‘Strong’ measure seeks to end appointments fights

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Any high-level county administration official whose appointment has not been confirmed by the Wicomico County Council could find themselves jailed, facing a hefty fine and having to return their salary money, under legislation currently being considered.

Even the person serving as County Executive could find themselves facing incarceration or fines for continuing to employ a department head who hasn’t received the proper council confirmation.

Though County Executive Bob Culver’s death last Sunday could affect the career options and employment courses of the personalities at the center of the current standoff, the council could still act to place exact rules on the books.

A draft circulated last week by the council’s attorney would make hiring and employment actions that run contrary to the County Charter criminal misdemeanors. The move is intended to end the long-running drama that has furthered soured Executive-Council relations, dating back to the last election nearly two years ago.

“A person who continues to act in violation … after being notified by the County Council in writing to cease and desist and a county official or employee who knowingly authorizes such conduct shall be guilty of a misdemeanor and subject to a fine not to exceed $2,500 and incarceration not to exceed 60 days,” the legislation states.

Wicomico has had neither a duly appointed County Attorney nor Finance Director since May 2019, around the time the clock ran out on those appointments being made in accordance with the charter. The attorney, Paul Wilber, and the Finance Director, Michele Ennis, have not received council sign-off to continue in their roles.

Under their powers articulated in the County Charter, the council effectively terminated Wilber more than a year ago, and he has continued serving in the Law Department role under a series of extensions that the council has publicly faulted.

Ennis, the county’s former Human Resources Director whom Culver elevated to Finance Director, was never formally nominated for council approval as required by the charter. More than a year ago, the council took the extraordinary step of voting to not support her for the post, even though she wasn’t nominated.

Culver had repeatedly asserted that council-written and voter-affirmed charter amendments had wiped away the council’s review powers on top executive appointments.

Still, the charter makes clear the executive must submit department head reappointments within six months of an election, and await council approval. Culver declined, however, arguing that only serves to politicize their jobs.

The excruciating and prolonged battle between government branches has delayed capital borrowing needs, added conflict to the fiscal 2021 budget’s approval, complicated assorted county legal matters and quashed action on routine spending.

At various points in the conflict, the council has taken steps designed to “draw a line in the sand” regarding Culver’s actions, but none of those moves has obviously succeeded.

Hence, the measure now before the council.

While perusing the legislation’s language at their July 21 meeting, council members almost seemed to gulp when considering the severity of penalties and procedures.

“‘Strong’ might be a little light in its description,” said Councilman Bill McCain, who at times has seemed like the only member hesitant to curb the County Executive’s authority.

“When I read this, I was like … ‘wow,’” McCain said. “It incorporates (strong) things. Well, they can be guilty of a misdemeanor, they can be fired, incarcerated — it even has ‘incarcerated’ in there.”

He added: “There’s no question it’s heavy-handed — maybe a little too much.”

Council Attorney Robert Taylor said the measure was drafted with the help of noted Maryland civil lawyer Timothy F. Maloney of the firm Joseph, Greenwald and Laake in Greenbelt. The council had agreed last month to employ Maloney’s services, but it wasn’t clear then what work he would be doing.

Taylor said Maloney had advised that the legislation include specific penalties, as well as a series of warning processes, to prevent the County Executive from engaging in a pattern of “de facto” appointments.

“This is the ‘teeth’ that has been discussed at many previous meetings,” said Council President Larry Dodd.

According to Taylor’s measure, a person who continues to act in a post without the necessary council approval will notified by the County Council to “cease and desist” and a county official or employee “who knowingly authorizes such conduct shall be guilty of a misdemeanor and subject to a fine not to exceed $2,500 and incarceration not to exceed 60 days.”

Anyone who authorizes a salary payment to an unconfirmed person will also be subject to punishment.

The measure also includes an appeals process that includes hearings and the opportunity for legal representation.

Presumably, the legislation is aimed at those at the top of the leadership chain and not, for example, at an employee such as a payroll clerk who is merely performing a routine duty.

McCain, as well as council members Nicole Acle and Josh Hastings, voiced concerns that lower-level employees could somehow be caught in the ordinance.

“You could have an individual caught in the middle,” McCain said.

Taylor reaffirmed that only department heads and those subject to council approval under the charter would be targeted. He admitted that the legislation “could apply to the County Executive under appropriate circumstances.”

“There needs to be a finite end to things,” Taylor said, referring to the perpetual service of unconfirmed administrators.

Under the charter, the county has 10 department heads that require council confirmation. In addition to the Director of Administration, the departments are: Law, Human Resources, Finance, Planning & Zoning, Public Works, Recreation, Parks & Tourism, Corrections, Information Services, Emergency Services, the Local Management Board (or Wicomico Partnership for Families & Children) and the Salisbury-Wicomico Regional Airport Manager.

Under a 2018 charter amendment approved by voters, the council also has power to confirm or reject a bevy of Assistant Directors for various departments.

The Director of Administration, County Attorney, Finance Director and Public Works Director all have special hiring conditions established in the charter, which pertain to their level of expertise.

The council is scheduled to discuss the ordinance at its next meeting, which will be held at 6 p.m., Tuesday, Aug. 4, at the Government Office Building in Downtown Salisbury.

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