NAACP meeting with county leaders productive, inspiring

When five top leaders in the county government presented themselves last week at a forum held by the Wicomico branch of the NAACP, one might have expected the focus to reflect national headlines concerning law enforcement and its treatment of African Americans.

At the Charles Chipman Cultural Center in the heart of Salisbury on Thursday night, jobs, education, taxes and youth training prospects were the topics most on people’s minds.

County Executive Bob Culver was joined by Council President John Cannon, and Councilmen Joe Holloway, Ernie Davis and Marc Kilmer, for a 90-minute discussion of issues facing not just the African American community, but everyone who lives in Wicomico County.

The confrontational tone that might have been predicted never materialized (from the council dais earlier in the week, Cannon had announced the meeting and encouraged the public to “come see what should be a fun show”).

The county leaders politely detailed their objectives and explained their viewpoints; Culver was explicitly revealing in what his immediate plans are to change local government; the crowd of about 50 people asked good questions without even a trace of contention.

In fact, when Republican Culver asked the NAACP members for their patience and cooperation, his remarks almost seemed unnecessary, as the forum never wavered from a proactive tone.

“The election is over,” Culver said. “It’s time we put down our swords and pick up our hammers. We have to make Wicomico what it used to be.”

Later, in reply, NAACP local president Mary Ashanti agreed. “We only expect government to care about everyone,” she said.

It would be difficult to become too uncivil in the bottom floor of the Chipman Center. The room is one of peace and simple beauty. The church was built in 1837 during slavery. It is the oldest wooden African-American church structure in the state of Maryland and existed even before the county was formed.

In the community room, the simple column beams that support the floor for the former church area upstairs are beautifully handcrafted. One can still see the lathe marks and imagine a talented carpenter-artist making the columns, working just down the street from Poplar Hill Mansion, which has its own amazing neo-classical woodwork.

The new Republican council is full steam ahead on implementing an elected school board, which is of great concern to NAACP leaders. Making the board purely elected could reduce diversity on the board, as the seats would represent the existing council districts. and only one of those is configured to serve a majority-minority population.

Councilman Kilmer, who has become the council’s go-to man on the elected board issue, explained the council was inclined to support a hybrid board — seven district-elected positions, and two positions appointed by the county executive.

This seemed to mollify Ashanti and others, since Culver could be publicly lobbied to consider diversity appointments.

The council will hold a public hearing on the elected school board issue at its night session scheduled Feb. 3.

The West Salisbury Elementary School construction situation received a thorough airing. The school serves a diversity population on the the West Side and had been headed toward full replacement until Culver pulled a bond bill that would have helped finance it.

As a near-first act on the executive’s part, it was immediately interpreted as a hostile move toward the African-American community.

None of that was evident, however, Thursday night.

“The decision on West Salisbury Elementary was based on what was happening in the state of Maryland,” said Cannon, the council president.

He went onto explain that all state capital projects would be receiving some harsh scrutiny from the new governor, in light of the state’s huge projected budget deficit.

Councilman Davis, the newly elected successor to Sheree Sample-Hughes in the District 1 seat, made clear to those attending that the West Salisbury school reconstruction matter is still being decided.

“West Salisbury Elementary is not a dead issue — not at all,” Davis said. He explained that engineers are examining the building and will make further recommendations on a reconstruction vs. replacement plan.

Culver reported on an engineering tour he took of the school with others; Holloway said his believe was that the school could be repaired and added onto, and that total replacement might not be needed.

“The bones of that school are in good shape. It can be remodeled and added on to,” Holloway said. “I think we live in a throw away society, and that bothers me.”

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