Despite critics, Culver has no obvious challengers for re-election

Wicomico County Executive Bob Culver has his share of admirers and critics, but no one has yet stepped forward to mount a campaign for his $85,000 a year post.

A rite of democracy is to pick on elected leaders – criticize their decisions, question their motives, complain about their actions, mock their performances.

As Wicomico’s top elected leader, County Executive Bob Culver knows all about that. Heading the county’s executive department since his election in 2014, the former County Councilman and longtime Wicomico businessman has endured his share of potshots.

Elected as a change-agent determined to bring a conservative bent to the county’s governance, Culver sees his role as that of a CEO for the county and its nearly $150 million in annual spending.

But Culver has sometimes been hampered by communication breakdowns that may have contributed to disagreements he has with the County Council.

Still, nearly three years into his term, Culver remains humble about his victory over Rick Pollitt.

“It was a political mood swing all across the country,” he said. “It wasn’t me personally. It wasn’t anything against the previous administration. It was just a mood swing (locally) and nationally that changed everything.”

Culver’s accomplishments have been both real and significant:

  • When opponents of a poultry farm being proposed for just northwest of Salisbury began making public allegations that chicken houses posed health risks, Culver acted quickly to organize a public forum of health experts who nullified many of the concerns.
  • Culver’s ambitious plan to offer tuition scholarships to graduating Wicomico County high school students so they might attend Wor-Wic Community College tuition-free was changed and reduced by the County Council, but the plan’s implementation would have to be regarded overall as a victory. State legislators acted to allow Somerset students the same tuition accessibility; Worcester is considering it.
  • After decades of political inertia on the matter, alcohol was finally permitted for sale at the Wicomico Youth & Civic Center. That revenue flow will eventually open many new opportunities for the building, both as a community center and an entertainment arena. As an example, Culver is involved in discussions with entities interested in hosting a minor league hockey team in Salisbury.
  • Money has been restored for some neglected projects and other needs that were shelved when revenues plummeted in the 2008 recession. Sheriff’s deputies won a new contract with raises; correctional officers at the county Detention Center saw overtime pay changes that have improved morale; the roof and clock tower of the County Courthouse are now undergoing much-needed repairs; and renovations are in-progress at the Civic Center and Arthur W. Perdue Stadium.
  • The county’s bond rating has remained strong and Culver & Co.’s financial stewardship has been complimented by bonds analysts.
  • Control and leadership of the county’s airport, regarded as an economic jewel needed to ensure the county’s continued economic growth, has been restructured and a new, dynamic airport manager has been hired to drive change there.
  • Culver speaks with pride when discussing his improvements to the Henry S. Parker Athletic Complex. Several soccer/lacrosse fields were replaced with softball diamonds, keeping the county as the host location for a major softball tournament that annually brings big dollars into Wicomico. The county is working to acquire nearby land that will further expand the complex, already the largest in the region.

However, Culver has faced criticism on several fronts and has lost some political battles:

  • Running on a platform of promoting economic development, his early efforts to establish an Economic Development Office languished and then failed when the County Council withheld support.
  • The far-right members of his own Republican Party skewered his effort to offer Wor-Wic scholarships. While Culver’s plan mimicked several others being implemented across the nation, County Council members watered the program down by imposing salary restrictions. A problem with the issue is that some regarded it as a financial aid mechanism for students, when Culver’s intent was to grow the number of skilled workers in the county.
  • A ramp-up in county spending has generated some groans, again mostly from the right. Indeed, spending is up $13 million over three years. Culver says increases in mandated spending have driven the increases, and the county has also had to fund projects neglected during the Great Recession.
  • After his election, Culver essentially ousted three key department heads: the leaders of Finance, Public Works and Recreation, Parks & Tourism. His selection of a new Finance Director became problematic when he fired her in the midst of a forensic audit concerning the Human Resources Department.
  • Culver has deflected charges of nepotism – his daughter works in the county Finance Department, just downstairs from his office; Culver’s son is newly hired in an entry-level post at the county’s landfill/transfer station in Parsonsburg. A county Ethics Commission ruled the daughter’s hiring was conducted without Culver’s involvement, and therefore not a nepotism situation.
  • Culver angered some local historians and environmentalists when he bulldozed an old riverfront house on county-owned parkland at Pirates Wharf off Whitehaven Road. Culver has long-term hopes of establishing a public camping area there.
  • The executive got off to a rocky start with the Board of Education. Some critical comments that he made about school administrators, early in his term and at a forum with local state legislators, generated controversy. His effort to walk back approved plans to build a new elementary school in West Salisbury (Culver proposed renovating the existing school) and finishing athletic fields at James M. Bennett High School (Culver wanted to preserve the old middle school on the same grounds and use the building for school board office space) were quickly decried.

