Culver says council’s actions will delay school project

An architect’s rendering on the new Beaver Run Elementary.

What seemed like a basic power struggle between the county’s executive and legislative branches has exploded into a government-choking drama that could delay construction of a planned county school.

After the County Council on Tuesday declined to confirm County Executive Bob Culver’s recently appointed Finance Director, then blocked his paying unconfirmed employees and restricted his ability to pay for legal services, the executive said he would likely be unable to present a borrowing plan to bankers in September.

Culver said that with no County Attorney and no Finance Director, negotiations with Wall Street bond brokers would be impossible and $9 million in borrowing can’t occur.

Under the just-adopted capital expenditures plan, the county is planning to borrow $7 million to begin construction of a new Beaver Run Elementary School and $2 million to complete the West Side Collector Road.

Beaver Run is the school board’s top construction priority and is in dire need of replacement. The collector road, a project which Culver shelved after winning election in 2014, has been given a rebirth because its construction could create an infrastructure that would help alleviate flooding problems that have plagued western Wicomico homeowners.

To borrow money for construction projects each year, the County Executive, Director of Administration and Finance Director make presentations in New York to the three main credit-rating agencies, with the assistance of a specially hired expert bond counsel. The County Attorney is also heavily involved in the accompanying paperwork.

Acting under its authority in the County Charter, the council essentially fired County Attorney Paul Wilber last month, setting a July 31 date for his formal departure.

Then, meeting Tuesday night, the County Council was unanimous in its determination that Michele Ennis should not serve as Wicomico’s new Finance Director. Culver never formally placed her name before the body for consideration, but did publicly announce her appointment late last month.

With both positions open — and Culver and the council at odds over how the posts should be filled — the executive said Wednesday he would not have leadership in place to make the proper bond presentations.

“There will be no bond money this year,” Culver told the Salisbury Independent. “There will be no Beaver Run money this year.”

Culver said he notified Wicomico Superintendent of Schools Dr. Donna Hanlin that Beaver Run construction would likely be delayed, but stressed his commitment to funding its ultimate construction was undeterred.

A replacement for the school in operation since 1958 – projected at 98,000 square feet and able to accommodate up to 650 students – will cost in the range of $45 million, with financing coming from the state and county governments.

Hanlin only offered the barest of reactions on Thursday. “We are aware of the situation, and we are hopeful that these matters will be resolved quickly,” she said.

Construction was expected to begin as early as March of next year.

Culver’s hands tied

In an effort to keep Culver in accordance with the County Charter, the council went to great lengths Tuesday night to assert its power to sign off on department head appointments.

Culver has taken the lonely position of declaring that assorted council-promoted and voter-affirmed charter amendments have wiped away the council’s review powers on top executive appointments.

The charter makes clear the executive must submit department head reappointments within six months of an election, and await council approval.

Against the advice of his own County Attorney, Culver has declined, arguing the currently serving department heads were already confirmed when they were hired and there’s no need to potentially politicize their jobs now.

Last month, when Culver never provided a list of reappointments, the council made the unprecedented move of taking it upon itself and bringing each department head’s name up for a vote. All were reappointed, except for Wilber (who was terminated under a separate chapter in the charter) and Ennis (who had stepped away from her Human Resources role and was serving as Acting Finance Director).

Ennis was appointed Human Resources Director by Culver’s predecessor Rick Pollitt, but was selected by Culver to serve as Acting Finance Director when county officials began drafting the 2020 fiscal budget last winter.

Without any public discussion, the council said no to her continuance in the post.

Ennis was the subject of a controversy between the council and Culver two years ago, when auditors raised questions about a 12 percent pay raise she had received.

Ironically, that turmoil was attributed to Culver’s firing of Leslie Martin Lewis, the county’s then-Finance Director. Ennis has worked for the county for 16 years.

Executive defiant

The day after the council declined to confirm Ennis, she was at her desk in the Government Office Building anyway. Culver said he would continue to ensure that she be paid in her role as Finance Director.

I will continue to pay her,” Culver said. “They have no right to do this. She’s still here, still working.”

He also said Ennis was “supremely qualified” to hold the position, pointing out her experience in government and academic credentials. A Parkside High School graduate, Ennis holds a bachelor’s degree in Accounting from Salisbury University, a master’s in Human Resources Management from Wilmington University and a doctorate in Organizational Leadership from the University of Maryland Eastern Shore. She is currently undergoing training to become a Certified Public Accountant.

“The council is on the wrong path,” Culver said. “They want to run everything. They want to take the county back to the Dark Ages.”

Said Culver: “It’s my team. Unless some member of my team has done something wrong, (council members) have no right to act this way. These people have all been approved before. What have they done wrong?”

Culver also defended Wilber, citing his long experience serving local governments.

“Paul is recognized as one of the better governmental lawyers that there is,” he said. “No one has ever said what he did that was wrong. The fact that the council did this (with no explanation) and was all clammed up about it, shows they’re talking beforehand.”

Contacted on Thursday, Council President John Cannon said the legislative side of government was merely following the County Charter.

“Both the council and the executive

have to work within the parameters of the charter,” Cannon said. “We have a responsibility to approve all 12 positions as listed in the charter.”

He pointed out that, with the exception of Wilber and Ennis, the council had easily confirmed all of Culver’s other position-holders.

Cannon added: “The fact that we haven’t agreed on these two officials is unfortunate. We are merely working in the best interest of the county.”

In reacting to the bond news, meanwhile, Cannon labeled the situation as “unfortunate.”

“Recognizing the fact that Ms. Ennis is continuing to work — even in violation of the County Charter — the executive could still choose to use her, and as such there shouldn’t be a shortfall in manpower in what he suggests as necessary. So I don’t understand his statement that the bond presentations can’t occur.”

Culver said he expected the council will next attempt to accuse him of malfeasance, when he continues to pay Ennis in spite of the council’s spending ban on unapproved department heads.

Cannon wouldn’t comment Thursday on that possibility.

Having increased his social media presence in recent days with multiple Facebook posts on other matters, Culver said he will begin venting his concerns to the public.

“I’m taking this all to the people,” he said. “This is not over with.”

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

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