Psota named Acting County Executive through 2022

Wicomico Director of Administration Jon Psota will continue serving as Acting County Executive for as long as the next two years, following a 5-2 vote of the County Council on Friday.

Council President Larry Dodd declared the seven-member body was unable to reach a consensus on who the successor to the late Bob Culver should be.

John Psota on Friday was named Acting County Executive, and likely to hold the post for the next two years.

The County Charter offers no specific avenues to support the council’s latest decision, which means the county’s legislative branch is relying on precedent involving other municipal governments and essentially setting a new set of rules.

Technically, Psota’s job status is not an appointment, but a continuation of the council’s previous action to name him Acting County Executive until a permanent successor is determined. 

To give the council leeway, Section 407 of the charter is intentionally vague. Approved in 2006 and amended in 2018, the rules regarding the replacement of a County Executive merely state the council will appoint someone of the previous incumbent’s party within 45 days. It has now been 54 days since Culver, a Republican, died of liver cancer.

After the first 45-days deadline passed, the council agreed to take additional applications for the post. State Delegate Carl Anderton reapplied, along with a new contender, longtime county government employee Pate Matthews.

Anderton, since falling a vote shy of being named County Executive after an interview session Aug. 20, has been perceived as a public favorite for the appointment, based at least on feedback and social commentary.

That has put Dodd and three of his colleagues — Republicans Joe Holloway and Nicole Acle, and Democrat Ernie Davis — in the crosshairs to explain their refusal to support the former Delmar Mayor and two-term General Assembly member.

Council could change course

Under the resolution approved Friday, the council could in fact appoint someone other than Psota — at any time between now and the November 2022 election — to serve as executive.

Dodd said several times on Friday that there was little likelihood of that occurring.

Larry Dodd.

Psota, the former Fruitland City Manager, has worked for the county since his appointment as Director of Administration in June.

Under the charter, the executive’s annual salary is set at $85,000, but Psota is being paid $120,000 as Director of Administration.

Dodd said that because Psota’s executive selection is merely acting, he will continue to be paid at the higher rate.

A continuing cloud of secrecy concerning the council’s hiring process has been the subject of public criticism, which Dodd sought to address Friday.

At the council table, Dodd recounted each of the steps in the hiring process, before making the declarative announcement.

“After Council requested and received applications to fill the vacancy in the Office of County Executive and conducted interviews of certain applicants, the council is unable to reach a majority consensus to fill the vacancy,” Dodd read from a printed statement.

“So the council decided that it would be in the best interest of the county for Mr. Psota to continue to fill the vacancy pursuant to the charter,” he said.

Dodd said Psota would have the same rights, duties, powers and obligations as an elected County Executive. Later, Dodd conceded it would be possible to terminate Psota if necessary and the council could appoint a new executive at any time.

Asked if the council might, for political reasons, appoint a Republican to the seat sometime in 2022 — thereby giving a Republican the chance to seek election as a sitting County Executive — Dodd said the council’s intent was to let Psota serve until the election.

Dodd said Psota had not made any indications that he might seek election to the post.

Psota did not attend Friday’s meeting and was reportedly absent because he was undergoing a medical procedure.

After the vote, however, Psota released a short statement.

“I accept and am humbled by the confidence council has demonstrated by passing this resolution,” Psota said. “While I have not sought the appointment, I do believe that it is in the county’s best interest to now move forward and provide stability so that we can collectively address the opportunities and challenges in Wicomico County’s future.”

Dodd said the county “is fortunate to have someone with Mr. Psota’s experience in charge of the Executive Branch of the county government.”

Psota had a long career with the Maryland State Police and then served as Fruitland’s City Manager. He holds a Political Science degree from Salisbury University.

Hastings, Acle vote no

The 5-to-2 vote had Dodd, Council Vice President John Cannon, and Councilman Joe Holloway and Ernie Davis voting yes. Those voting nay were Republican Councilwoman Nicole Acle and Democratic Councilman Josh Hastings.

Acle didn’t explain her vote, but Hastings read a long statement into the record opposing the council’s move and criticizing its failure to directly follow the charter.

Josh Hastings.

“My ‘no’ vote is about this body’s failure to do what it was charged to do and with the way the public was broadly left out of this process,” he said. “We live in anxious times. Folks just want to see that at least their local government is functioning well and looking out for their best interest.

Hastings said he believes Psota to be entirely competent to do the job, but wondered if the selection would overtax the executive.

“Mr. Psota will be working three jobs — that of the Deputy Administrator, County Executive (and Director of Administration),” Hastings said.

Later, Dodd said the council is in support of Psota’s hiring a Deputy Director of Administration. That would leave Psota essentially holding two jobs — County Executive and Director of Administration.

Cannon, who had openly supported Anderton in previous sessions, said he supported the decision because the county needed to move forward.

“I think it’s most important at this point in time that we put this behind us,” Cannon said.

McCain complimented Psota’s work for the county since beginning employment following the retirement of Director of Administration Wayne Strausburg.

“Mr. Psota has performed his duties very well over the last several weeks and has since brought confidence to the council,” McCain said. “He is certainly a very capable and competent individual.”

Questions about why Anderton’s candidacy was shot down a second time were raised several times during the day, and Dodd didn’t offer a specific reason.

“We just didn’t have a consensus,” he said. “There’s nothing at all (at issue) — we have nothing personal against Mr. Anderton.”

Anderton, who has been remarkably gracious in public comments all through the application ordeal, hinted that he could be a candidate for County Executive in 2022. To do that, however, Anderton would have to give up his current General Assembly seat.

“I have all the confidence in the world that Mr. Psota will help lead the county forward, and I will continue to help in any way that I can from Annapolis. Right now, we shift gears from looking at this (opportunity) to helping the county for the next two years,” he said.

“There’s an election in two years. Literally, thousands of people have stood behind me, beside me and in front of me during this process, and I have to look for a way to honor those people,” Anderton said. “And if that is to run for the office in two years, then that’s what I’ll do.”

Snake-bit process

In a shocking vote held at the Wicomico Youth & Civic Center on Aug. 20, the council named Salisbury cardiologist Dr. Rene Desmarais to succeed Culver, but Desmarais declined the offer four days later.

Anderton and former senior county employee Michele Ennis were the other contenders at that time.

Before leaving county employment Aug. 5, Ennis had been at the center of a power struggle between the County Council and Culver, with the council publicly voting several times against her holding posts as either Human Resources Director or Finance Director — Culver kept her on his team in a rejection of the County Charter’s provisions.

Carl Anderton.

Desmarais’ withdrawal prompted many people to believe the council would instead turn to Anderton, given his political experience and popularity as a delegate.

In the days that followed, however, the 47-year-old Delmar resident was never able to secure a fourth vote from any of those who opposed him — Dodd, Holloway, Acle and Davis.

The council decided on Aug. 28 to extend the selection deadline and start the whole process over from scratch. That resulted in a second application from Anderton, as well as an application from county employee Pate Matthews.

Again, according to Dodd, the council could not reach a consensus. No public interviews were held in the second round.

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. Only a member of the Republican Party was eligible for the appointment, as Culver was re-elected in 2018 as a Republican.

Strausburg, who had served as Director of Administration since 2011, remains available to help Psota, having been retained by the county on a consultant basis.

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