Former County Councilman Ed Taylor, left, shakes hands with County Executive Bob Culver at a bridge dedication in Taylor’s honor.

County Council controversies

For Culver, it is in his dealings with the seven-member council that has generated the most friction and controversy.

Eleven days after assuming office, Culver and the council appeared at a Salisbury Area Chamber of Commerce forum. Culver and his colleagues declared they had won a public mandate to cut taxes and reduce spending, all while seeking to add jobs to the local economy.

Culver seemed to surprise the others that morning when he would regard himself and the council working within a “cabinet structure” that will help guide his decision making.

“I’m one of eight people: seven councilmen and myself,” said Culver back then. “There’s no difference between any of us. We’re all here to help make decisions for the county.”

Culver, in a moment of humility, said he wanted to be part of a leadership team.

“I’m not setting the executive’s office up any higher or lower than the council people,” he said then. “We have a little plan that’s in the works now — this is like a cabinet.”

Culver explained that he would call on certain council members with particular areas of expertise to advise him. As an example, he said Councilman Matt Holloway, an agricultural businessman, would be his go-to figure on agricultural issues.

Seeming to put ego aside, Culver said that day: “So I’m just more or less part of this cabinet that’s going to try to bring Wicomico County back to a leaner and more-productive county.”

Now, 38 months later, Culver looks back on his thinking at the time.

“I had hoped that was the way it was going to go, I really did,” he said. “Each person has their own individual forte, and that’s what I wanted to capitalize on.

“I went to the president of the council and he said, ‘No, you decide, and you bring it to me and we’ll decide on it.’ That’s not what I really wanted, but I don’t have any right on what he wants to do or not do.”

Defining the roles and responsibilities of the executive vs. the council might be a bigger issue.

“I don’t know how to put it in a tactful way, but they need to read the (County) Charter and understand what the charter says,” he said in a recent interview with Salisbury Independent.

“The executive form of government – whether you agree with it or not – leaves the executive functions to my office. They are strictly legislative. They have control over a lot, because they have control over the budget,” Culver said. “As far as telling (department heads) what to do and that kind of stuff, they have no right in doing so.”

The harmonious tones of that December morning didn’t last long. A series of contentious issues developed – the format for the County Attorney’s Office, spending for an Economic Development Office, construction of West Salisbury Elementary School and Phase 3 completion of the James M. Bennett High School construction project all serving to strain relations.

Evidence of the legislative branch seeking to chart its own way was clear when the council presented a host of County Charter amendments to the voters last November. Many of those charter changes were interpreted as seeking to weaken the County Executive’s powers. The council’s retort was that the changes were needed to better define the council’s role and address problems that have developed as the new system of government, implemented in 2006, has taken hold.

United Way Executive Director Kathleen Momme greets County Executive Bob Culver at a fundraising event.

“What bothers me in this whole political climate now is that it’s not about policy, it’s personal,” Culver said recently. “It’s beyond anything I’ve ever seen before. It’s ugly sometimes.”

After two budget cycles of relative cohesion and harmony, the fiscal 2018 budget was difficult from the start, with higher than normal tensions on display when the council drilled department heads on their spending plans.

The council, in an unprecedented move, met in a work session and voted unanimously to cut the budget enough to allow a small tax decrease – the first in Wicomico County since the 1970s. A popular theory was that Culver was positioning spending to allow for a tax cut next year, an election year, when voters will be paying the most attention. By acting ahead of Culver, and without him by their side, the council asserted itself as a power force.

Also in the budget back-and-forth, the County Council swooped in like heroes and funded a schools spending request that Culver had declined, creating a public appearance that they cared more about education than did the executive.

In their relationship, power is the crucial word. As executive, Culver sees himself as holding the power; the council sees itself as at least an equal, in much the same vein that Culver outlined in that December 2014 Chamber of Commerce forum.

Things between the two branches seem to have reached a breaking point in July. A forensic audit approved by the County Council appeared to target two of Culver’s department heads. On multiple occasions, Culver called the probe politically motivated and a witch hunt. The County Executive appeared to be controlling his temper when in a news conference he declared neither he nor his staff would further participate in the probe to be over; the council closed the audit and cited the lack of cooperation as the reason.

