore County practice is unusual.

Top employees in Howard County receive severance pay only if they are dismissed from their jobs, a spokesman said, based on the length of their employment, capped at 10 weeks of pay.

Neither Baltimore City nor Anne Arundel County gives severance pay to departing department heads, officials there said.

Departing top employees in all three of those jurisdictions can be paid for unused vacation time, but Baltimore limits those payouts to 45 days.

A spokeswoman for Kamenetz said Friday that Homan made the change to Baltimore County policy to remove his position, and Kamenetz agreed to it. The change was signed Friday by Homan, documents provided by the county showed.

Homan, though a spokesman, declined to comment. Kamenetz issued a statement Saturday.

“When the Executive Benefit plan was created thirty years ago, it was to compensate department heads who would no longer be able to accrue vacation time,” Kamenetz wrote. “I never viewed it as applicable to the County Administrative Officer, and now I have clarified the issue.”

Before the change, the policy listed the affected positions, starting with county administrative officer. Homan, with 38 years of experience and a salary of $240,000, could have received $80,000 under the policy.

Kamenetz, a Democrat, will leave office in 2018 after serving his two-term limit, and some of his top aides and department heads could retire or be dismissed by his successor, potentially putting the county on the hook for several severance payouts. Kamenetz is considering a run for governor.

Among those vocal in criticizing Baltimore County’s severance policy has been David Plymyer, a retired Anne Arundel County government attorney who now lives in Catonsville.

In his own letter sent to the County Council in May, Plymyer questioned the legality of the policy. He said matters of compensation such as severance pay should be approved by the council through approved law, “not merely by informal ‘policy.’”

Plymyer said he has not received a response from council members.

“As far as I’m concerned, the County Council has taken no action to rectify the problem — and it’s their problem to fix,” he said.

County Council Chairman Tom Quirk said council members have discussed the issue, but wouldn’t say if they would take any actions to undo or revise the policy.

“It’s under review,” the Catonsville Democrat said. “It’s something the council is discussing. We’re reviewing it and we’re talking to our legal advisers.”

pwood@baltsun.com

twitter.com/pwoodreporter

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