Nine Charter Amendments on November ballot

In addition to the collection of candidates, and a referendum on an elected school board, Wicomico voters will be asked to weigh in this November on some complicated changes to the County Charter.

Mostly regarded as housekeeping alterations by the County Council, the nine amendments go much deeper. Voters will be asked to change where money cut from a budget proposal should go, how open council seats should be filled, who should act as County Executive if that top office-holder has to step down and even determine the timeline for approving department head appointments made by the executive.

The council sees the amendments as business-as-usual — the legislative branch merely holding accountable the executive side of the government.

Given the compressed time frame for adoption and stealthy way the council has addressed the matter, however, County Executive Bob Culver sees it as a bid to diminish his scope of powers.

“It’s not that the charter doesn’t need some tuning up, it always does,” said Culver, who is approaching the midpoint of his four-year first term. “I think a lot this was aimed at me, I know that, but the point I need to get across is that the process was wrong.”

He added: “We spent nine months talking about chicken houses (regulations and zoning changes), and in less than six weeks we’re going to change the format of the county government?”

The charter amendments also tackle the thorny issue of legal representation — the county currently has two lawyers, one advising the executive and another advising the council — by adding a provision that the council can ask the executive’s attorney to draft legislation upon their asking. It also clarifies that the executive’s attorney will provide legal counsel to all county departments that receive county funds.

Perhaps the most significant change affects the county budgeting process, but then again perhaps not. Currently, the County Executive makes the annual budget proposal. The County Council can cut the executive’s spending plan, but cannot add money to it. The charter amendment calls for those cuts to be placed in a fund for future appropriation, unless the council and executive can agree on a new purpose for the money.

Opponents point out that is already the procedure and adding it to the charter is a wasted action; proponents say codifying it brings the public’s attention to the process.

A big change is in the county personnel procedures. What previously was the executive’s domain, the personnel system would be determined by the council. The roles would reverse, with the executive being allowed submit modifications for the council’s consideration.

Council vacancies would still be filled by the County Council, based on recommendations from the appropriate party Central Committees. County offices are filled in state gubernatorial election years. The charter would allow vacancy appointees to sit until the next available election, or the next U.S. presidential election.

The council currently has 30 days to approve the County Executive’s department head appointments. That approval period would be expanded to 45 under one charter amendment.

Possible vacancies in the County Executive’s seat are also addressed. If a County Executive dies or leaves office, the Director of Administration will assume the duties until the council can appoint a replacement of the same political party. If that occurs within the first year of an executive’s term, an election will be held at the next opportunity (again in a presidential election year).

If the vacancy occurs later in the term, the council’s appointee will remain until the end of the four-year term.

Any possible temporary absences on the part of the County Executive are also addressed with changes. Currently, the Director of Administration would be allowed to fill in, or the County Executive can appoint a temporary stand-in. The charter amendment eliminates the possibility of a County Executive appointment — the Director of Administration would hold the post.

Additionally, anyone appointed as an acting department head could only hold the post for 60 days, before either being appointed full time or having the appointment extended another 60 days.

No public hearings

While the council has thus far been unanimous in seeking to place the nine ballot members before the voters, the county’s executive administration stands firmly against the moves. There have been no public hearings on the Charter Amendments, and there is concern that the ballot initiatives are being put forth under a cloak.

The council’s point man on the amendments, Councilman Marc Kilmer, maintains that four of the nine measures are leftovers from when the Charter Review Committee last met 2012, and have therefore been subjected to public scrutiny. The other five were designed in reaction to recent role differences with the County Executive.

“There are two branches of government, and there are checks and balances,” said Kilmer, a first-term council member who served on the charter review panel prior to his election. “The Charter Review Committee has found there are imperfections. As you go through and see the impact of the charter, day to day, you see what some of those flaws are and you fix them.”

wayne-strausburg

Wayne Stausburg

But County Administration Director Wayne Strausburg, who chaired that same Charter Committee prior to be named the top deputy to the County County Executive, questions the compact timing and the depth of changes targeted at the executive branch.

“They’re doing all of this in six weeks?,” he said of the council. “This process is seriously flawed. No public hearing. No Charter Review Committee — just six, seven people deciding.”

Appointing a Charter Review Committee is the council’s prerogative; Kilmer said there’s no time for that and the changes need to implemented now.

Strausburg said the council is intentionally subverting the accepted process. He also worries that county voters are being prevented from properly examining the proposed amendments, so that they might make an informed decision in the voting booth.

“They are essentially doing this behind closed doors — six weeks, just the seven of them (council members). And then it predisposes that the average person going to the polls understands what the ramifications may be.”

Added Strausburg: “ I don’t want to belittle the average voter, but the average voter does not understand the possible consequences and or ramifications. That’s why you go through a six-month, very open (charter review) process, so people have an opportunity to understand.”

bob-culver-preferred

Bob Culver

Council President John Cannon said he’s not concerned about voters understanding the dimensions.

