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Golden parachutes in Towson

Our view: The County Council needs to step in to rescind a generous severance package policy for Baltimore County’s top paid employees

Congratulations to Baltimore County Executive Kevin Kamenetz for recognizing that it’s untenable for his chief administrative officer to have signed a policy allowing that same official to grant himself a severance package of up to 120 days of pay should he retire. On Friday, Mr. Kamenetz issued a statement saying he had “never viewed the policy as applicable to the County Administrative Officer” — although it clearly said it was, in the first sentence — “and now I have clarified the issue” by removing that position from the list of those eligible for the benefit. But the executive needs to think a little more deeply about a policy that still awards a handful of top county employees with a payout far beyond what front-line county workers might expect, much less what virtually all of those in the private sector receive. And if Mr. Kamenetz won’t rescind it, the County Council needs to step in and do it for him.

The administration’s explanations for the policy’s continued existence don’t wash. It was created at least two decades ago, and perhaps earlier than that, reportedly in an effort to avoid big payouts of vacation time to department heads when they leave for retirement or another job, or when they are dismissed by the executive. As of at least 1995, the county disallowed the administrative officer, department heads and a few others from accruing vacation time, sick leave or personal days, the theory being that these were 24/7 jobs by design. Instead, they would be eligible for a payout equivalent to a certain number of days of work based on the longevity of their service — 80 days for those with up to 20 years of service, 100 days for those with 20-30 years, and 120 days for those with more than 30 years. Fred Homan, the current chief administrative officer, has worked for the county since 1978, so he would fall into that last category.

The people eligible for that benefit are already well compensated by local government standards, with many earning more than Mr. Kamentz’s $175,000 salary. (Mr. Homan is paid $240,000 a year, having gotten a 7 percent raise in the budget that took effect July 1, an increase the Kamenetz administration sought to justify by noting that some of those who report to him actually make more.) They also get generous pension benefits. Adding the cherry on top of severance pay regardless of the reason for leaving county service is simply unnecessary to attract or retain top talent, as evidenced by the fact that other local governments in the area don’t do it.

Further muddling the picture, county officials say not everyone who is eligible under the policy actually gets a payout. Although the policy doesn’t say so, it is negotiated on a case-by-case basis by the administrative officer. Former county police chief Jim Johnson got a severance payout of $117,000 this year, the equivalent of 120 days’ pay, but former fire chief John Hohman, who retired a few months later, got nothing. Not only does that speak to a level of arbitrariness but it opens the door for abuses of power and undercuts the argument that the benefit is somehow fair compensation or necessary.

There is also a good argument to be made that it’s illegal under the county charter and code. The charter says that the compensation of the administrative officer may be increased only by a majority-plus-one vote on the County Council. It also says compensation to other employees — including department heads — must be determined by charter or by law. The severance policy isn’t in the charter, and it’s not law because it has never in all its years of existence been voted on by the County Council.

Perhaps Mr. Kamenetz, who as a councilman voted in favor of a little discussed deferred compensation pension arrangement that will net him a payout of $328,000 when he leaves office next year, has a blind spot when it comes to absurd golden parachutes. But the council has the power to address this issue on its own.

Council Chairman Tom Quirk told The Sun’s Pamela Wood that “We’re reviewing it, and we’re talking to our legal advisers.” But this shouldn’t take too much thinking. Is it a good use of taxpayer dollars to give large cash payouts to some of the county’s highest paid employees when they leave for whatever reason? Is it good policy for the grant or denial of such a benefit be at the sole discretion of the administrative officer? And should the executive branch be able to authorize such payouts on its own with no input (much less approval) of the legislative branch? Any council member who can’t answer yes to all three of those questions needs to vote to repeal the policy.

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