Bob Culver reflects on Year 1: ‘It’s been a great year’

Todd Dudek Photo

Todd Dudek Photo

When Bob Culver took the oath of office as Wicomico County’s second-ever County Executive, he promised that December 2014 day to “restore Wicomico County.”

In an event attended by Larry Hogan, then the governor elect, Culver sounded a theme of tight financial stewardship amid a desire to change the society in which county government operates.

“Constituents, by their votes, proved they wanted change,” he said at Wor-Wic Community College, “because of the county’s financial problems and because the social fabric has deteriorated also.”

Nearly 13 months later, the public has a better understanding of what Culver meant and what he intended to do. Those months have revealed a county government in transition ─ in terms of personalities, objectives and long-range ideals ─ as well an executive who isn’t afraid to rub people the wrong way when showing his form of leadership.

“It’s been a great year. It’s been a learning curve, but I’ve enjoyed it,” Culver said last week in an interview with Salisbury Independent. “When I go out, people tell me they like what I’ve done. I’ve had a few who didn’t, and they’ve told me, and it usually has something to do with the Board of Education, but generally people have said ‘keep up the good work.’ ”

Culver, a Republican who lives in the waterfront village of Whitehaven, has been a hands-on manager. He still reports to work at 6:30 each morning; drivers on Route 50 can look up at his office window and see a light on when the other rooms are dark.

“I’m here early because I enjoy it so much,” he said. “There’s a lot more hours involved. I thoroughly look forward to getting up in the morning, coming to work and seeing what we can do to take care of problems.”

His victory over eight-year incumbent Rick Pollitt was decisive ─ 55 percent to 44 percent ─ and Culver doesn’t hesitate to use that election margin to promote his desire for change.

“I’m very proud. It’s been a hell of a learning curve. Sitting on the council for four years and watching ─ this has been quite a change. I think the biggest thing is the two different styles of managing. I think I’m much more hands on.”

While the lifelong Wicomico resident can be breezy when discussing some issues and often finds humor when talking about how some people react to him, he becomes deadly serious when discussing his job and the tasks before him.

“This is a very important job. I was hired with the confidence of the people of Wicomico County as a CEO, and I’m going to do it the best as a can. I don’t want to let anybody down.”

 Department Heads

When Culver first entered office, the public perception was that he might enter the Government Office Building on North Division Street and start sending longtime employees out the door in droves. To a degree, that occurred, but not in the spectacular fashion that some of his backers had hoped.

First to go was the outspoken Gary Mackes, who announced his retirement after 27 years as Parks, Recreation and Tourism director. Mackes and Culver had clashed when Culver served as a County Council member.

There were some public kinks in the process of replacing Mackes. John Terrell, a former Mackes protege and a member of Culver’s transition team, was tapped for the post, but Terrell failed to win the County Council’s formal approval. Under Culver’s ability to appoint temporary administration, Terrell actually reported for work for more than two weeks in the Parks, Recreation and Tourism offices at the Youth & Civic Center. His arrival there pre-dated the council’s vote, which had been delayed by snowstorms that postponed a council session.

Culver then turned to Andy Wisk, another Mackes staff member, who was given the job on an interim basis with the idea that he was “trying out” for the role. When he is finally offered the position in the fall, salary negotiations and other personal factors led to Wisk bolting for a private-sector job with a sports marketing firm.

Just last week, another longtime Parks, Rec and Tourism Department deputy, Steven Miller, was named director. The council approved the posting unanimously, with Council President John Cannon calling the appointment “a good fit.”

Culver also has high hopes for Miller, calling him “a great asset” and heralding his work in recent softball and basketball events that have brought revenue to the county.

Other speedy departees were Finance Director Andy Mackel and Purchasing Director Rick Konrad.

Mackel was replaced as the county’s top accountant by Leslie Martin Lewis, who had held the same finance position in much smaller Northampton County; Konrad was replaced this fall with Tom Hayes.

It was Lewis who, along with County Administrator Wayne Strausburg, led the executive and the council through the final stretches of the Fiscal 2016 budget; she has been praised for her abilities thus far.

“Several people have complimented me on Leslie,” said Culver. “She is a strong performer.”

County Engineer Lee Beauchamp, regarded as a rising star for his youthful vision and abilities, left almost immediately, to be replaced by his deputy, Weston Young. In public meetings with the council, Young has demonstrated some sure skills and his department remains a profit center, thanks to substantial tipping fees collected by the county landfill.