“I think the truly conscientious voter will take the time to review it,” he said. “We can’t decide for them what’s too much or too little.”

Cannon also said the council “is following proper procedures” in getting the amendments before the voters. “We’re vetting it 100 percent,” he said. “We have reviewed everything carefully.”

Legal representation

One issue that’s obvious within the amendments is that the council is still displeased with Culver’s post-election handling of the County Legal Department.

Behind many of the amendments is the question of who will advise the county on legal matters. Culver, in a bid to cut expenses, essentially blew up the county’s Department of Law and hired an attorney on contract. The council, in reaction, went and hired their own separate attorney on contract.

The council maintains it should have approval power over the executive’s attorney appointment. Culver maintains the position has a professionally intimate role and it’s his choice.

Unhappy, the council put money in its own budget for its own attorney.

Said Kilmer: “The charter allows the council to have its own attorney. Because the executive picked his own attorney without input or approval of the County Council, we decided to exercise that option.”

Culver said the council would have too much say on the legal counsel isse. “They get to pick both attorneys, essentially,” he said.

Budget reviews

When reading it, the amendment that calls for money that’s cut by the council, during the budget process, to be placed back into the pot for the following year, seems like a huge measure. Both sides say it isn’t — but they do so from different vantage points.

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John Cannon

“It’s a needless charter amendment,” said Strausburg. “They apparently don’t understand the fiscal process. If money is taken from the budget as put forward, it is simply automatically reverts to the fund balance. It’s a needless question.”

Kilmer maintains the amendment is needed to head off future problems. “It codifies the practice, is what it does — it codifies. Under Rick Pollitt and Bob (Culver) the process worked well, but there’s a possibility that it will not. This is an attempt to make clear that if there’s a disagreement, it goes to contingency.”

Culver, who in his two budgets thus far has negotiated spending changes at the very end of the process, says the amendment is unneeded and reveals the council’s intent to micromanage his office..

“There’s an art of negotiation on the budget, but this just doesn’t make sense,” Culver said. “If you cut it, where are you going to put it? Of course it goes back in the fund balance.”

Personnel policies

Perhaps the biggest blow to the County Executive’s power is the amendment regarding county personnel. Both Culver and Strausburg adamantly oppose the council’s need to craft personnel policies.

“The personnel amendment is a clear transfer of power,” Strausburg said. “The system now is the County Executive proposes a system of personnel policies, and can propose amendments from time to time, which are considered and may be adopted by the County Council.

“They’re trying to reverse that. This is a step back in time,” he said. “The council will be telling the county personnel what the policies are that they’re going to live by.”

Some retired county employees have been making noises lately about changes to their health care contributions, and have spread their complaints from the County Executive to the council.

Kilmer admits the recent situation played a role in the amendment’s proposal.

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Marc Kilmer

“This does not take any power away from the county executive, it merely expands the council’s power. Right now the executive has to submit personnel policies and we can amend them. He can still do that,” Kilmer said.

“This merely allows the council to initiate changes in the personnel system,” said Kilmer. “He can veto if he wants.”

Countered Strausburg: “For a system where a county executive has responsibility to oversee departments, this makes absolutely  no sense whatsoever. (The council is) a check and balance. They’re not the ones who say this is how it’s supposed to run.”

Reorganization

A certainly confusing amendment — Question G — pertains to reorganization within the executive branch. Ostensibly designed to counter Culver’s action on the attorney issue, the amendment would have to be considered complicated by most any layman.

Kilmer maintains the council has an obligation to police how a County Executive sets up the established offices.

“Your reorganization is not my organization. It’s not supposed to be unilateral,” he said. “There’s an executive and legislative branch and we both have a say in how things work — and you have to work together.”

Cannon said the council was surprised by Culver’s action on the attorney issue and the matter is a large one.“I would say when you’re taking the whole law department, with paid county staff, and removing them from the relationship — I seriously feel like that’s a major reorganization.”

Strausburg, who was hired by Culver’s predecessor and election opponent but has stayed on, said the amendment “creates more questions and confusion than it answers.”

“It is political,” he said. “It’s an outgrowth of Bob being linked to a contract person for County Attorney. It is so vague, it opens itself to multiple interpretations.

Culver said he will soon begin a campaign of “Vote No” on the amendments until people have had a chance to study them. “Most people have no idea this is going on,” he said.

Cannon said the council plans no similar effort.

“To us, it’s not a matter of politics,” he said. “To us it’s just a matter of fine-tuning the charter. It’s not politics, so there’s no need to lobby the public.”

Wicomico voters will have a heavy workload when they enter their election booths on Nov. 8. They will choose a U.S. president, 1st District congressman, a U.S. senator, consider two state law referendum items, pick a format for the county’s Board of Education and mull over the nine charter amendments.

 

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

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