Paul Wilber assumes Acting County Attorney post

Paul Wilber has been appointed Wicomico’s acting County Attorney, but officials are remaining mum on whether the veteran governmental lawyer will be serving as a county employee or will work on a structured retainer.

Wilber, who previously served more than a decade as Salisbury’s City Attorney, is listed on the county’s website as “acting county attorney,” though County Executive Bob Culver has made no such announcement.

Culver and the County Council have met in at least one closed session to discuss the matter. Because the issue involves personnel, the council can keep their discussions under wraps.

The rub appears to be Culver’s desire to restructure the county Department of Law, and instead hire a county lawyer on retainer. The council, meanwhile, wants to fully research the costs, and measure which would be most efficient. Culver has said all along he believes a retainer system would save taxpayers money.

Culver hadn’t commented on the issue since a Sept. 15 public discussion. Late Tuesday, however, he confirmed Wilber’s status as a lawyer hired on retainer.

“I feel honored to have Paul,” Culver said. “He has a great history, knows the ins and outs and would only make a great County Attorney.”

Added Culver: “I don’t know how anyone would have a problem with him.”

Council President John Cannon, when contacted this week, was hesitant to provide details of the behind-the-scenes discussions.

“It all comes down to which is the most efficient and cost effective,” Cannon said. “We’ll review the actual costs and talk more.”

Cannon said Culver doesn’t need council authority to appoint an acting attorney. He said Wilber can hold the position for 90 days before the council has to act on the appointment. He also confirmed that Wilber is serving on retainer and is not a county employee.

Wilber sat in the front row of the County Council’s Oct. 6 meeting; he was taking notes but didn’t participate in any discussions. The meeting was also the final session for Maureen Howarth, who has been serving as legal counsel since her longtime boss, County Attorney Ed Baker, retired in July. Howarth is departing to become Worcester County’s government attorney.

During the Sept. 15 council meeting, surprising tensions surfaced over the preferred course for the county’s legal structure.

Culver appeared at a council legislative work session with Wilber, whose Salisbury-based law firm ─ Webb, Burnett, Cornbrooks, Wilber, Vorhis, Douse & Mason ─ specializes in government law.

Wilber told council members that he and three of his colleagues were ready to enter into an agreement with the county to provide legal services at a rate of $170 an hour.

On Tuesday, Culver confirmed that would be Wilber’s rate.

The council had appeared caught off guard by the appearance, with Councilman John Hall declaring the process was being handled out of order.

The council met in closed session Sept. 21 to discuss the matter further, but no news on what occurred there has been announced.

Last year, Wicomico spent about $601,000 on legal services, which added up to about $234 per lawyer-hour. About $127,000 of that money was used for employee benefits, which the county wouldn’t have to fund for Wilber and his associates.

Meanwhile, at the council’s meeting last week, Finance Director Leslie Martin Lewis requested council members approve a $27,970 funds transfer to the Law Department as part of a benefits payout covering compensatory time, vacation and unemployment expenses.

Lewis didn’t provide details on which employees the payouts pertained to; Baker’s resignation was effective July 1 and Howarth’s last day was reported as Oct. 9.

The council approved the financial transfers.

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

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