Culver admitted that it can be difficult balancing continuity with change in managing a county government.

“You do things a little bit at a time,” he said. “When I first came in, people said I was cleaning house too fast… . I slowed down a bit. There are still some things in the works. We’ve got a great team we’ve put together.”

One of those “things still in the works” is the county’s Law Department.

Culver and the council appear at loggerheads over the matter: Culver wants to hire a lawyer on a retainer basis; the council is still reviewing that idea. The county charter only says the county will have a Department of Law, but offers no rigid system for it.

Early on in Culver’s administration, longtime County Attorney Ed Baker announced he would be leaving, but allowed Culver a long window for transition.

Baker officially retired July 1, but when Culver and the council lagged in naming Baker’s deputy, Maureen Lanigan Howarth, to the post, she bolted to accept the coveted county attorney’s post in next-door Worcester County.

As he did with Terrell, Culver tapped Paul Wilber, the highly respected former Salisbury City Attorney, to serve as the county’s legal strategist and advisor. Wilber began attending County Council meetings by sitting in the audience and appeared on track to be named County Attorney.

The council, however, balked at Culver’s strategy to convert the position to one of retainer status, rather than full-time employee status.

As head of a prominent Salisbury law firm, Wilber isn’t seen as wanting to be a county employee; eight years ago, the county was able to extract Baker from his own prominent firm by offering a generous pension that received much criticism at the time.

Wilber and his law firm are the county’s lawyers for now, on an acting basis, but it is a county Legal Department employee, Rachel Harris, who sits with the council and makes legal recommendations in the meetings. The final result in this job transition is unclear and unknown.

Culver eliminated the county’s public relations position the first day in office, and his office has since struggled to get the executive’s message out to county residents. Culver acknowledges this to be a problem, but says he is committed to doing his own press work and wants to remain engaged in the public relations and communications arena.

At the top ranks ─ the figures who work with him in his third-floor office suite ─ the Assistant Director of Administration post remains unfilled. Sharon Morris left not long after the budget process played out in the summer; Culver said he is searching for a replacement.

Culver’s top lieutenant remains Wayne Strausburg, a longtime Salisbury business leader who, in 2012, stepped in and helped Rick Pollitt during a second-term transition. As Director of Administration, it is Strausburg who essentially makes the trains run and handles the thousands of daily details.

Many people were surprised that Culver kept Pollitt’s chief deputy, but Culver said he “has great respect for (Strausburg’s) knowledge and abilities.”

Still, Culver said that Strausburg is likely to depart county government before the next election in 2018.

“Sharon’s position still open. It has to be filled by someone who can be groomed to take Wayne’s spot,” Culver said.

“Wayne and I have talked about it. He probably will not finish out my first term with me. He’s 67, he’s got grandkids he likes to see, he’s just ready to retire. So I need someone that knows when that Capital Improvements Plan is due, when that budget has to be submitted, that kind of stuff.”

Added Culver: “I’m not a micromanager ─ I look at the big picture. Details are what I count on that position for.”

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Todd Dudek Photo

County Council

Culver’s relationship with the six Republicans and one Democrat in the legislative branch of the county government has been an intriguing display of leadership vs. objectives vs. turf battles.

Last December, in a forum held by the Salisbury Area Chamber of Commerce, Culver declared he wanted to lead the county in tandem with the council, and cited his own experience as a four-year council participant. He said he would treat the council as a cabinet, and rely on the specific expertise of each member in advising him on what to do.

At the time, the council members seated on each side of him smiled and nodded politely, but the interaction since then would indicate the council is going its own way with the expectation that Culver will go his ─ the separation of the branches and the associated checks and balances have been apparent.

“There’s been some disagreements,” said Culver. “I don’t want to say tensions, because I can still talk to all of them without a problem … but I guess they’ve felt like I’ve moved too fast, or they’re just not as on board as I am with some projects, and that’s been a little bit difficult sometimes.”

Even after a year of the various parties defining their roles, Culver seems to want to work more closely with his former council mates.

“I can’t help the County Council unless I know what they want,” he said.

“Most times it’s the executive who brings forth legislation. I’m in the driver’s seat, but I’m sharing it.

“It’s like the Driver’s Ed car and there’s also a steering wheel (in the passenger seat). I want it to work together, but if they’re going to keep hitting the brake, I’m going to take it away from them. I want to move forward ─ I don’t go along to get along.”

When asked about the internal communications that occurred in the Terrell and Wilber appointments, Culver said he tried to be open up front.

