Thursday •  April 21, 2022

Howard County Executive Calvin Ball Hired and Generously Paid Family Member Who Wrongly Denied the Public Release of Hundreds of Emails Exchanged with Developer Lobbyist

 

Should a County Executive be allowed to hire and give uncommonly generous salaries & pay increases to his immediate family member?

 

Should this family member be allowed to simultaneously be the County Executive’s paid election campaign manager while also serving as the “gatekeeper” for county Public Information Act (PIA) requests, being granted the highest level of privileged access and given control over the release and denial of county public records, despite having no formal training or prior experience with handling PIA requests?

 

What can the public do to hold that County Executive accountable after this family member proceeded to wrongly deny multiple county residents access to hundreds of emails related to correspondence between the County Executive and private developer attorneys & lobbyists, deliberately chose to not ask the County’s Office of Law to review these important decisions, and then abruptly resigned from this county position after her employment information was revealed in a lawsuit that was filed against the county due to these actions?

 

These unusual and extremely concerning questions have been raised by the hiring decisions of Howard County Executive Calvin Ball.  Let’s examine the details of this situation and the risks for conflict of interest and breach of county nepotism rules.

 

Background

 

After his election in late 2018, County Executive Ball immediately hired his sister-in-law, Jamila Ratliff, to be his “Executive Liaison” — a key position within the Office of the County Executive.  In this position, with a cubicle right outside Ball’s office, Ratliff handled such important duties as scheduling, timesheets, and reviewing of Public Information Act requests for Ball and the other members of his Administration.

According to county records, Ratliff abruptly resigned from her county position on February 14, 2022.  While no official reason has been released for her resignation, the date of her departure coincides with the timeframe that the details of her employment and her personal and professional relationship with Ball were being examined as a result of an ongoing lawsuit that will be discussed in detail later in this post.

 

Prior to Ball’s election as County Executive, Ratliff had served as campaign manager for the Calvin Ball election campaign team.  Instead of resigning from these duties after Ball hired her to work for the county, she continued to serve as a paid consultant and the campaign manager of Ball’s re-election team for the three years that she was employed by Howard County to serve as the [County] Executive Liaison.

 

According to the Maryland Campaign Reporting Information System, the Calvin Ball election campaign team has paid Ratliff over $99,000 through January 2022, with over $67,000 of this amount paid to her since late November 2018 while she was employed as a county employee working for County Executive Ball:

Concerns about Hiring Date, Starting Salary and Salary Increases

 

The salary and hiring history regarding Ratliff’s “Executive Liaison” position, obtained through a recent PIA request, raises significant concerns about the decision by County Executive Ball to hire his sister-in-law to this position, particularly given the fact that she was simultaneously being paid to be his re-election campaign manager:

(Click on the image to view larger format)

 

So many questions and concerning observations arise from the above information, including:

  • Ratliff’s salary increased almost 33% in three years, from $79,144 in December 2018 to $105,073 in December 2021. When the standard 2% countywide annual increase is excluded, Ratliff’s three-year salary increase equated to over 7 annual ‘steps’ (seven years’ worth of standard salary step increases in just three years), as shown in the Howard County general employee pay scale.

 

  • When her position changed from “Administrative Analyst” to “Administrative Analyst II” in August 2019, Ratliff received a salary of $87,911. According to the county, the previous employee to serve in the “Administrative Analyst II” position had a salary of $65,820 at the time of their termination — this is $22,091 difference in salaries for the same county position.

 

  • How was Ratliff paid by the county *before* Calvin Ball was sworn into office on December 3, 2018? Ratliff was hired as a part-time contingent employee and paid $36.05 per hour from November 12, 2018 through December 3, 2018.  During that timeframe, Ball also paid her $8,055 through his election campaign for “Consultant – Campaign Worker” fees.  Who else did Ball pay with county funds prior to being sworn in as County Executive?

