Wicomico council reluctant to commit on county attorney

County Executive Bob Culver appeared eager to name an Acting County Attorney this week, but the County Council decided further discussion was needed.

Culver appeared at a council legislative work session with Paul Wilber, the former longtime attorney for the city of Salisbury. Wilber’s Salisbury-based law firm — Webb, Burnett, Cornbrooks, Wilber, Vorhis, Douse & Mason — specializes in government law.

Wilber said he and three of his colleagues were ready to enter into an agreement with the county to provide legal services at a rate of $170 an hour.

The council appeared caught off guard by the appearance, with Councilman John Hall declaring the process was being handled out of order.

Since shortly after the County Executive form of government was implemented, Wicomico has had a Legal Department manned by paid lawyer-employees. Culver has said several times since his election that he would like to return to a contracted system.

Last year, Wicomico spent about $601,000 on legal services, which added up to about $234 per lawyer-hour. About $127,000 of that money was used for employee benefits, which the county wouldn’t have to fund for Wilber and his associates.

Council members seemed immediately uncomfortable with an employee-related discussion. “We should talk about this in closed session,” said Council President John Cannon. “There is still money appropriated for legal services and this has to be sorted out.”

Said Councilman Larry Dodd: “There are a lot of uncomfortable people in the room right now, and it’s difficult to discuss.”

Longtime County Attorney Ed Baker retired in July. His deputy, Maureen Howarth, just recently announced she was leaving to become Worcester County’s government attorney.

Assistant County Attorney Rachel Harris was seated with Howarth at the council dias, but wasn’t part of the discussion. Once Howarth leaves, the Law Department will be comprised of three people: Harris, a paralegal and another associate.

After about 30 minutes’ discussion, Cannon told Culver: “We’ll review what you have given us today, and we’ll see where we go from here. This is a lot of information.”

Cannon added: “The introduction of Mr. Wilber might be getting ahead of where we (really) are in our process.”

The County Council will discuss the matter again during a work session scheduled Monday.

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