Wicomico council headed for vote on department heads

The County Council/County Executive conflict around the reappointment of department heads has entered new and strange ground, with more developments occurring nearly every day:

•After the charter-mandated six-month deadline passed last Monday, May 6, the council met late Tuesday night in open session with its own attorney, who advised that members could vote on each sitting department and decide whether those previously appointed people can be tossed from their posts.

•A few days later, the County Attorney — who serves both the council and County Executive — announced that “some council members” had personally asked him to resign, but that he wouldn’t do that because having the position vacant could leave the county vulnerable in legal matters.

•One of the department heads believed to be on the council’s firing hit list — the county Human Resources Director — was named to a new role in county government, that of Finance Director.

•The County Executive, meanwhile, said he has received independent, self-paid advice that his position in opposing November’s public-approved charter amendments is correct.

Given the recent pattern, more developments are likely in the next several days, but the next bit of scheduled drama is expected Tuesday, when the County Council meets in a regular session.

There, it will likely go down the list of department heads, one by one, and vote on whether those people should continue in their posts.

Under the charter, the county has 10 department heads. 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 and the Local Management Board (or Wicomico Partnership for Families & Children).

The County Charter that was adopted in 2004 when Wicomico overhauled its system of government makes clear that department nominees must receive the council’s initial approval and then are subject to reapproval after an election.

The deadline for that reapproval is six months from the election date, or in the current case May 6. That deadline passed with no renominations coming from County Executive Bob Culver.

Culver has told the council he won’t be forwarding any names and will instead challenge the charter provision. He is also challenging a charter amendment approved by voters in November that now allows the council to also approve deputy department directors.

At the council’s May 7 session, Council Attorney Bob Taylor advised that members could “assume the current people are appointees and confirm or reject department heads.”

He said that because the directors hold their positions, it would be a “fair assumption” that their names would be put forward by Culver, if the County Executive was following the charter.

Council next steps

All parties have been careful not to declare that the executive “is breaking the law” in his actions — or lack of actions — but they have been united in saying he is “not complying” with the directions of the charter.

Council President John Cannon declared that night: “The fact that they’re working in that position counts as an appointment.”

On Monday, with nearly a week to reflect, Cannon remained committed to his initial position, calling Taylor’s observations “pretty valid advice.”

“Those employees are coming into work. Directly or indirectly, those names have been put forward by default,” Cannon said.

As of late Tuesday, the Council Administrator had yet to publicly post the legislative body’s agenda for May 21, but Cannon said placing a department heads vote on the agenda would serve to “create a comfort level” for those directors wondering about their future.

“We will be able to say which department heads that we know should be reappointed,” he said.

In public settings — at least at the official meetings where department heads sit across from council members and meet to discuss matters — the directors appear to have good rapport with the legislative overseers.

The exceptions would be the Department of Law, headed by respected and longtime governmental attorney Paul Wilber, and the Department of Human Resources, headed by Michele Ennis, who is a holdover from previous executive Rick Pollitt’s administration.

Much of Wilber’s interaction with the council occurs out of public view, when the council can declare a closed session to address pending legal matters, property actions and personnel discussions.

When Culver took office in 2014, he fulfilled a campaign promise and essentially blew up the heavily staffed County Law Office, and hired — with the council’s ultimate approval — Wilber and his law firm to advise the county. Culver maintains the arrangement saves the county about $300,000 annually.

Wilber’s rather vague announcement that he had been asked to resign would certainly label him a council target.

Meanwhile, Ennis and the council faced a conflict situation two years ago, when outside auditors raised questions about a pay raise that she was awarded by Culver. No wrongdoing was ever found, but the case was the first public altercation between the council and Culver and left abundant bitterness throughout the Government Office Building.

Because she handles personnel matters, much of her council involvement also occurs in closed session.

But now, with her being named the new Finance Director on Monday, under the charter she would have to be approved for her new position within 90 days.

In an interview Tuesday, Culver said he would not place Ennis’ nomination before the council, citing his contention that November’s ballot referendum replaced the original charter rule. Culver sees the amendments as replacements, not additions.  

Paul Wilber’s letter

Culver’s office released Wilber’s letter on Friday. Dated the day prior and addressed to individual council members as well as the executive, Wilber defended his decision not to quit.

“Recently, certain members of the council requested that I resign from the office of County Attorney,” Wilber wrote. “The County Executive requests that I remain. After careful consideration and a review of the charter and my professional obligations, I write to explain what I believe to be the appropriate course of action.”

The lawyer went on to say that the County Charter requires a County Attorney to be in place and is needed to advise the County Executive and County Council on any legal issues.

“Without a County Attorney, the interests and affairs of the county will be immediately disrupted,” Wilber wrote. “No county contracts or agreements can be signed. County departments and personnel will be left without a legal advisor. The county’s exposure to legal liability will be increased.

“Because the office of County Attorney is critical to the county, I believe that a vacancy in the office would unduly damage County operations and that withdrawing from representing the county would be a violation of my professional obligations as an attorney.”

Then, however, Wilber seems to recognize that he won’t be holding the position long term.

“It is an honor and privilege serving Wicomico County and its citizens. I believe that I am professionally and ethically obligated to serve as the County Attorney until the position has been filled by another qualified attorney in accordance with the requirements of the County Charter,” he wrote.

“If a successor is appointed and confirmed, I will fully cooperate with an orderly transition to the new attorney,” Wiber wrote. “I believe this course of action protects the interests of the County and prevents any undue harm to its citizens.”

Executive ‘saddened’

In an interview this week, Cannon wouldn’t discuss whether members engaged Wilber in a resignation discussion. Under the charter, the County Attorney holds the unique position of clearly serving two masters — whoever holds the post can be fired by the council at any time with a two-thirds super-majority vote, or five of the seven possible votes.

A week ago, Culver publicly urged the council to place the appointments matter back in the voters’ hands.

“Currently the County attorney cannot advise on this matter because he has a conflict of interest representing both government bodies,” Culver wrote in a letter to the body.

“Additionally, he wrote the amendment per council’s request, which is customary to make those charter changes. Council can take this back to the voting public to make changes at the next election.”

Culver also maintains that the use of summaries on the ballot — in place of the actual charter language — might have confused voters. Such summaries, are, however, common when presenting questions directly to voters.

On Tuesday, Culver said the dispute is unnecessary and he has repeatedly asked the council to meet with him and address the conflict.

“I’m saddened that it’s gone this far with no one on the council agreeing to sit down and talk,” Culver said. By putting directors’ names to a vote, he said “they’re playing with people’s lives — why not just sit down and talk?”

Culver also said it is up to him — not the council — to evaluate a department head’s performance.

“If they’re not doing the job, I’ll get rid of them. They are my employees, not theirs.

“The council has forgotten that they’re not an administrative body,” he said. “They just do whatever they want to do.”

Culver said he would ask the council to reactivate the county’s citizen-guided Charter Review Committee to consider what changes are due and how the branches of government can become better defined.

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