“I tell them what I’m up to. I have tried to tell them before,” he said.

“And when I take it to them they say ‘That’s an executive thing ─ we don’t want to know until you (formally) bring it before the council.’ Then I say, ‘Well. I’d like to work this out before, I want to come in unified.’

“I want them, if they don’t like something, to tell me. I’m not trying to (totally) run this county. This is not Bob Culver’s County, contrary to what some critics want to say.”

West Salisbury Elementary

Culver’s first big battle was over West Salisbury Elementary School and what to do to bring it up to modern standards. Pollitt’s administration, in concert with Board of Education leaders, were on course to build a new facility to replace the half-century-old structure on West Road.

After taking office, Culver pulled an approved bond bill on the school and dispatched his own team of contractors and advisors to develop a plan. What followed was a discourse and public examination of the project, with the school board’s needs and challenges opened for full view.

In the end, however, the school was placed back on track for complete replacement, with a challenge imposed by the County Council to reduce the costs.

That project is now making its way through the state’s decision makers, but appears to be on course for a 2018 completion.

Around the same time, Culver entered an awkward battle with the school board, and eventually the council, over plans to raze Bennett Middle School and construct athletic fields at the East College Avenue site.

Culver wanted to preserve a portion of the old school, possibly for school board offices. He asked for a two-month delay in the work there so, as he did with West Salisbury, he could subject the plans to scrutiny of people he trusted.

Even after taking his questions to the public, and participating in a lively public session with students at James M. Bennett High School, Culver had to bow to the council’s verdict that the Bennett plans were too far along. The work resumed.

Culver said that if he had it to do over, he wouldn’t change a single step.

“West Salisbury and the Bennett fields are the two biggest contentious things that we had. I still say I lost the battle, but I won the war. When you talk to people, everyone will tell you: ‘Bob should have had that 60 days to look at (the decision to raze the middle school).’ Nothing was going to happen in that time.

“Now when people ride by there and see how much is being spent and what’s being done, the more I get feedback that we should have done something (different).

“I won the battle for public opinion.”

Board of Education

Culver, to be sure, has been highly critical in public concerning the school board, Superintendent John Fredericksen and system administrators. Culver has been known to lob verbal grenades when discussing the people who oversee the county’s 28 school and 14,500-plus students.

In a Q&A interview in this newspaper, Culver accused officials of often failing to tell him things he needs to know and has openly suggested they shade the truth.

Just two weeks ago, in a meeting with state lawmakers, Culver said the educational leadership has “no accountability” and engages in “poor management.”

Culver said a source of the problem is that he and school officials approach issues from opposite sides.

“They’re great people, don’t get me wrong,” he said. “It’s just that they don’t tell what’s going on. This is what I mean by they’re often disingenuous. Their expertise is in education, not in buildings and this kind of stuff.”

Culver said he meets regularly with school leaders, but they aren’t as forthcoming as he might expect.

“When I sit with them in regular meetings, they don’t tell what they’re up to. I have to say to them: ‘I can’t defend you with the people; the people come to us and ask.’ I want to be able to defend them. I can defend all of my departments and what they spend, because if I have questions I ask, because I’m accountable, but they’re not so much accountable.”

Culver said the Board of Education’s decision to move its central offices from Long Avenue to rented space in north Salisbury proves his contention that school officials want to do things their way, not his.

“They didn’t tell me about the Central Office move until they signed the lease,” he said.

Culver said he needs to be in the loop on such significant decisions. “I wanted to say: ‘Can you work with me a little bit here, guys? I’m not trying to bust anyone or take control. But you want me to work with you and trust you, but how?’ ”

Changes are on the horizon for the school system. A Culver-supported measure to make the school board an elected body is headed to Annapolis this January; Fredericksen will step down in June after 10 years as superintendent and a search is under way for his replacement.

Culver, when asked about a public perception that he doesn’t show positive support for the public school system, said it’s not true that Wicomico doesn’t fund its schools the way it should. He also challenges the county’s reputation as an under-funded system.

“We care very much about our schools. I personally care more about what’s going on inside than I do about the glass and brass outside,” he said. “I want to see us have the most advanced technology and the most abundant learning opportunities that we can.

“Some of the leaders (in Annapolis) just don’t realize how poor Wicomico County is. We have so many fewer people. We don’t have the tax base. If they were to live in our shoes for a while, they would realize that we fund as much as we possibly can. I think we’re doing more than our share. We don’t have the money here.”

