Reforms suggested for Wicomico Charter process

The central character in the bitter disputes between the County Executive and County Council in recent years hasn’t been a person — it’s been the Wicomico County Charter.

The product of a complete rewriting when voters approved the County Executive form of government in 2006, the charter is supposed to undergo a committee review once every decade. The last committee meeting occurred in 2011. In the time since, the County Council has taken it upon itself to present county voters with numerous amendments to the document.

In fact, the council — with referendum support — has imposed 11 amendments in just the last five years.

Competing interpretations on what the charter says and means was undoubtedly at the root of the conflict between council members and late County Executive Bob Culver. In decrying the assorted amendments, Culver consistently maintained the council’s agenda was to diminish the executive’s power and take it for itself.

The situation is rather exacerbated these days, as the county is being governed by an unelected Acting County Executive — who was appointed by the council — and local government looks a lot like it did when the council was truly in charge.

In a bid to draft a charter less prone to competing interpretations, the Salisbury Area Chamber of Commerce and its Business and Government Affairs Committee joined with the Greater Salisbury Committee on Tuesday to call for the appointment this year of a Charter Review Committee.

GSC is also involved in making recommendations based on its historic role of identifying community problems and offering solutions.

The two business leadership organizations are calling for a comprehensive rewrite of the charter.

The groups’ recommendations are just that — the County Council and County Executive will ultimately determine the Review Committee’s makeup and format.

Among the proposals:

  • The Charter Review Committee begin work by this March 1 and conclude by June 1, 2022.
  • By starting on or about March 1, the committee will have time to complete its work for presentation to the County Council and Acting County Executive no later than June 1, 2022. Membership should reflect the diversity of the citizenry of Wicomico County.  Membership on the Committee should be filled by non-office holder citizens who express interest in serving on the Committee. By creating an end date of June1, 2022, it ensures that any proposed changes can appear on the general election ballot in November of 2022.
  • The committee consist of not more than 11 people.

The last committee had 15 members. Minutes from the 2011 meetings show the panel experienced attendance problems and organizational challenges.

  • That County Council submit names of their district constituents to serve, and the Acting County Executive appoint four members.

Each council person would select one individual, for a total of seven member; then, four members from that same pool would be appointed by the Acting County Executive.

  • Council and Acting Executive would receive the recommendations and forward them to the Board of Elections for inclusion on the 2022 general election ballot.

According to the business leaders groups, a review of the 2001 and 2011 processes shows the County Council “exercised considerable revision and/or complete rejection of the proposed recommendations of the committee, prior to submitting those recommendations to the Board of Elections for inclusion on the ballot.”

  • The Charter Review Committee should have its own legal counsel, separate and distinct from legal counsel that represents the County Council or the County Executive.
  • Elected Wicomico County officials should refrain from trying to influence the deliberations of the Committee.

The recommendations explained: “Maintaining an arms-length relationship with the Charter Review Committee is in keeping with the spirit of political power deriving from the citizens, and maximizes the integrity of the drafting and deliberative process of the Committee and its members.”

By allowing the Charter Review Committee to send its rewrites straight to the ballot, the panel would have unprecedented power. Realistically, the County Council is unlikely to allow that.

“We think the recommendations should go directly to the voters,” said GSC President and CEO Mike Dunn.

“That hasn’t necessarily happened in the past, and we think that’s important,” Dunn said.

Council John Cannon, who said he supports the business groups’ proposals, added that he has concerns about a direct-to-ballot submission.

“The recommendation regarding the autonomy of the committee could be a problem,” he said, “because the (current) charter requires the recommendations go to the council.”  

Chamber of Commerce President and CEO Bill Chambers stressed the need for heavy citizen influence in shaping the county’s charter.

“We want this to be an accountable group whose work is measured and taken seriously on behalf of the citizens,” he said.

Wicomico Council Vice President Joe Holloway attended Tuesday’s meeting and voiced concerns about the proposals.

Holloway said he found the groups’ recommendations to be “an insult” and took issue with any recollection that the 2011 Charter Review Committee actions either neglected citizen input or fell on deaf ears.

“I was involved in the last two Charter Review Committees and we didn’t hear any complaints about how the Charter Review Committees were handled. We had input from the citizens. Maybe your groups weren’t happy, but we didn’t hear that. 

“There were things that didn’t get put on the referendum because we had so many different items, but we didn’t have an outpouring of complaints. … Maybe your groups aren’t happy with this, but the general membership of Wicomico County — we didn’t hear from them.”

Chambers replied: “It has nothing to do with happiness. It has to do with process, accountability and involvement and diversity of representatives.”

Holloway responded: “The Wicomico County Council has always been accountable.” 

Cannon, who while serving as Council President led the charter changes of recent years, said a wholly new document is needed.

“I think the entire charter needs to be reintroduced to the public as a document, as it was in 2006, as opposed to being meted out in three to 10 amendments. I’d like to see it done as a complete document, as a new charter,” Cannon said.

Dunn addressed the competing charter interpretations that has often created tensions between the legislative and executive branches.

“Our hope is that the confusion in duties, with the County Council as an aggregate body versus the County Executive , there can be some clarity brought to that process,” he said.

“I think anybody who has been paying attention to the goings-on of Wicomico County — good, bad and indifferent — the past five or six years , saw there were clearly questions on authority and what did the charter call for.”

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