Executive calls on Council President to step down

Following public comments a week ago in which Wicomico County Council President John Cannon declared County Executive Bob Culver’s relationship with the council to be “dysfunctional,” Culver has sent a letter to Cannon urging that he step down as council leader.

Culver dispatched the three-page letter a week after Cannon made council meeting comments that Culver characterized to the Salisbury Independent as a “public chastising of my office.”

(The executive’s letter can be downloaded at the bottom of this story.)

“I thought he was out of line. I have never been so embarrassed for Wicomico County as I was watching that meeting last week,” Culver said in an interview. “We’re not going to get anywhere if it is personal.”

The letter was addressed to Cannon and sent Monday to the Council President and his council colleagues. Both Culver and Cannon declined a request on Tuesday to review the letter, but Culver changed course and made the letter public early Wednesday.

As of Tuesday night, Cannon said he had yet to digest the entire letter.

“I really haven’t read the whole thing,” Cannon told the Salisbury Independent. “I started to read it and saw it was antagonistic, and I put it aside,” he said. “I don’t care to play into it.”

The blow-up traces to the council’s Feb. 5 work session in which the executive staff declined to meet with the council to address details in the Capital Improvement Plan and a proposal to convert the Poplar Hill Pre-Release center into an opioid treatment center.

The council has been vetting the capital plan since December and county rules are that it must be approved by Feb. 19. While little to no disagreement has been heard, Cannon said at the meeting that he still has some questions for the executive staff.

When Council Administrator Laura Hurley explained that she had been told the executive staff would not attend and council members could instead email their questions, Cannon was visibly annoyed.

County Director of Administration Wayne Strausburg and his deputy, Weston Young, were listed on the official agenda as scheduled to appear.

“I have several questions that I don’t want to put into email. I have quite a few questions in relation to lots of portions of this,” Cannon said.

Councilman Marc Kilmer echoed Cannon: “It would be good for the public to hear the answers to the questions and not get them over email,” he said. “I guess, that’s so much for transparency.”

When it was obvious Strausburg and Young wouldn’t be at the table to discuss the Poplar Hill Pre-Release Center near Quantico, Cannon’s ire grew.

He said the council has been left out of the loop on developments with the treatment center proposal. Culver has repeatedly said the project is in a formative stage, and because it  involves the Maryland Governor’s Office, the Lieutenant Governor’s Office, the state Division of Correction, the county’s Health Department, the state Health Department, and the governor’s Heroin and Opioid Emergency Task Force, there are too many moving parts for credible updates.

Cannon, who seemed to be tempering himself in reaction to the missing staff members, then made a series of pointed statements.

“I think the public needs to know we have a serious problem here with the dysfunctional set of circumstances whereby we have quite a few, I think, very significant issues,” he began.

“We have invited the executive branch to discuss with us tonight the Capital Improvement Plan, which is one of the biggest bills we’re involved with as far as citizens funding. It’s very important that it be vetted properly with the executive branch and the legislative branch.”

He expanded his comments to the treatment center.

“We’re now looking at (Poplar Hill) and the executive branch is choosing to stonewall the County Council on this matter as well — which, again, I think is extremely serious to the public to see an open discussion especially on this subject.

“No one in Wicomico County truly knows what’s going on at Poplar Hill except the executive branch and I think it’s a travesty for the executive branch not to show up,” Cannon said.

Cannon, Hurley and various council members then wondered aloud if Cannon’s declining to place a confirmation vote for acting Finance Director Brian Hildreth was part of the issue.

“To me it’s just as if they’re stamping their feet and thumping their chest that ‘we’re not going to show up for … any event you want to do today, all simply because there was a request to put an item on the agenda tonight that we did not have time to include in our agenda tonight,” he said.

The next-ranking member, Council Vice President Larry Dodd, immediately responded: “Mr. President, I concur with your sentiments.”

Culver responds

Though Culver waited nearly a week to respond, his own anger — as viewed through his writing — remained sizzling. After listing various internal problems he said he experienced with Cannon, Culver closed the letter with a stinging demand.

“Based on the actions above, I have little confidence that these situations will change under your leadership,” Culver wrote. “I request that you step down as Council President and allow another member to step into your role to better accomplish the business and goals of the Wicomico County citizens. If you find this a harsh request, then maybe we can refer this matter to the Ethics Commission for resolution.”

In the letter, Culver also seeks to explain why his staff members were absent on Feb. 3.

“When we found out Thursday evening that you placed Poplar Hill on the agenda for a work session, Wayne Strausburg called Laura Hurley to have it removed because we were not ready to go public,” Culver said.

“You were also aware that we were still awaiting a response from the state regarding the lease and other questions that we had proposed to the state. Laura explained to the executive staff that you were asked twice to remove this from the agenda and that if we did not go through with this that you would be very upset.”

Culver then launched a verbal grenade.

“Once again, this proved that you were not looking out for the County residents’ best interest, rather you instead wanted to chastise the Executive’s office for not keeping you informed on public television.”

As head of the executive branch, Culver holds the reins of county government. Cannon, as leader of the legislative branch, heads a group of six other council members who maintain checks and balances on the driver. Council members in some circumstances can grab at those reins, but the branches generally have to agree and support one another.

In their 49 consecutive months of working together, Cannon and Culver have only occasionally spared openly, but an undercurrent of tension has been evident.

Cannon said he has no plans to step down as Council President. His colleagues just re-elected him to the leader’s post in December.

“We’re supposed to be running a county, not having shouting matches back and forth, Cannon said Tuesday. “Bickering doesn’t make the county look good.”

Tensions run high

In the letter’s opening, Culver makes clear his resentment at Cannon’s comments.

“Over the last 30 plus years I have been before County Council with my businesses, and over the last eight years as a council person or executive, I have never been more embarrassed for Wicomico County as I was for the Council’s behaviors last week,” Culver wrote.

Culver goes on to insist the council has been included in the important details regarding the treatment center.

“We also invited the council to the property site and shared our ideas for the facility from Day One. Since that day, despite overwhelming support from the governor, you and other members of the council have sought to undermine the project, making untruthful and reckless comments.

“We have repeatedly advised you that there were many details that needed to be investigated before we could have a meaningful dialogue with the public,” he said. “And yet you persisted with empty, negative rhetoric designed to undermine trust.”

Culver then delivers a bazooka-like blast: “You have succeeded. We no longer trust the council under your leadership as a working partner to improve this county. Rather we view you as an entity almost solely focused on undermining me and my administration.”

Culver’s letter could be seen as confirming Cannon’s previously stated “dysfunction. There is no hint of an olive branch coming from either leader.

As Cannon said on Feb. 3: “I just think it’s a travesty for the citizens of Wicomico County to be subjected to this dysfunctional relationship that currently exists with the County Executive. I don’t find this to be the fault of the County Council, whatsoever, but I do think it reflects badly on Wicomico County as a whole when we have to have these discussions in respect to these circumstances.”

Cannon on Tuesday said he wasn’t concerned about his and Culver’s personal relationship.

“We only have one objective — to get the county’s work done. The only issue at hand is whether the executive branch will obstruct the business of the council by keeping staff and information from us.”

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