Wicomico has mixed history with executive government

The first Wicomico County Executive, Rick Pollitt, and his successor, the late Bob Culver.

It was 20 long and confusing years ago that Wicomico County’s government was turned upside down and 18 years ago that residents first heard the words “County Executive” suggested as a means to run things.

In 2000, the County Council had buckled under an assortment of budget pressures and implemented a jaw-dropping 0.46-cents property tax hike. That gave birth to a citizens anti-spending group, which won approval of a referendum that would control all future tax increases.

Council members who had supported the 24 percent increase in property taxes quickly found their 2002 re-election prospects untenable. Republican-controlled at the time, Democrats seized the council’s majority in the next election.

Also on the ballot that year was a remarkably simple straw vote question: “Do you want a County Executive form of government in Wicomico County?”

When the votes were counted Tuesday night Nov. 5, 2002, 62 percent of voters said yes.

The thinking at the time was that if the county had been more professionally managed – instead of being governed by what was essentially a committee meeting for a few hours just 24 times or so in a year – crises necessitating such draconian tax hikes might be avoided.

The straw vote prompted the county’s first-ever council-appointed Charter Review Committee to begin working. The panel collected testimony from other Maryland counties that had already adopted an executive system. Former Wicomico council members were heard, as were current and former county heads, and people from throughout the community.

According to summaries of those committee meetings, members initially were equally split on what to recommend, but as panel members worked through the process, they ultimately decided it would be best to have a single person in charge – someone who was elected to the office and someone whom the public could hold accountable.

Transparency was another factor. The tax hike had served to increase distrust in county government; having two branches at the top, it was believed, would force more open, public communication.

Formal referendum

By November 2004, a formal referendum was on Wicomico voters’ ballots. That year, Question A asked for a yes or no declaration on “a comprehensive revision of the Charter of Wicomico County establishing a system of government with an elected County Executive who would have executive functions and an elected County Council which would have legislative functions.”

The question was approved by a 4,504-vote margin, 17,792 votes to 13,288, meaning 57 percent thought a County Executive was needed.

In Article IV of the revamped charter, the new form of government was defined – but it was in Article V that a strong Office of the County Executive was outlined. The executive branch was put in charge of all county departments and employees, except those who work directly for the County Council.

The charter provided the County Executive with the mechanisms to form a powerful team, headed by a Director of Administration, who was required to be a true business or government professional administrator.

The executive was given immense budget power and required to annually submit a spending plan that could be used to set priorities. While the council could cut the budget, it could not add spending. The executive also had the power to veto the council’s legislative actions, with five of the seven council members needing to agree to override a veto.

Setting precedent

While future County Executives could decide personally how deeply they wanted to insert themselves in nuts and bolts decisions, the consensus was that to be elected to the top post, a candidate would have to convince people of his or her knowledge of county government.

Rick Pollitt, a longtime Fruitland City Manager, was the first popularly elected County Executive. Defeating Republican Ron Alessi in 2006, Democrat Pollitt enjoyed almost no political honeymoon, as Republicans regained council control that year.

As the first man through the wall, most everything Pollitt did immediately became seen as precedent-setting. Pollitt often said that it was obvious at various junctures that much of the public didn’t understand the role of a County Executive, with many residents believing they were getting an elected Director of Administration.

But the position required leadership skills beyond that of an administrator, with the executive being responsible for tone-setting, strategic planning and economic development. The executive needed to also focus on a list of subjective needs, including ensuring Wicomico was competitive with other counties, performing with efficiency, improving the quality of citizen’s lives and ensuring a sense of community.

Pollitt’s top goals were to make county government accountable and to restore public confidence. He revamped the county’s website to include budget spreadsheets and spending reports, and deployed a Public Information Officer to feed news releases to the public.

For all his eight years as executive, Pollitt faced a Republican legislative branch and the stress-level was especially high as the county weathered the Great Recession.

Both branches of the county government seemed to be learning their roles under the new system, but political divisions – enhanced by the stress of the economy – made for a sometimes-hostile environment.

Republicans lead both branches

When Republican Bob Culver defeated a publicly weary Pollitt in 2014, the consensus was the conservative-leaning dual branches would finally allow the executive form of government to work to its best potential.

That rarely happened, however, as Culver sought to exert his power independently of the council. In a roundtable held shortly after the election in December 2014, Culver – with council members seated beside – declared the council would effectively serve as his governmental cabinet, advising him on policies that would best serve the people.

The look on the council members’ faces immediately revealed that the seven legislative branch members had no intention of serving as underlings in any form.

Over the next five and one-half years, Culver and the council battled over budget details, a tax cut, economic development, legal representation, charter amendments, infrastructure priorities and – most of all – Executive Office hirings and confirmations. Culver lost his battle with liver cancer in July, leaving an opening at a time when the two branches had been locked in an awkward battle for power. It might appear the framers of the County Charter erred when deciding the County Council should name a new executive in the event the position became open.

Under such a circumstance, would the council appoint an individual it could dominate? Would it opt for someone with the personality of a partner? Would it appoint a successor who clearly wanted to captain from the bridge?

Psota named Acting Executive

After a rather painful public process that revealed divisions, showed confusion and attracted only a small pool of possible candidates, the council in September named Director of Administration Jon Psota as Acting County Executive, ostensibly for the next two years.

Acting County Executive John Psota.

Although council members have declared otherwise, and maintain that Psota has their support to act with the full authority granted the executive by the charter, it’s not a stretch to conclude the county has – at least temporarily – reverted to its old council-administrator form of government.

The charter offers no specific avenues to support the council’s decision on Psota, which means the county’s legislative branch is relying on precedent involving other municipal governments and essentially setting a new set of rules.

Psota, for his part, seems to be finding his way in his new position of responsibility. At last week’s regular council session, he relayed news that could preview his first big test in the job – the fact that the county may soon reach its self-imposed borrowing limits.

Without an ability to borrow, the county might have to delay or reduce in scope hoped-for infrastructure projects, including a new Public Safety Building for the Wicomico Sheriff’s Office.

In his presentation, in which he was accompanied by the county’s new Finance Director, Pam Oland, Psota made it clear he was merely informing the council members, and not dumping the potential crisis in their laps for a solution.

Post-election questions

State Delegate Carl Anderton was a two-time applicant to succeed Culver, but twice failed to win four council votes.

Carl Anderton.

Democrat Alex Scott, who is seeking the District 2 County Council seat now occupied by Republican Nicole Acle, has made an issue out of the council’s snubbing of the Republican Anderton. He has also raised questions about Acle’s conduct in the process, questioning her support for a candidate who ultimately withdrew, but then also opposing Psota’s designation as Acting Executive.

Scott has said that, if elected, he would move to have Anderton appointed to the seat – which could reopen the process all over again.

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