Lobbyist hiring comes as surprise to County Council

Some long-building tensions came spilling into public last week, as evidenced by a barking match between Wicomico’s County Executive and Council President.

Paul Ellington.

The drop that made the governmental cup runneth over pertained to County Executive Bob Culver’s decision to hire a lobbyist to aid the county’s business in Annapolis, and his apparent failure to tell anyone in the legislative branch anything about it.

A Culver deputy admitted at last Tuesday night’s council session that the county had made a $30,000 upfront payment to Paul Ellington of State and Local Advisors, a western shore political consulting and lobbying firm formed last year.

Ellington, a veteran of state politics and former Republican member of the Bowie City Council, most recently served as a campaign consultant to state Sen. Mary Beth Carozza.

Council President John Cannon placed the lobbyist matter on the council’s agenda after a September meeting the council held with Eastern Shore General Assembly members, during which Ellington introduced himself to participants as the county’s lobbyist.

That the county had a lobbyist was news to the council members.

Culver sent Assistant Director of Administration Weston Young to address the council’s questions about the hiring. After several minutes of aggressive questioning from several council members, Cannon finally challenged Culver, who was seated in the rear of the council chamber, to come to the table and explain things for himself.

“We didn’t know it, the public didn’t know it,” Cannon declared. “Nobody knew it until the gentleman stood up and explained to a room of County Council members and General Assembly Delegates – all of a sudden – that he was the lobbyist for Wicomico County.”

Earlier, Young explained that the Executive’s Office believed the county could be getting more from Annapolis, both through legislative efforts and funding distributions, if it had someone closely monitoring proceedings and engaging in networking.

“The point is there’s funding at the state level that we’re not going after,” Young said. “If (the lobbyist) gets even one of the projects funded, he’s paying for himself. We can’t be in Annapolis every day.”

On that legislative list, Young said, are:

  • The Airport Maintenance Tax Bill – This measure, which would offer tax incentives sought for Salisbury-Wicomico Regional Airport, failed in the last two sessions. In the House of Delegates, Young said, the measure is perceived as a tax break for wealthy airplane owners, but the county sees it as a jobs-growing bill.
  • The Maryland Department of Transportation Wish List – Each year, the county offers a list of roads construction priorities, but there is little follow-up or discussion, and state officials concentrate on their own plans.
  • Wicomico River Maintenance – The county would like the Maryland Port Administration to help pay for river dredging and administrative costs related to the Delmarva Water Transport Committee, which oversees the Salisbury port’s river operations.
  • State and federal grant support – The county wants help with access to state bond construction bills and influence in being included in the governor’s discretionary spending fund. The city of Salisbury has in recent years won huge grants from the governor for the Downtown Amphitheater and Main Street renovations.

Young said Ellington’s contract was signed in May and runs for 12 months. He said payment came from unspent cash remaining the Executive Office’s fiscal 2019 budget.

Cannon’s agitation peaked when Young said the lobbyist contract was being considered for the budget that took effect July 1, but the council had drastically cut the executive’s own office-funding requests.

Cannon told Young that the lobbyist need had never been part of any budget planning discussions involving the council.

“If it was important, it should have been in the budget,” Cannon said.

Being caught unaware appeared to be the bitter pill the council still hadn’t managed to swallow.

“Why was this not on an agenda and why were we never told? We probably wouldn’t have liked it then, but it would have been a lot less of an impact then it was (hearing about it) at this legislative meeting,” said Councilman Joe Holloway.

The incident did not appear to be a case of Culver deciding to wait and ask for forgiveness, rather than ask for permission.

“This is in the purview of the County Executive,” Culver repeated several times.

The executive, who was just re-elected last November, renewed his complaint that the council often does things without including him in the decision-making.

“You didn’t inform us when you decided to have an Internal Auditor and an Assistant Internal Auditor,” Culver retorted at one point.

Cannon countered that those positions were added as a debated legislative bill that was part of a County Charter amendment approved in a voter referendum.

Council members suggested several times that the lobbyist hiring must reflect some lack of confidence in local General Assembly members as advocates for the county. Both Culver and Young were careful to walk lightly around that issue.

“We hired him because we have several things we have to get through and it’s not working out,” Culver said.

Even with Culver prominently seated at the table, council members kept most of their heat on Young, who at one point decried the historic “lack of communication” between the county’s legislative and executive branches.

“To say there’s a lack of communication and to try to infer it’s the fault of this council – we’re here to discuss anything,” Cannon responded. “The council sits here two times a month every month of the year. Anything is wide open for the executive branch to discuss.”

Culver has previously said he would like to meet with council members and work things out in private.

“We are held to discussions in the public,” Cannon said. “We cannot hold discussions behind closed doors.”

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

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