Wicomico will start over in failed executive search

The Wicomico County Council spent most every week of at least the last four years fighting with County Executive Bob Culver.

Now, with Culver gone from the scene, the seven-member body has taken to fighting each other.

In a virtually unprecedented meeting held late on a Friday afternoon, the council ducked any roll-call votes as Council President Larry Dodd decided to rely on consensus to extend the council’s search for a successor to Culver, who died July 26.

Wicomico County Council President Larry Dodd.

The council will start the process from scratch, and — again acting via consensus and not a recorded vote — set a Monday, Sept. 14, deadline for new candidates.

Dodd’s move would seem to officially close the door on the candidacies of state Delegate Carl Anderton and former senior county administration employee Michele Ennis, though either one could reapply.

Again, because no vote was taken the council’s actions weren’t entirely clear, it would seem the council has also set a new deadline to make a decision. Under the County Charter, the council had 45 days to make a selection, which would have been Sept. 9 — 45 days from that date would put the new deadline at Saturday, Oct. 24.

The tone of Friday’s session was as coarse as any meeting has been since five of the seven members assumed office together in 2014. Every member traded comments that revealed hostilities that have apparently only accelerated since the Thursday, Aug. 20, public session in which Salisbury cardiologist Dr. Rene Desmarais was chosen in a contentious 4-3 vote.

Four days after he was chosen, Desmarais officially declined the position, putting what had already been a rather disheveled process into complete disarray.

The council on Friday received legal advice from not just one, but two, attorneys who interpreted the charter’s intent and offered possible options.

Ironically, one lawyer the council relied heavily on was County Attorney Paul WIlber, whom the council fired in a standoff with Culver exactly a year ago, but was neither replaced nor removed from office. The other was the council’s own legal counsel, Robert Taylor.

Both lawyers said the charter offers no roadmap for a situation that has become unexpectedly complicated.

Under Section 406, which was amended by voters in 2018, the charter merely states the council will select a replacement should a County Executive vacate their office.

Based on the reactions and statements volleyed in different directions across the council table on Friday, it was apparent that Dodd, Councilwoman Nicole Acle, and Councilmen Joe Holloway and Ernie Davis had not changed their minds about appointing Anderton to lead the county’s executive branch.

It was equally obvious that Council Vice President John Cannon, and Councilmen Bill McCain and Josh Hastings wanted another public vote on selecting Anderton.

Holloway moves to extend process

It was Holloway — himself was briefly an applicant for the County Executive post — who moved at the top of the meeting to open applications back up.

Most of the discussion was led by Cannon, McCain, Hastings and the two attorneys.

McCain repeated several times that, given the Sept. 9 charter deadline, the council was still in the hiring process and it would be pre-mature to both add time and ignore the remaining candidates.

“(Our lawyers) have determined the conditional appointment that we did with the resolution last Thursday night — and the fact the candidate declined — that that (appointment) is now moot and is not in effect,” McCain said.

“So we did not appoint anyone. And they clearly stated here the County Council should proceed with the appointment process and call for a new resolution. We’re still in the process.”

McCain added: “I don’t understand how you can possibly suggest that you want to extend this.”

Cannon immediately backed up McCain.

“You set this format,” he told his colleagues. “You set this whole pattern into being. You asked for applicants, you established the deadlines, you received the applications, the applications period was closed, you held public interviews … . I would say you have an obligation to follow through with the remaining candidates who are still on the list. You have that obligation to the process that you began, that you created, but you owe it to the public as well.”

Attorney Taylor reassured McCain that the council was free to act in most any way the majority wished, which led to an especially awkward exchange.

“Just because we can, by no means makes it right,” McCain said.

“Just because you can, doesn’t mean it’s wrong,” Taylor replied. “You can play that game all day.”

McCain: “Is that a legal opinion?”

Taylor: “No — that’s me speaking to you.”

Cannon again followed up on McCain’s points.

Speaking in the direction of Dodd, Acle Holloway and Davis, he said: “We’ve done the interviews publicly. We had three candidates. Just because maybe there’s a problem with your voting for one of those candidates you can’t move the goal posts … that’s a discredit to those individuals who worked very hard to go through the application process.

“How is that not a disservice to us, the public and the people who applied?” Cannon asked.

Meanwhile, Holloway stressed that the remaining candidates clearly did not have four of the seven needed votes.

“There wasn’t a majority vote for either one of the other two candidates,” Holloway said. “That was very clear. It was unfortunate that the candidate that was picked decided he would withdraw his name.

“He came under a lot of stress,” Holloway said of Desmarais. “Unfortunately a lot of things said about him and family that should not have been said — a lot of things, more than that, caused him to withdraw his name — we won’t get into that, that’s old news I think, but there wasn’t a majority vote for the other two candidates.”

Holloway concluded: “So, with that said, I again suggest we open up the process to accept more applicants — hopefully we’ll get one or two or three or four.”

Acle, in remarks, confirmed that the other candidates don’t have a majority. 

Davis assailed the charter, while also lobbing criticism at Cannon.

“When you stood up in public and said that one of us four could reverse our position. That was embarrassing,” Davis said. “You’re telling us to change our vote because your road didn’t go.”

“The charter is vague,” he said. “It doesn’t tell us how to handle this situation, so right now we’re winging it, because we don’t know, because it’s not written in our charter.”

Twice, Dodd tried to adjourn the meeting after apparently deducing that a majority wanted to extend the hiring deadline and not reconsider either Anderton’s or Ennis’ nominations.

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.

County Administrator John Psota is serving as Acting County Executive.

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