 

  • Why did Ratliff receive TWO step increases in 2019 — one in June 2019 and another in December 2019, for a combined annual step increase of ~$7,500? She received a step increase prior to being promoted from “Administrative Analyst” to “Administrative Analyst II” in August 2019 (which, on its own, provided another salary increase), then just three months later she received another step increase in November 2019.

 

  • How do other county employees, particularly HCPSS educators & staff, feel about this disproportionate level of raise for at least one employee within the County Executive’s office?

 

While County Executive Ball was using county funds to give his family member a cumulative ~$26,000 (almost 33%) pay raise over three years, he was also shortchanging the Howard County Public School System (HCPSS) budget by tens of millions of dollars.  The result?

 

This is a stunning disparity that should deeply concern all Howard County taxpayers and HCPSS parents, particularly those of special needs students.

 

When combined with the payments that Ball made to her for simultaneously being the campaign manager for his re-election team, Ratliff was paid the following approximate cumulative totals from Ball between January 2019 and late November 2021:

Concerns about County Nepotism Law

 

Beyond the conspicuously generous salaries & pay raises that County Executive Ball gave to his sister-in-law at a time when he was leaving other critical county sectors, particularly HCPSS, struggling with austere budgets, the very act of Ball hiring his sister-in-law to serve as his Executive Liaison raises serious concerns when Howard County’s rules on nepotism are examined.

 

According to the ‘Nepotism’ section of the Howard County Employee Manual,

The above rules are clear:

  • No person will be hired by the County to a position which places them in a subordinate role with a family member (which includes sibling-in-law).  

 

  • Anyone found to be in violation of this policy will be subject to disciplinary action, up to and including a termination from employment.

 

Is the decision by Calvin Ball to hire his sister-in-law as his Executive Liaison and handler of Public Information Act requests a hiring practice that should be allowed to occur unchecked in Howard County?

Concerns about Conflict of Interest

 

In addition to generous payments and potential breach of County nepotism law, an equally concerning issue about Ball’s decision to hire his sister-in-law as his Executive Liaison is that one of her important duties in this position was to handle Public Information Act (PIA) requests related to the County Executive’s office. 

 

This responsibility granted her a level of privileged access and control over the release of county public records that raises serious concerns about conflict of interest, considering that she was both sister-in-law to the County Executive and was being paid to be consultant and campaign manager to Ball’s re-election campaign team while simultaneously serving as his Executive Liaison/Public Records “Gatekeeper”.

 

Less than one year into Ball’s term, these conflict of interest concerns became a reality for one county resident who submitted a PIA request in October 2019 for all correspondence between Calvin Ball (and his staff) and a politically active developer attorney between December 2018 and October 2019. 

 

As reported in a September 2021 HoCo Watchdogs post,  after being charged almost $300 for this request in order to have 761 potentially responsive emails reviewed and released, the county resident ultimately received only 2 emails from the county in its official response for the PIA review that County Executive Ball’s sister-in-law had personally handled.  In its response, the county claimed that the remaining 759 emails were protected by ‘attorney-client privilege’ and/or ‘deliberative process privilege’. 

 

After challenging this response with the State Public Access Ombudsman, the county resident received a few hundred more emails out of the 759 that had initially been denied, but did not choose to take the county to court over the issue due to the legal costs that would be involved.  However, in June 2021, another county resident, former Maryland State Delegate Bob Flanagan, filed an almost identical PIA request to the county and received a very similar response. 

 

After the county charged Flanagan almost $900 for the request (three times as much as they had charged the first resident for the almost identical request) and only ultimately released 251 out of 748 potentially responsive emails (claiming that the remaining 497 emails were either non-responsive or protected by ‘attorney-client’ or ‘deliberative process’ privilege exemption), Flanagan filed a complaint in the Howard County Circuit Court against the Howard County government to attempt to receive the emails that the county had withheld and to dig into why this apparent stonewalling by the Ball Administration was happening.

 

As a part of this lawsuit, the County was forced to share details about the processing of the emails that were denied in this PIA, including that Calvin Ball’s sister-in-law and campaign manager, Jamila Ratliff, was the only county employee to handle the review of this PIA, that she personally selected which emails to withhold from public release for reasons of legal privilege, and that she deliberately chose to not consult with the County’s Office of Law before doing so. 

