Brouhaha erupts over Folk Festival license process

County Executive Bob Culver is expected on Monday to publicly explain his intentions when he dispatched a letter to Maryland’s top legislative leader challenging the State Comptroller’s decision to grant a beer and wine license to the just-held National Folk Festival.

In his Aug. 27 letter to state Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr., Culver accuses Comptroller Peter Franchot of breaking the law in granting the appropriate license to the national event held in Downtown Salisbury.

“It is very troubling that the Comptroller of Maryland would approve these licenses that are illegal,” Culver wrote. “I think it is important that you and others in elected positions are aware of this unlawful action of the Comptroller.”

Though they are both Democrats, Miller and Franchot are mortal political enemies in Annapolis.

The Maryland Code’s Alcoholic Beverages section 1-304 states that “the Comptroller may delegate authority under this article and provisions of the Tax — General Article relating to alcoholic beverages to the Division Director to issue or refuse to issue licenses and permits.”

As was also the case for the 2018 festival, Franchot’s Division Director approved the license. In his letter to Miller, Culver’s contention is the county’s Board of License Commissioners should have been the entity to rule on the license.

Len N. Foxwell.

One of Culver’s top aides, A. Kaye Kenney, chairs Wicomico’s alcohol commissioners board. That panel is appointed by Maryland’s governor; Kenney was named to the board by then-Gov. Robert Ehrlich in 2004 and has served as Board Chair for the past 12 years.

Franchot’s staff apparently heard about the letter and asked Thursday that they obtain a copy.

Stiff and critical reply

Culver’s assertions brought a blistering reply letter from the Comptroller’s Chief of Staff, Len N. Foxwell.

Dated and released to the public on Friday, Foxwell states upfront that he is replying on the Comptroller’s behalf and goes on to lambast Culver’s action, while also questioning the County Executive’s intent.

“In this letter — which was forwarded to our office at our request on Sept. 12 — you expressed specific displeasure with the nonprofit beer and wine festival permits that were issued by the Maryland Comptroller’s Office to the city of Salisbury,” Foxwell writes.

“As you know,  the city needed these permits to allow beer and wine to  be sold during the National Folk Festival, which took place in Salisbury from Sept. 6-8.”

Bob Culver.

Foxwell goes on to write: “… Given that you raised the issue in your private correspondence with Senate President Miller, allow me to respond to your charge that we ‘circumvented’ the Board of License Commissioners. Like you, we were quite surprised that the Comptroller of Maryland was called upon to exercise our lawful duties in the first place.”

Foxwell then explains that, in a spirit of cooperation with the city — and in recognition of the Folk Festival’s regional economic importance — the Comptroller’s Field Enforcement Division “acted in absolute accordance with the powers granted under MD Code, Alcoholic Beverages, 1-304.”

Foxwell further alleges that Culver had acted behind the scenes to somehow subvert the event.

“Given the extraordinary effort that was invested by government, business and civic leaders to secure the Folk Festival in the first place, and given what this renowned event would mean to the city, county and Delmarva region, it was our obvious assumption that this Board (of License Commissioners) — populated as it is with your appointees and allies — would have acted with due alacrity to issue the necessary permits.”

Suspicions carried over from 2018

Indeed, when the License Commissioners seemed to be moving slowly on approving the permits needed for the 2018 festival, Salisbury Mayor Jake Day appealed directly to Gov. Larry Hogan — who with his wife, Yumi, served as an official co-chair of the event — to have the Comptroller’s Office step in and act.

“… It was quite clear to Mayor Day and his administration that the city’s application, for its technical sufficiency, was being delayed indefinitely by your board for reasons having nothing to do with merit and everything to do with your own personal resentments,” Foxwell writes.

Given that history, the License Commissioners appears to have been bypassed all together for the 2019 event.

“If you will indulge my personal observation, I would suggest that, rather than engaging in mock outrage that the Comptroller’s Office acted without the blessing of your political cronies, you should be personally embarrassed that we needed to be called in the first place,” Foxwell writes.

Culver’s letter contended that the beer and wine permits were granted as if the event was a nonprofit endeavor.

Now in its 79th year, the National Folk Festival is organized by the National Council for the Traditional Arts. As host city, Salisbury is a sponsor of the event and help provide manpower, but the event is controlled by the NCTA, which is a listed 501(c)(3) nonprofit.

Foxwell piles on even more disparagements, accusing Culver of conducting official business in “an unprofessional manner.”

“… I will refrain from  judging whether this is emblematic of the way your office customarily functions. For the sake of the taxpayers you were hired to serve, I’ll simply hope that this is a bizarre, unfortunate anomaly,” he writes.

Foxwell also wonders aloud why Culver addressed his concerns directly with Miller, who has often acted as a brutal foe for the Comptroller.

“… We are forced to ponder what would have occurred if your letter actually had its intended effect, and if Senate President Miller had actually exercised some heretofore unknown lever of authority to invalidate our approval of the city’s application,” Foxwell writes.

“To send a letter of this nature less than two weeks before the festival, with the willingness and intent to severely disrupt what so many had worked so hard to build, is nothing less than a gesture of economic sabotage against  those very people who have trusted in your leadership,” Foxwell writes.

An Eastern Shore native, Foxwell has ties to Salisbury and is well known for his outspokenness. He graduated from Salisbury University in 1992 with a degree in Political Science and later served as then-University President Dr. Janet Dudley-Eshbach’s Government and Community Relations Director.

In 2015, he received the university’s Service to Society Award. He has worked as Franchot’s top aide since 2007.

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