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Jeff Barker

The Baltimore Sun

March 13, 2024

A Baltimore County Circuit Court judge has ruled that the county improperly withheld some documents following a public records request seeking information about retirement benefits obtained by a former county firefighter.

Judge Michael J. Finifter ordered Baltimore County to turn over records, including a settlement agreement between the county and former firefighter Philip Tirabassi, that the county maintained were private.

“The confidentiality provision is not basis for withholding the settlement agreement,” the judge wrote in a Feb. 1 opinion that said the agreement was “wrongfully withheld.”

Finifter ruled that other documents, including correspondence between officials about Tirabassi’scase, should also be released but that other records were properly withheld because of privacy considerations such as attorney-client privilege.

The suit was filed in 2021 by Fred Homan, a former county administrative officer who retired in 2018 after four decades in county government.

Homan alleged the county under County Executive Johnny Olszewski Jr.’s administration violated the Maryland Public Information Act by refusing to turn over thousands of emails and by charging unreasonable fees for public records.

The suit said the county “unlawfully and improperly granted additional retirement benefits” to Tirabassi, and that documents related to that case should be subject to public scrutiny.

The county said at the time that it and the firefighter “entered into an authorized confidential agreement” as part of a legal settlement.

Tirabassi, according to the judge’s opinion, had previously been employed by Baltimore City and sought to transfer his retirement credits to the Baltimore County Employee Retirement System.

When his request was denied, Tirabassi appealed and “eventually entered into a monetary settlement agreement with Baltimore County to resolve his retirement claims,” the opinion said.

Homan said in his suit that the settlement terms and the reasoning supporting them “are a matter of public interest.”

“The less you want to show it to me, the more I need to see it,” said Rignal W. Baldwin V, Homan’s attorney, in an interview Wednesday. “What’s the need for secrecy in county government?”

Baldwin said he still has not received emails that fall under the judge’s order and asked the court last week to seize them. Finifter has not ruled on his request.

The county said it is cooperating.

“The County has reviewed the Court’s order, appreciates the Court’s decision affirming attorney-client protections for a considerable number of records, and is complying with the order to provide records consistent with the Court’s decision,” said county spokesperson Erica Palmisano in a written statement.

According to Homan’s lawsuit, the county originally rejected Tirabassi’s request — first when then-budget director Keith Dorsey declined it in April 2019, saying Tirabassi had missed the window by many years.

Edward P. Blades, who succeeded Dorsey in the position, also later determined that Tirabassi was not eligible for a service transfer and denied the request, the suit said Tirabassi eventually took his case to the county’s Board of Appeals.

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