Anne Arundel County councilmen are introducing a pair of bills that would give them the final say when large legal settlements are reached. And if the individual is a county official in a case of misconduct, the official would have to foot the bill.
The pieces of legislation come at a time when the county is facing two potentially costly litigations. Former employees Karla Robinson Hamner and Joan Harris are each pursuing cases against the county in U.S. District Court on grounds of wrongful termination. Hamner is seeking $300,000, and Harris is seeking nearly $1 million.
Both women worked for County Executive John R. Leopold and mention him as being instrumental in the filing of their legal complaints after accusing him of official misconduct.
In light of these cases, Councilmen Jamie Benoit (D-4th District) of Crownsville and Jerry Walker (R-7th District) of Gambrills, are reviving legislation that would require the council to approve legal settlements over $100,000. The second piece of legislation would empower the county attorney to pursue reimbursement.
“When employees are found to have engaged in certain misconduct, should the employees pay, or the taxpayers pay? That's the question presented by these bills,” Benoit said.
Benoit withdrew similar legislation last year. But now, Benoit said he was confident it would pass.
However, Dave Abrams, spokesman for Leopold, said the council shouldn't be given that kind of authority.
"It was a bad bill then and it is a bad bill now," Abrams said. "The council cannot have closed sessions to discuss potential settlements and does not have the expertise to make legal judgments. That is why we have a county attorney."
As it stands, large settlements with the county are reviewed by the Self-Insurance Fund Committee, a four-member board consisting of county employees—County Attorney Jonathan Hodgson, Chief Administrative Officer John Hammond, Controller Rick Drain and Central Services Officer Fred Schram.
Benoit said Leopold's court case has become a distraction for the county and has subjected it to "hundreds of thousands of dollars" of potential liability.
"If the matter is settled or Mr. Leopold is adjudged liable, given the gravity of the alleged conduct, Mr. Leopold should foot the bill. Period," he said.
In 2008, Anne Arundel County settled with Riverdale Baptist Church for $3.25 million after church representatives claimed county zoning laws infringed on their religious rights, according to The Baltimore Sun.
The bills are set to be introduced in September.