What led to the Wicomico council/executive rift?

The following is intended to address questions that have been forwarded to Salisbury Independent over the last several days:

Q. What is the current dispute between the County Executive and the County Council?

A. For the council’s Feb. 3 night time work session, Council President John Cannon had scheduled senior officials in the Executive’s Office to appear before the council and answer questions about several topics.

Public Works Director Dallas Baker appeared to discuss progress on drainage issue confronting the county and made a long presentation.

Afterward, Director of Administration Wayne Strausburg and his deputy, Weston Young, were listed to appear on two successive matters — the Capital Improvement Plan and the county’s effort to convert the Poplar Hill Pre-Release Center into a public drug treatment facility.

When the executive staff members did not appear, there was some confusing conversation about emails that had been circulated announcing they would not attend.

Seeing their absence as a snub, Cannon made a long statement critical of the Executive’s Office that included describing the council/executive relationship as dysfunctional.

After nearly a week had passed, County Executive Bob Culver sent a three-page letter to Cannon in which he took high exception to Cannon’s public remarks.

Then, two days later, the council responded with a rebuttal letter of its own.

Q. What are the roles of the two branches?

A. The County Executive holds the power reins. The executive prepares the annual budget, recommends measures for legislative action, ensuring that county funds are properly spent and maintained and manages county employees.

As the legislative branch, the council can initiate laws. It approves department head hirings but is prohibited from directing the executive’s employees.

It can cut the executive’s proposed budget, but cannot add funds.

The county’s Internal Auditor also works for the council, and through the auditor the council has access to the executive’s and department heads’ spending practices.

Though the charter specifically states that the executive must provide the council with any information concerning the executive branch (information the council needs for the exercise of its powers), the council must rely on the executive’s cooperation for access to the specific employees.

The situation is far different from the U.S. Congress, which has executive oversight and can demand that executive branch employees answer questions.

Q. Why is Culver so sensitive about the council’s questioning?

A. Probably because no one likes to be publicly scrutinized, especially on matters that are in a developmental stage. Culver has said often that the council’s questions are motivated by members’ desire to exert control of the county’s government, when the charter makes clear that he is the boss.

Q. Aren’t most of these people Republicans?

A. The previous council (2014-2018) was nearly all Republicans — 6 to 1 — with Councilman Ernie Davis, the minority-majority District 1 member, affiliated as Democrat. In the 2018 election, the two incumbent Republicans who didn’t seek re-election were each replaced by Democrats.

Though party affiliations have rarely played a part in any debates, that could soon change, as Cannon now presides over a 4 to 3 Republican majority and will have to work to ensure he always has three votes supporting him.

Q. Has Culver kept his staff members from speaking to the council before?

A. Yes. There was an awkward denial of access to the county’s Planning & Zoning Director during the 2015 battle over poultry house legislation. Culver did that, however, to streamline the two-pronged debates, wading through the controversy over health issues and then — when that was thoroughly aired — shifting to chicken house zoning rules.

The Zoning Director then worked hand-in-hand with the council to enact decisive legislation. Culver’s tactic was misunderstood and derided at first but was seen to be accepted later.

Q. What is the status of the Poplar Hill drug treatment center proposal?

A. Wicomico has been granted $972,684 from the state to begin renovating the former Poplar Hill Pre-Release Unit and transforming it into a live-in detoxification and recovery center for those addicted to opioids and other drugs. The county has issued a Request for Proposal for service health care providers who would administer the center. The county would neither run the center nor contribute financing.

The mission is to provide 24-hour detox, drug withdrawal management, and then residential treatment and residential recovery housing for opioid patients.

Q. Can the council stop the treatment center?

A. The council could block it either of two ways: It will have to approve receipt of the state grant as well as a proposed $1-per-year lease from the state for the property.

Q. Why does Culver want the center?

A. The so-called opioid crisis has hit Wicomico hard, but county law enforcement and health officials are leading their counterparts in the state in addressing the problem.

A key component to greater success is having a location where people seeking help can receive immediate treatment. If an opioid victim delays treatment, they are likely to put it off entirely – the facility gives treatment experts a quick remedy.

Q. Can the relationship between Culver and Cannon be repaired?

A. A popular saying is “politics makes strange bedfellows,” but that probably will never apply in the two leaders’ relationship. Culver is vocal in his annoyance at being told that he “doesn’t understand how government works.” The council is adamant that they have a checks and balances role that they must fulfill.

The words in the County Charter can be stretched so that all sides feel as if they are in the right.

One Salisbury business leader observed last week that in many way the County Executive system is still relatively new and the players are constantly defining their roles. After 13 years, however, there are still tensions.

Q. Are there more battles on the immediate horizon?

A. The council had to delay its approval of the Capital Budget, but there are no lingering issues — it will be approved, just later than usual.

Budget season is here. There was a budget war two years ago that resulted in a property tax cut, but last year’s budget process was without acrimony. The first hearing on this year’s budget — fiscal 2020 — is scheduled for March 20.

Education promises to be another big issue this year and it will interesting to see who most feels the pressure to finance school board desires — Culver or the council.

Within six months of each election, the executive must re-nominate his department heads for council approval. The deadline for that exercise would be early May.

The council has already re-confirmed Strausburg and Young, with the latter’s appointment falling under a new charter amendment.

There are rumblings the council might seek to address Culver’s design of the county Law Department, which breaks from the previous charter-formatted system and relies on by-the-hour legal advice and application.

The future of the Wicomico Nursing Home is also developing as an issue. Like Poplar Hill, an information void has led to an abundance of rumors. Though much of the speculation is exaggerated and unfounded, people are appearing at council meetings and voicing their concerns — yet the council is legally on the sidelines of the matter.

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

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