St. Mary's County will fight a court ruling that a former county administrator has the right to investigate the private meeting during which the decision was made to fire him, said Board of Commissioners President Thomas F. McKay (R-At Large).
McKay's response comes after the Maryland Court of Special Appeals decided last month that Alfred A. Lacer had presented a "strong showing of the existence of an impropriety" by the county commissioners when they voted during the 2003 meeting to fire him more than a year before his contract expired.
After Lacer filed a $1.4 million lawsuit against the county in 2003, the St. Mary's County Circuit Court ruled that the commissioners had breached the terms of his contract and that they had "no legislative privilege" to hold the meeting in secret, without Lacer. The ruling by the Court of Special Appeals allows Lacer to make further inquiry -- depose the county commissioners and gather documents -- into the April 1, 2003, meeting. But it did not address whether the contract was voidable.
McKay said the commissioners will try to appeal the latest ruling to the Maryland Court of Appeals, the state's highest court, and will seek the support of other county governments in asserting their right to hold private meetings about personnel issues.
"The legislature has determined that certain executive session actions should remain sealed," McKay said. "It's not in the best interest of the citizens to have information about personnel . . . in public until it is appropriate timing. . . . We believe the judicial branch has stepped over the top of the legislative branch on this issue."
Lacer's attorney, Stephen P. Fitzgerald, said the county is stalling.
"It doesn't surprise me that they want to delay this as long as possible; that's been their modus operandi from day one," he said. "They want to delay the inevitable, but we're not going away."
Lacer, who lives in Park Hall and practices law in Leonardtown, had been hired for a 41/2-year term in January 2000 under the previous Board of County Commissioners. After the November 2002 election, three of the five members were replaced. After the newly elected officials took office the next month, they chose to remove Lacer.
Could you imagine Gov. Parris N. Glendening signing a contract with his chief of staff to keep him on during Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.'s administration? asked McKay. "[Lacer] was determined to stay, and stay in charge of county government, regardless of who the people wanted in county government."
McKay said he believes the contract was void, and, as for firing Lacer: "I would do the same thing again, and we're going to continue to defend it. And we believe we will win this case."
In 2003, the commissioners offered to pay Lacer about $8,000 for accrued vacation and compensatory days. McKay described this potential compensation as giving Lacer "reasonable opportunities to take reasonable buyouts for his contract."
"That's absolutely ridiculous," Fitzgerald said. Lacer's annual salary was $131,000. If he had served the remaining time in his contract, he would have been paid about $150,000 more.
McKay does not dispute that the commissioners discussed firing Lacer during an executive session held at a restaurant in Leonardtown. Still, he said, the commissioners should not have to submit to further questioning by lawyers or provide documents relating to the meeting. The St. Mary's County Open Meetings Act allows 11 situations when meetings of a public body can be conducted behind closed doors, including when dismissal of an employee is under consideration.
Fitzgerald called the county's argument "laughable." The intention of the act, he said, was to protect employees such as Lacer from having their private employment status discussed publicly, not to exclude the employee from a discussion of his case.
"[Lacer] had a right to be there," Fitzgerald said. "They excluded him from the meeting." By then discussing the firing when reporters inquired, he said, the commissioners "used the protection that he was entitled to as a sword to attack him."