The Baltimore County Council voted unanimously Monday to allow County Executive Johnny Olszewski Jr. to pay severance benefits to top officials and executive staffers who resign or retire, nearly five years after such deals were ended amid criticism it mostly benefited political appointees — who are already among the county’s highest-paid earners.

Under the policy, which councilmen hurriedly approved 7-0 without discussion, Olszewski will have final say over what eligible employees receive — and how much — when they leave county government. The bill takes effect July 1.

Olszewski’s request was tacked onto a county charter requirement that the council codifies compensation for “exempt service” employees — which include elected officials, department heads and executive and legislative staffers — for up to 90 days after they leave county government.

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Those appointees stand to benefit from the severance policy, which authorizes only Olszewski and the county’s top administrator to approve severance packages.

Dissent over such severance deals under prior County Executive Kevin Kamenetz’ administration are what prompted then-council members to unanimously sponsor legislation to let voters decide whether there should be council oversight of compensation benefits for top executive branch employees.

Severance proposal tacked onto bill for compensation oversight

Kamenetz scrapped his administration’s “executive benefit plan” after it became public in 2017 and was criticized for quietly paying generous severance packages to top executive staffers when they retired or resigned.

That year, the county’s Charter Review Commission, which recommends charter changes, suggested the council approve the county executive’s compensation for appointed employees. Voters approved the amendment by referendum in 2018, when Olszewski was first elected, requiring council approval of a compensation system for top officials and similarly classified employees. Council chair Julian Jones and councilmen David Marks and Wade Kach were among then-council members who voted to add the charter amendment that year.

The administration says it failed to introduce compensation plans throughout Olszewski’s first term because it wasn’t aware of the amendment.

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Under local law, exempt service employees include elected leaders and their aides, many department heads, county attorneys, consultants and hourly workers — hourly workers, however, are able to negotiate their compensation.

Hourly employees include the county administrative officer, chief of staff, planning chief and communications director, according to a county salary spreadsheet provided to The Banner.

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The severance deal is not mandatory under the charter change, County Administrative Officer Stacy Rodgers said in an interview. But since top appointed officials don’t earn vacation leave, and don’t earn full benefits until they’ve held their position for a decade, the severance is needed for them, Rodgers said.

“Potentially, you walk away with nothing,” Rodgers said.

Before their last work day, the bill requires eligible employees must request “permission leave with pay” from the county administrative officer. The permission leave would constitute the county’s severance policy for “senior executives,” and the county executive would have veto power of the county administrative officer’s decision.

“Senior executive” is not a job classification in personnel rules — the bill defines the moniker as “senior level management staff classified as being in the executive or management service,” as determined by the county executive and his top administrator.

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They will ultimately decide which at-will employees qualify for the benefit: Under the new bylaw, “any county employee in the exempt service may be deemed a ‘senior executive’ with the joint approval of the county administrative officer and the county executive.”

Retiring or resigning employees and officers the county executive determines are eligible for the benefit are required to negotiate it with the county in a written agreement.

They could receive compensation for up to 90 days after their last work day, and Rodgers said the new severance package would pay only “a continuation of the same salary.”

“No other benefits, no continuation of accruing time toward your contributions into your retirement, or anything like that,” she told The Baltimore Banner. “It’s just straight salary and your medical insurance.”

But an executive office memo provided by the county administrator says severance “will be determined on a case-by-case basis by the County Administrative Officer, in concert with the County Executive.”

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For “any senior executive who was previously in the classified merit system and has an accumulated leave balance,” the memo adds, “that leave balance will be considered in the evaluation of their request for use of this policy.”

Bill comes after controversial payout to former official

According to top administrator Rodgers, the proposed bill is based on an “interim policy for senior executives” that the administration devised last July — months after Baltimore County admitted publicly it had been paying a former official unused leave for roughly a year after he resigned. Current and former county employees said that compensation is not authorized in adopted personnel rules.

The county paid former economic development Deputy Director William “Chris” McCollum sick leave he’d accrued over his 19 years in county government from July 2021, when McCollum resigned, until May 2022; Olszewski’s administration ended the deal quickly after it became public.

In an interview, Rodgers said the administration’s payments to McCollum had continued as “an informal thing that was being done before we even came there.”

Last April, county spokeswoman Erica Palmisano said the county was “working on a policy to define in writing the criteria for use of sick leave when senior-level employees depart.”

Rodgers said the severance plan was proposed instead. “My belief is we should have formal processes in place; very transparent, so people know what individuals get,” Rodgers said.

This story has been updated to reflect current County Council members who sponsored the charter amendment in 2018.

Taylor DeVille covered Baltimore County government for The Baltimore Banner with a focus on the County Executive, County Council, accountability and quality of life issues affecting suburban residents. Before joining The Banner, Taylor covered Baltimore County government and breaking news for The Baltimore Sun.

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