In an email exchange with Karen Spicer, a member of the County’s Office of Public Information, regarding the prospect of speaking with the Office of Law before finalizing her decision to withhold 497 emails from Flanagan in response to his PIA request, Ratliff stated the following:

 

“I don’t usually have legal review of my documents”

– Jamila Ratliff, August 2021

(Click on the image to view larger format)

 

In contrast to this approach, Howard County’s Administrator of the Office of Public Information, Mark Miller, stated in a deposition that,

 

“The way a PIA response would be handled, it would go to the department, the actual custodian of record. Our direction to them would be to review the documents with the department director, and if there were questions about whether anything should be redacted or withheld, we would refer that actual custodian of record to seek the advice of the office of law

– Mark Miller, April 2022

 

As a result of this lawsuit, of the 497 emails that were withheld by Ratliff, after review and reconsideration by the Howard County Office of Law, only 6 were withheld. 

Additionally, the Office of Law reversed Ratliff’s withholding 95 emails as non-responsive, ruling that all were responsive.

 

In the email previously shown, Ratliff explicitly stated that it was her common practice to “[not] usually have legal review of [her] documents”.  

 

Why? 

 

Did Ratliff unilaterally make this decision to rarely consult with the Office of Law, or did someone suggest or order her to refrain from doing so?

 

Either way, Ratliff’s deliberate decision to not ask the Office of Law to review her decisions on which emails to withhold in response to Flanagan’s PIA request, even when a member of the Public Information Office recommended that she do so, is deeply concerning.

 

While County Executive Ball’s office refuses to admit any wrongdoing in this situation, the potential for conflict-of-interest is clear:

 

Calvin Ball’s sister-in-law, working directly in his County Executive office and simultaneously being paid to be the campaign manager for his re-election team, personally and single-handedly was responsible for the review of Public Information Act requests intended to provide transparency into the County Executive’s activities and denied the release of hundreds of emails (including those exchanged between Ball’s staff and a private developer attorneys and lobbyists) to at least two county residents for claimed legal reasons that the Howard County Office of Law would later overturn as wrong decisions.

Concluding Thoughts

 

Howard County Executive Ball’s decision to hire and give uncommonly generous salaries and pay increases to his family member who was also his election campaign manager is a deeply concerning act that is likely unprecedented for Howard County and draws strong parallels to the worst kind of national and local level “DC politics”.

 

That this family member was also granted the highest level of privileged access to review county Public Information Act requests and was given control over the release and denial of county public records, with no formal training, is even more concerning.

 

That this family member proceeded to exercise this power by wrongly denying multiple county residents access to hundreds of emails related to correspondence between the County Executive and private developer attorneys & lobbyists, deliberately choosing to not ask the County’s Office of Law to review these important decisions, and then abruptly resigning from this county position after her employment information was revealed in a lawsuit that was filed against the county due to these actions is an irreconcilable breach of public trust — potentially the worst to have ever graced Howard County.

 

Where is the line drawn between Ratliff’s activities as campaign manager for Calvin Ball’s re-election team and her activities as the county’s “Executive Liaison”?

 

What safeguards, if any, were in place to ensure that Ratliff did not conduct any re-election campaign business using any county resources or as any part of her duties as a paid county employee?

 

How can the campaign manager for the County Executive’s re-election team honestly serve as the impartial main reviewer of materials for Public Information Act requests sent by the public to the County Executive’s office?

 

How can a County Executive who would make such hiring and supervisory decisions be trusted to genuinely serve in the best interests of all his constituents and to be a truly responsible steward of county funds provided by Howard County taxpayers?

 

This situation deserves the highest level of scrutiny by all Howard County residents, particularly during this election year.  Regardless of whether Calvin Ball intentionally or accidentally ignored concerns about nepotism and conflicts of interest with this situation, acts like these by a Howard County Executive cannot be tolerated to go unaddressed and without due correction and accountability.

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