A policy of severance pay in Baltimore County

The Baltimore County government has gained a reputation as being the place where openness and transparency in government have gone to die. The county's so-called "Executive Benefit Policy" and how it feathers the nests of high-ranking county officials already eligible for lucrative county pensions is another example of what happens when government is allowed to operate out of public view.

Fred Homan is the Baltimore County administrative officer, the second-in-command to County Executive Kevin Kamenetz. Mr. Homan has served in that position since 2007 and has been a Baltimore County employee since 1978. He is in his mid-60s and eligible to retire. If he retires next year when County Executive Kamenetz leaves office, Mr. Homan will receive an annual pension from Baltimore County that I estimate to be about the same amount as his current salary of $225,000. His pension, extraordinarily generous as it will be, is at least a matter of duly-enacted county law.

Here's the issue: When he retires, Mr. Homan also will be in line to receive "severance pay" in the amount of $75,000 from the county, before accounting for the 7 percent raise he's slated to receive in Mr. Kamenetz's new budget proposal. If you are looking for the authority to pay appointed officials severance pay in addition to their pension benefits, don't look for it in the county charter or code. Look for it in a two-page memorandum titled "Executive Benefit Policy, Appointed Employees" dated January 7, 2015. It states that eligible appointed employees — the county administrative officer is listed first — with up to 20 years service may receive 80 days severance, up to 30 years service nets 100 days, and 30-plus, as in Mr. Homan's case, brings in 120 days severance pay.

Who signed the memorandum? Mr. Homan.

Sections 403 and 405 of the county charter provide that the compensation of the county administrative officer shall be determined by the County Council. Section 505 of the charter provides that the appointed heads of the other office and departments covered by the Executive Benefit Policy — including deputy administrative officers, the county executive's chief of staff, agency heads and those in the executive branch who are treated as department heads under the retirement system — "shall receive such compensation as may from time to time be provided by this Charter or by law."

After searching without success for the law authorizing or approving compensation by policy, specifically the Executive Benefit Policy, I made a formal inquiry to the county seeking the pertinent document. County Attorney Michael Field responded by stating "There is no relevant resolution or ordinance particular to this issue," which in my opinion casts considerable doubt upon the legality of the policy.

The Executive Benefit Policy came to light only because of the diligence of Baltimore Sun reporter Alison Knezevich who learned of the $117,000 "severance package" paid by the county to former police chief Jim Johnson. She was told that severance pay was "standard practice for members of the County's Executive Pay Plan with 30 or more years of service," but her attempts to get more information were rebuffed on the basis that it was a "personnel matter." I decided to pursue the issue and obtained a copy of the Executive Benefit Policy that memorializes the practice of awarding severance pay on a sliding scale.

Whether or not the Executive Benefit Policy is legal, it is unconscionable that a "policy" of awarding severance pay to high-ranking officials already entitled to generous pensions was adopted without the opportunity for public comment or a public hearing. The first question asked at such a hearing would be why an official fully eligible to retire even needs severance pay.

Mr. Johnson retired on an annual pension that I estimate to be about $230,400. Do you really believe that any county official would have the nerve to testify in public that the county should give severance pay to officials retiring on annual pensions of these amounts? The impressive pensions are these officials' severance pay.

This is not the first time that the personal pecuniary interests of county officials and the tendency to do things on the sly have intersected. In 2011 a former Baltimore County Attorney, Virginia Barnhart, publicly castigated county officials for slipping a "sweetheart pension deal" into a bill at the last minute and without public discussion.

The deal benefited only a handful of officials, including Mr. Kamenetz, who under the bill not only will receive an annual pension of $101,000 when he leaves office in 2018, he also will be entitled to a lump-sum payout of up to $328,000. Ms. Barnhart questioned the legality of the windfall and called on the County Council to appoint independent counsel to investigate.

To my knowledge, they never did. They now have another suspect situation before them. What will they do this time?

David A. Plymyer retired as Anne Arundel County attorney in 2014 and also served for five years as an assistant state's attorney for Anne Arundel County. His email is dplymyer@comcast.net; Twitter: @dplymyer.

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