Culver defends letter on Folk Festival alcohol permit

Wicomico County Executive Bob Culver said Monday that he enjoyed attending this year’s National Folk Festival, has a friendly relationship with Salisbury’s mayor, and that he was only trying to protect local decision-making authority when he wrote that a top-ranking state official had committed an “unlawful action” regarding the event.

In a 75-minute news conference held in the County Council chambers, the Republican executive stayed firm in his contention that state Comptroller Peter Franchot and city officials had performed an “end run” that allowed this month’s Folk Festival to receive a beer and wine license without first hearing local concerns.

Last year, after the county Board of License Commissioners began questioning where and how alcohol would be served at the event – and it appeared the permits might be delayed – city officials appealed to Gov. Larry Hogan. Franchot, through his Field Enforcement Division, deployed inspectors who made recommendations about alcohol placement, but approved the permit.

This year, festival organizers went directly to Franchot’s office for approval, which is Culver’s bone of contention.

“As County Executive, my concern is the legality of the liquor license issued by the state,” Culver said. “The license should have been applied for – and issued by – the Wicomico County Board of License Commissioners.”

He added later: “It’s not our (the county’s) festival. They need to come to us.”

Letter to Senate President

Monday’s news event sprang from a tumultuous, unprecedented back and forth involving Culver and the Comptroller’s office.

It was revealed that Culver had dispatched a letter to Maryland’s top legislative leader, state Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr., challenging the alcohol permit process and verdict.

In a letter dated Aug. 27, Culver essentially accused 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.”

One of Culver’s top aides, A. Kaye Kenney, chairs Wicomico’s alcohol commissioners board. She and other board members attended Monday’s news event.

The commissioners are 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.

The Board of License Commissioners acts as a state agency. It and the agents it employs are paid by the county.

The county’s liquor laws are actually state laws influenced by local General Assembly representatives; each county enacts laws within locally held ideals. With a staff and attorney, the License Commissioners oversee and enforce those laws.

Though he projected sincerity in his intent to follow the concerns of the alcohol commissioners, many people have questioned Culver’s motive in writing the letter.

Chief of Staff enters debate

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

Once the Comptroller’s office became aware of Culver letter to Miller, a blistering reply was released by Franchot’s Chief of Staff, Len N. Foxwell.

Dated and released to the public on Friday, Foxwell’s response 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.”

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.”

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.

Culver offers a defense

“Neither Wicomico County, nor I, have ever tried to sabotage the National Folk Festival,” Culver said at his Monday news conference.

“With over 100,000 people attending, we wanted to make sure all of the rules and regulations were followed.”

Culver maintained that he followed protocol in reaching out to Miller, because the Senate boss falls just below the governor in pecking order. “He’s the highest-ranking person after the governor,” Culver said, adding he thought the issue wasn’t important enough to bother the governor.

In his comments, however, Culver hinted there might have been more to his decision to contact Miller.

“We contacted the state Senate President, who has dealt with the Comptroller’s overreach before,” said Culver.

Indeed, assembly Democrats perturbed by Democrat Franchot’s close ties with Republican Hogan, to steps in the 2019 session to strip the Comptroller of several liquor-regulating powers.

Culver repeatedly insisted he has a friendly relationship with the Comptroller. “I would love to sit down with Comptroller Franchot say to him: ‘Please explain to me how we can do this by law.’ ”

Kenney said she also encouraged Culver’s involvement in the matter, because he knows the leadership in Annapolis.

“We sent letters (to the Comptroller) last year, without response, and made many calls,” Kenney said. “Mr. Culver is the County Executive of this county and it’s his responsibility to protect the citizens and this board (regarding) alcohol. We approached Mr. Culver and asked for his help, thinking he would have some success when we didn’t.”

Culver supported Kenney’s statement, saying he “wanted to help them out.”

“I became involved simply because of my position,” he said.

Intention questions remain

Culver’s news conference failed to convince the County Council President.

“As an elected representative, I don’t condone what was done. It was a lack of judgment on his part,” said John Cannon, who also attended the news conference.

“It is obvious that the County Executive sent a surreptitious letter with only one intent: to target the Comptroller of Maryland. I can’t figure out what the benefit was to Wicomico County to send that letter.”

Foxwell, in his letter on Friday, said much of the same, but even more brutally.

“… 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 wrote.

“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,” wrote Foxwell.

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 wrote.

Foxwell also wondered 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 wrote.

Ongoing relationships

Culver on Monday took a reply shot at Foxwell, a Salisbury University graduate who has served as Franchot’s top aide since 2007.

“If he had been my employee or my Chief of Staff, he would not be coming to the office today,” Culver declared. “It was totally out of line. There was such hate and personal distrust.

“I feel like my letters were done very professional and business-like – his letter just went off the rails.”

When asked about Foxwell’s statement that Culver has been “unprofessional,” he retorted: “He’s full of it.”

The response is not uncharacteristic for Foxwell. An Eastern Shore native, he has ties to Salisbury and is well known for his outspokenness. He graduated from SU degree 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.

When the Miller letter surfaced and Foxwell responded, Salisbury’s Mayor focused his response on the festival itself, but also wondered about Culver’s action.

“We had a great festival — it was great for the community and great economically,” Day said. “It was nothing that everyone shouldn’t support.
“I can’t imagine why anyone would want to do anything but to try to help,” Day said.

Culver said that while he congratulated Day last Monday for the festival’s success, the two men have different leadership styles.

“I think Jake’s got a wonderful amount of enthusiasm,” Culver told reporters on Monday. “Do I agree with him all of the time? — no. But at the same time he’s got a vision and a way of doing things that I don’t do.

“I’m more old school — I just do things differently. His enthusiasm and his drive to make Salisbury better, I’m all for,” Culver said.

As for moving forward, Culver said: “I have no intentions of arguing with Len Foxwell, Jake Day or anyone else. I said my piece. This is all I’m planning on saying today.”

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

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