Newly chosen County Executive declines post

Dr. Rene Desmarais.

Wicomico County’s leadership crisis reached a new level of drama on Monday when the just-appointed successor to late County Executive Bob Culver formally declined the post.

In a three-sentence letter addressed to the Wicomico County Council, Dr. Rene Desmarais abandoned the job he was selected for just four days ago in a tensely divisive 4-3 vote.

“Thank you for the opportunity to become the next Wicomico County Executive,” the Salisbury cardiologist wrote. “Although it would be a privilege to lead our great county, I must respectfully decline to accept the appointment. I wish you the best in your future selection.”

Desmarais’ announcement came a few hours after a Salisbury business group and some other organizations staged a news event to draw attention to the council’s process for selecting a Wicomico Republican to replace Culver, who died of liver cancer on July 26.

Desmarais was selected following a public interview conducted Thursday night at the Wicomico Youth & Civic Center. His selection was stunning, mostly because he was little-known across the county and possessed ample medical experience, but little government or business executive experience.

The County Executive is responsible for crafting the county’s annual $150 million budget, orchestrating its vast bond borrowing and overseeing the county’s roughly 1,000 employees. Desmarias has lived on the Eastern Shore since 1993, when he moved to Salisbury to work for what would become Peninsula Cardiology Associates.

Three candidates were subjected to public interviews: Desmarias, state Delegate Carl Anderton and former senior county employee Michele Ennis.

The interviews took about an hour in total, with council members taking turns asking assigned questions. Afterward, the seven council members moved into a closed session in another room, emerging about 30 minutes later to take a public vote.

Council Vice President John Cannon proposed Anderton’s name for the post, which drew enthusiastic agreement from Councilmen Bill McCain and Josh Hastings. However, when the vote was taken, only Cannon, McCain and Hastings were in favor, with Council President Larry Dodd and council members Nicole Acle, Ernie Davis and Joe Holloway voting no.

Holloway had been an applicant for the County Executive’s post, but withdrew from consideration earlier in the week.

Then, Acle — who was appointed to the council just 13 months ago — placed Desmarias’ name before the council for a vote.

The doctor was approved for the post by the same voting bloc as before, with Acle, Davis, Dodd and Holloway voting yes, and McCain, Cannon and Hastings voting no.

Only a member of the Republican Party was eligible for the appointment, as Culver was re-elected in 2018 as a Republican.

The council’s votes were by no means strictly along party lines: Democrat Davis joined Republicans Holloway, Dodd, Acle and Holloway in backing Desmarias; Republican Cannon joined Democrats McCain and Hastings in opposing him.

While Desmarias had a brief foray into local politics in 2014 when he ran unsuccessfully for a District 37B state Delegate’s seat, he was not known as being a leader in community events, service clubs or citizen groups.

He has been active within the local medical community, however, having previously served as President of PRMC’s medical staff and lobbying officials in Annapolis on health care issues. 

When he sought state office six years ago, he campaigned on a health care, education and environmental platform.

Acle was the only one of the four yes votes to offer any praise of Desmarias or try to explain their support, saying he would offer a “fresh perspective that we need to move the county forward.”

Of the three interviews. Anderton’s was most along the parameters of such exercises. He was able to talk with knowledge about each of the issues raised in the eight scripted questions.

Since his selection, there was speculation whether Desmarias intended to continue seeing patients while also serving as County Executive. His heart practice was recently absorbed by the Peninsula Regional Health System, which makes him an employee at PRMC.

While the Wicomico executive’s post pays $85,000 annually, his medical salary is almost certainly higher.

At one point, Acle said that previous County Executives had held other jobs. In Wicomico, however, there have only been two — Culver was the owner of a Downtown Salisbury restaurant that was managed by his son; his predecessor, Rick Pollitt, served solely as the executive.

The charter, in Section 402, addresses outside employment this way:

“The County Executive shall devote his full time to the duties of the office.”

Over the weekend, there was widespread speculation that Desmarais would have trouble giving up his medical responsibilities to serve as County Executive.

Despite the selection process being in disarray, the clock is ticking on appointing an executive. Under the charter, the council has until Wednesday, Sept. 9, to name an executive.

Wicomico Director of Administration John Psota is serving as Acting County Executive until Desmarias is sworn into the post.

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