Softball Fields

The summer and fall’s hot-button issue was a county plan to construct additional ballfields on land the city was slated to donate just west of the county’s Henry S. Parker athletic complex.

The plan was in the works well before Culver was elected; the county long maintained it was needed to attract more and larger tournaments that bring out-of-town visitors and revenue to the county.

Protests ultimately forced the city to tell the county no deal. Culver though, in recent weeks, has secured a property on the opposite side of the Parker complex, and is negotiating its purchase.

“I can’t get into price at this point and time,” Culver said of the 20-acre, wooded tract. “Hopefully by this week, we’ll have a plan to look at. The County Council is on board. There’s no problem.”

Economic development

In the November 2014 election, economic development, business and jobs opportunities were guiding issues, as expressed by the electorate. Culver, in public forums, touted his business experience and painted the incumbent as a creature of the bureaucratic government. Culver today said he remains committed to running government like a business. Internally, the County Executive has taken steps such as eliminating employee take-home cars and stopped giving county employees their birthdays off as a paid workday.

But in the big arena of economic development, Culver has been slow to impose his action plans.

He leased office space across South Division Street from the county government building, where an Economic Development team could adopt a street presence and host business people who might be considering whether to bring or expand their businesses.

He has yet to hire a director for that role, and though the office space has been in place since summer, progress has been hampered by executive-council skirmishes over spending plans and oversight.

“I’m not happy with how this economic thing turned out,” Culver admitted. “Under the previous County Attorney, the determination was to create a department. I don’t want to increase the size of government with another department. I just want someone working on economic development that can report to me.”

Said Culver: “Part of it is I haven’t found the right person; part of it is I’m not going to do it under a separate department.”

Culver said he needs to discuss it all with the County Council. “I’ve gone back to them and I’m trying to make it an office underneath me that I can deal with. I want it to be something I can be easily involved in. I’ve met with John Cannon, and I think he understands where I’m coming from.”

Culver said no director will be hired without total resolution. “We will change system before hiring anyone,” he said.

Culver remains quite proud that he has been able to maintain the moratorium on impact fees, which he said has kept housing construction going. He’s also excited about prospects at the county’s airport.

Last spring, Culver and Strausburg essentially blew up the publicly appointed Airport Commission and created a structure where the airport’s general manager reports to the County Executive’s office. Culver said he is personally working to lure two businesses to the industrial park there.

“The airport is a good story,” he said. “I’m so tickled to be able to work on that. We have two companies that are looking to move out there, to the industrial park that’s part of the airport, and that’s going to be a home run if we can hit it.”

Public Safety Building

One of the surprising big-ticket items in the just-released five year Capital Improvements Plan is a new Public Safety Building for the county Sheriff’s Office and 911 Center. Culver fully supports it.

“Our Sheriff’s Office ─ as nice a job as they do in protection, they deserve something better,” he said. “In a storm situation, that building might be a hazard. It can’t take 60 to 70 mile-per-hour winds. This last hurricane that we missed, Jocelyn, that was supposed to come up the bay, had 120 mph winds. They wouldn’t have been safe in there.”

Culver said the county will explore building a new structure elsewhere in the county, and possibly convert the current Naylor Mill Road office, which former sheriff Hunter Nelms once described in a budget session as “little more than a farm out-building,” to a facility that can be used by the county jail.

“We will build a new building somewhere else,” he said. “We’ve looked out by the Shorebirds stadium ─ that would be a good location with the (Route 13/50) Bypass right there.”

Culver said the new Public Safety Building could cost a whopping $11 million.

“You cringe at that number, but it’s over two or three years,” he said. “Those are the kinds of things I want to do for the next generation.”

Re-election in 2018?

Culver won’t say specifically whether he’ll run for a second term in 2018. With only 12 months under his belt, he said there’s plenty of work to be done before that decision is required.

“I’ve got three years left on this term. If my health is good, I’ll probably run again, no doubt about that. I feel like we’re going in the right direction.”

Culver said he’s often surprised when people take his comments to be harsh, but delivering tough messages is part of the territory.

“I don’t like hurting people’s feelings and I don’t like making people mad, but it’s not like I’ve ever been bashful and didn’t tell people what I felt,” he said.

He said his best moments come when he’s out in public and he receives feedback.

“When I feel the confidence of the people is when I feel best,” he said. “To win (the election) by such a majority has been something that’s overwhelming. You don’t want to let the people down.”

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Todd Dudek Photo

 

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

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