Deadline passes with no reappointments consensus

Wicomico County’s council members and executive have escalated their public dispute regarding the reappointments of officials who lead the departments that operate county government.

In response to coverage of an April 16 meeting as reported in last week’s Salisbury Independent, the County Council — acting as a single entity — formally disputed County Executive Bob Culver’s contention that a November 2018 charter amendment essentially absolves him from having to submit the names of department heads for post-election approval.

The County Charter adopted in 2004 makes clear that department nominees must receive the council’s initial approval and then are subject to reapproval after an election.

The deadline for that reapproval is six months from the election date, or in the current case May 6. That deadline passed Monday with no renominations coming from the executive.

The council did, however, approve the nomination of the Culver’s top office deputies — Wayne Strausburg and Weston Young — in January.

In a pointed statement released last Friday, the council showed no inclination to cede to Culver’s desires.

“The Wicomico County Charter clearly states that within six months after each election, the Executive shall appoint Executive Branch department heads and submit them to the County Council for approval,” the statement read.

“The County Executive has recently stated that he will not do this, taking a position that not only violates the plain language of the County Charter, but also goes against the advice of our own County Attorney.

“The County Executive has attempted to justify his actions by citing a summary of the Charter amendment changes provided to the voters, not the actual language of the Charter,” the statement declared.

The council then attempted to interpret Culver’s intention:

“From our vantage point, it is unclear if the County Executive is simply unable to comprehend this difference or if he is intentionally attempting to mislead the public. The County Executive appears unaware, or perhaps he simply chooses to ignore the fact, that the Council passed two resolutions containing the actual Charter amendment language. This language was also contained in the public advertisements on these amendments.”

Last summer the council passed Resolution 65-2018, which proposed amending the charter to allow the council to also confirm each of the 10 departments’ deputy directors. The council also passed Resolution 82-2018, which said the council would have to approve their reappointments within six months following an election.

Culver response

As they have historically done with charter amendments, voters overwhelmingly approved both provisions, with more than 70 percent of the vote.

In a news release of his own, issued in response to the council’s statement, Culver argued that the council’s action, combined with the voters’ approval, effectively changed the law.

 “An amendment is a change for the better improvement,” Culver’s statement read. “This change did not state that council wanted to add to or supplement the existing law, but rather to amend and change it to read differently.”

Added Culver: “I have fully complied with the new charter requirements as I have submitted and received council’s confirmation for the Director of Administration and the Assistant Director of Administration within the six-month time period after the election.

“There have not been any initial appointments of Deputy Directors of Departments.”

At the April 16 meeting, County Attorney Paul Wilber, whose office is subject to council confirmation, told council members he couldn’t back Culver’s argument.

 The council addressed that in its statement:

“As the Wicomico County Attorney has explained, the charter requires that the executive must submit department heads’ names for approval by the County Council — whether these are new appointments or whether they are the appointments occurring within six months after each county executive election. It is that simple. The law is the law.”

Culver has also maintained that outside legal counsel will have to be hired to advise him on the matter because Wilber — whose continuance in office can be rejected by the council — operates under a conflict.

The council’s response:

“It is false for the executive to declare that the County Attorney cannot advise the council or the executive on this matter.

“The County Attorney has always advised both parties and has clearly stated that the executive must submit these appointments in order to comply with the Charter.”

Then the council’s news release takes a brutal shot at Culver:

“Again, the executive is either intentionally misrepresenting the actual text of the charter itself, as approved by the Wicomico County voters, or cannot comprehend the plain language of the text.”

Wilber advised the council that a court proceeding would be the only way to resolve the matter, unless one side backs down.

No progress

Statements from each of the government branches show no indication that will happen.

“For personal reasons, the County Executive’s actions put the status of all county department heads at risk, and opens the county to unnecessary legal expenses and liability,” the council wrote.

“We hope he will listen to the advice of the County Attorney and submit these appointments in accordance with the Wicomico County Charter.”

Culver, meanwhile, urged the council to place the resolution back in the voters’ hands.

“Currently the County Attorney cannot advise on this matter because he has a conflict of interest representing both government bodies,” Culver wrote.

“Additionally, he wrote the amendment per council’s request, which is customary to make those charter changes. Council can take this back to the voting public to make changes at the next election.”

Culver also maintains that the use of summaries on the ballot — in place of the actual charter language — might have confused voters. Such summaries, are, however, common when presenting questions directly to voters.

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

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