In the weeks since, Culver and the council appear to be in a Cold War status, with little or no communication or cooperation. Their latest war: Implementation of the Fire Service Agreement with the city of Salisbury and whether to accommodate the Station 13 volunteer firefighters.

Council members have quietly admitted that Culver might be winning in the public opinion arena, with citizens questioning them about challenging the executive.

Communication concerns

Communication, or the lack of it, is at the heart of many matters. Culver said he wants to meet regularly with the council – currently, they mostly encounter each other at the bimonthly council sessions – and says his “door is always open.” He cites statements council members recently made, saying they wanted more facetime with the executive.

“I would love to meet more regularly with the council and, as you know, four of them spoke at the Republican Committee meeting about a month ago. The next day I wrote a letter and I said if that’s the way everyone feels, we meet on the first and third with the council — why don’t we meet second and fourth Tuesdays?

“They wanted more communication and I said let’s meet, we’ll meet in my office. … They came in the first time and now John (Cannon, the council president) wants to do it in front of the camera. I said ‘No , there’s some things we need to talk about behind the scenes. Everything will be brought out.”

Culver also said: “Some things you want to talk about a little bit in private so we don’t go out there looking like a bunch of clowns, whether it be land acquisitions or where we’re going to spend money in the budget, and they want to do everything on camera, which is admirable in one sense, but you’ve got to be able to sit down and know where your figures are.”

Looking ahead to elections

The elections are looming sooner than most people might realize. The party primaries are a mere nine months away. In what is likely to be the county’s most competitive race, Clerk of Court, three people have already announced their candidacy. The Circuit Court judges have announced, as has a Republican candidate for State’s Attorney.

Earlier this summer, Culver told the county’s Republican Club that he would seek re-election, but has yet to make a formal, public announcement. And, despite the tensions at the top of the government, no one has yet to step forward to challenge for the seat that pays $85,000 annually.

Thus far, the only names of note are purely speculative.

On the Democratic sign, former County Councilman Bill McCain, who stepped down from the council after completing a single term in 2010, is talked of as a contender. Salisbury Mayor Jake Day would seem to be a logical and popular nominee, but Day has made clear his priorities lie in his plans for the city.

A billboard placed on on Route 50 between Ocean City and Berlin in 2015 — featuring County Executive Bob Culver and Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan — was intended to promote Wicomico County’s pro-business marketing efforts. The County Council ultimately declined to fund Culver’s ambitious Economic Development Office.

Among the Republicans, Delegate Carl Anderton is talked of as a contender. The former Delmar mayor, who knocked off longtime incumbent Delegate Norm Conway in 2016, has said he is content with the challenges of his work in Annapolis.

County Council President John Cannon, who has sometimes been pointed in comments regarding Culver and has often asserted the council’s power to the chagrin of the executive, would be a logical primary challenger.

But Cannon, who manages a large property rental and development company with his twin brother Bob, has told those who encourage his candidacy that work obligations are too deep to put aside for the executive’s job.

Recently, however, following a speech to the Wicomico County Rotary Club, Cannon reportedly hinted he might run, but was by no means explicit.

Cannon and Culver grew up together in small-town Salisbury and have known each other for decades. It’s clear, however, that unease has grown between them as Culver’s term has advanced.

“It’s not that I don’t like John – please don’t think that. He’s a nice guy. It’s just that we differ on our ideas,” Culver said.

Culver will officially announce his candidacy in late September. He said he feels comfortable in making a re-election case to the voters.

“I don’t look at this job as being political,” he said. “I look at this as if I was hired to be a CEO to do a $147 million company and I run it the best I can.”

For the remainder of his first term, Culver said spending, putting money into the county’s rainy day fund, and continuing to spur economic development are the most important.

He also says he will not be proposing a tax cut next year.

“A tax cut?  No, I’m not planning on it,” he said. The he critiques the .01-cent tax cut provided by the council for this fiscal year.

“As symbolic as this tax cut was – a penny – it’s worthless. … What it did do is the next time we have to go back to where we need to be, it’s going to cause a 2 or 3 cents tax raise.”

Culver also agreed that many people don’t grasp the complexity of managing a county government with 929 employees.

“It’s not all night that I just sleep in la-la land,” he said of his overnight hours. “There are some tough decisions that keep me awake, but we do it and we do it the best we can.”

 

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

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