Attorney enters battle surrounding Culver cabinet

Michele Campbell Ennis is still going to work each day, serving as Finance Director for Wicomico County.

Michele C. Ennis

The County Council has rejected her appointment to that job, but County Executive Bob Culver is standing firm in his contention that her job status is solely his decision.

A letter written to County Council President John Cannon last week by Salisbury employment attorney Robin R. Cockey seeks to explain Culver’s thinking on the matter.

  Cockey, who has been hired to legally represent Ennis in what has become an ordeal that’s affecting county government, argues that the Finance Director post holds special weight in the executive cabinet, and its occupant is Culver’s decision.

Robin R. Cockey

Indeed, the County Charter does apply qualification details to the Finance Director and Public Works Director’s offices, while also establishing separate rules for the selection and retention of the County Attorney.

“Manifestly, that arrangement is designed to depoliticize appointment of the county’s Chief Financial Officer, a conclusion reinforced by the fact that the charter actually spells out professional qualifications for the position — a measure not undertaken for other Department Heads,” Cockey writes in his letter to Cannon.

The lawyer cites Sections 501 and 505 of the County Charter, which makes clear that the Finance Director works directly for the County Executive.

Cockey, however, neither makes mention of the appointments process outlined in Section 315 (all department heads must receive council confirmation to serve) nor the post-election re-confirmation process outlined in Section 413 (all department heads are subject to a reappointment verdict within six months of a County Executive election.

Cockey asserts: “Three weeks ago, the County Council entertained a self-generated resolution purporting to ‘confirm’ her appointment. As I have already explained, I believe that resolution was of no effect, because the charter proscribes a specific procedure for appointing the Finance Director.

“Unlike other Department Heads, the Finance Director is to be appointed by the County Executive, without council confirmation,” Cockey writes.

In an interview on Monday, Cannon declined to engage all of Cockey’s comments, but disputed Cockey’s conclusions.

He also pointed out that the council’s oversight and reappointment powers have been affirmed.

“I’m not certain why Robin Cockey is continuing to send me and the council such letters,” Cannon said. “He should be addressing these to the County Attorney (Paul Wilber) or the County Council Attorney (Robert Taylor), since they each have clearly and publicly stated that the council’s position is completely substantiated.”

Cockey, in his letter, declines to connect Sections 501 and 503, the Finance Director reporting structure, with Sections 315 and 413, involving the confirmation process.

County Executive Bob Culver and County Council President John Cannon.

Cockey also goes to great lengths to promote Ennis’ skills and experience, which the council hasn’t openly commented on or disputed.

“Having begun her public service career in 2003 with the county’s Finance Department, and having then been promoted to Payroll Manager and ultimately county Human Resource Director, I think most people would acknowledge she had exactly the right hands-on experience to manage the county’s finances,” Cockey wrote.

According to her resume, Ennis has an Accounting degree from Salisbury University, a master’s in Human Resource Management from Wilmington University and a doctorate in Organizational Leadership from the University of Maryland Eastern Shore.

Cockey is deeply familiar with local politics. He was a longtime Salisbury City Council member and once served as Council President.

Regarded as the area’s pre-eminent employment attorney, Cockey has a long history of discussing his clients’ case details with the media to exert pressure on either their current or former employers. This newspaper, however, independently obtained a copy of his letter to Cannon last week.

In that letter, Cockey takes Cannon to task for comments the Council President has made in the local media.

“Dr. Ennis and I were, frankly, dismayed when, following the (June 18) council meeting, you wrote her warning that the council had withheld its ‘confirmation’ and she should desist from taking any action as county Finance Director.

“Since the County Executive is her boss, and the only official who, to our knowledge, has the power to appoint her, Dr. Ennis sought direction from Mr. Culver, who ordered her to stay the course. Dr. Ennis has heeded Mr. Culver’s direction, and intends to continue to do so.”

Cockey goes on to label the matter a “fake controversy” and then states that “Dr. Ennis has asked me to make it clear she is determined to fulfill her public trust, and will, if need be, take legal action to make sure she is free of harassment and spurious claims.”

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

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