Will a gulf between communities be displayed?

In many ways for many years, Salisbury and Wicomico County have been different places.

The city is an island surrounded by farms, all the way to the bay in the west and the ocean in the east. Salisbury is basically the central location where farmers came to sell their crops; and while the farmers were in town, they bought everything needed – from clothes to medicine to lumber – to haul back to the farm.

The city has a growing, diverse population. It’s filled with service businesses, shopping districts and tightly developed neighborhoods, as well as a major medical center and a growing university.

Surprisingly, the county is still largely rural with just seven other incorporated towns, plus two others that aren’t incorporated but have volunteer fire companies.

Salisbury has had a paid fire and police department for more than a century. It wasn’t until the mid-1970s that the county Sheriff’s Office had a staff of more than 10 deputies and launched an investigation unit – previously, deputies did little more than serve summonses and work at the county jail.

Having covered city and county council meetings fairly regularly for 35 years, it’s consistently been apparent that the two governments are so different that they truly don’t understand one another.

Ever since nonresident city property owners lost their right to vote in municipal elections, county-oriented leaders have sought to consolidate the two governments, which would give the county contingent far greater influence over city matters.

Councilman and lawyer Victor Laws Jr. initiated the consolidation movement in the early 1970s. Even Salisbury’s residents have occasionally been open to the idea, approving further exploration of the concept in a nonbinding referendum in 2000 – the City Council never acted on the matter, however, and it’s rarely discussed now.

A few years ago, city leaders were so weary of county residents’ interference they decided they would only allow city residents to speak at council meetings. That didn’t last, but those who speak in the public portion of the council sessions are often instructed to state where they live.

In return, the geographic arrangement of the County Council has worked to keep the city a minor player in county matters, which is just as county residents have wanted it. Essentially, a single district represents the bulk of the city on the County Council.

Not since Tony Sarbanes in the early 2000s has a city resident served as County Council President. One has to go back to Jack Morris, who lived on Middle Boulevard in the Camden District, to find a streets-and-sidewalks city resident to run the county.

Since the county adopted the County Executive form of government a dozen years ago, none of the four men to have represented their parties in a general election for the post has been a city resident.

Winners Rick Pollitt and Bob Culver live in Allen and Whitehaven, respectively; Challengers Joe Ollinger and Ron Alessi in Cherry Hill and Nithsdale.

With his announcement on Wednesday, Salisbury Council President Jack Heath is attempting something previously unachieved. Excepting the late Bob Caldwell a decade ago, no City Council member has ever even been elected to the County Council.

Has the county evolved sufficiently that a candidate with a strong city affiliation can run successfully countywide? Has the city transformed itself enough that county residents would embrace a city leader as their leader?

Is the gulf between city and county still too far and deep to be waded?

Those questions – and many others – will be answered in the next 12 months.   

 

Greg Bassett is editor and general manager of Salisbury Independent. Reach him at gbassett@newszap.com

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