Council selects cardiologist as Wicomico Executive

It was a stunning decision that caused those seated in the socially distanced, mask-wearing Civic Center audience to audibly gasp: The Wicomico County Council voted Thursday night to appoint a Salisbury cardiologist as County Executive.

County Executive Designee Rene Desmarias.

In a strangely aligned 4-3 vote, Dr. Rene Desmarais — who has no record of community leadership outside of Peninsula Regional Medical Center — was named to succeed the late Bob Culver as head of the county’s executive branch of government.

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. Desmarias has lived on the Eastern Shore since 1993, when he moved to Salisbury to work for what would become Peninsula Cardiology Associates.

Three candidates were subjected to public interviews in the Midway Room of the Civic Center: Desmarias, state Delegate Carl Anderton and former county employee Michele Ennis.

The interviews took about an hour in total, with council members taking turns asking assigned questions. Afterward, the seven council members moved into a closed session in another room, emerging about 30 minutes later to take a public vote.

Council Vice President John Cannon proposed Anderton’s name for the post, which drew enthusiastic agreement from Councilmen Bill McCain and Josh Hastings. However, when the vote was taken, only Cannon, McCain and Hastings were in favor, with Council President Larry Dodd and council members Nicole Acle, Ernie Davis and Joe Holloway voting no.

Holloway had been an applicant for the County Executive’s post, but withdrew from consideration earlier this week.

Then, Acle — who was appointed to the council just 13 months ago — placed Desmarias’ name before the council for a vote.

The doctor was approved for the post by the same voting bloc as before, with Acle, Davis, Dodd and Holloway voting yes, and McCain, Cannon and Hastings voting no.

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

The council’s votes were by no means strictly along party lines: Democrat Davis joined Republicans Holloway, Dodd, Acle and Holloway in backing Desmarias; Republican Cannon joined Democrats McCain and Hastings in opposing him.

Councilwoman Nicole Acle.

While Desmarias had a brief foray into local politics in 2014 when he ran unsuccessfully for a District 37B state Delegate’s seat, he is not known as being a leader in community events, service clubs or citizen groups.

He has been active within the local medical community, however, having previously served as President of PRMC’s medical staff and lobbying officials in Annapolis on health care issues. 

When he sought state office six years ago, he campaigned on a health care, education and environmental platform.

In his interview before the council on Thursday, he steered many of the questions into a discussion of health care and the possibility of drawing more pharmaceutical and science-based manufactures to the county.

A New England, native, Demarias graduated from Xavier High School in Middletown, Conn., in 1979. He earned a Biology degree from Johns Hopkins University in 1983 before attending medical school at the University of Connecticut. He moved back to Baltimore for his residency at Johns Hopkins, then worked at the University of Virginia, before landing in Salisbury.

The council and Culver often had a difficult working relationship, which Desmarias addressed.

“We need to act with transparency and cooperation,” he said. I have a record of building consensus as President of the medical staff. I will make sure to involve the community in decisions.”

Acle was the only one of the four yes votes to offer any praise of Desmarias or try to explain their support, saying he would offer a “fresh perspective that we need to move the county forward.”

Three very different interviews

Of the three interviews. Anderton’s was most along the parameters of such exercises. He was able to talk with knowledge about each of the issues raised in the eight scripted questions.

Desmarias seemed to not know about tax differentials — which set different tax rates for municipal and county residents — and said he had not reviewed the county’s strategic plan.

Ennis talked in detail about the county’s Reserve Fund and cited a need for better county performance in receiving state grants.

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.

Still, Ennis said she could work with the council.

“We have to communicate, respect each other’s talents and put politics aside,” Ennis said. “It’s a two-way relationship — we just have to talk.”

Anderton, the only General Assembly Delegate to represent just Wicomico County, addressed each question with a deep knowledge on each issue, ranging from countywide water and sewer to state disparity grants for poorer counties.

A former Delmar Mayor and President of the Maryland Municipal League, which lobbies the state and federal governments on behalf of Maryland’s cities and towns, Anderton was seen by a majority of audience members as having the best interview.

He also addressed the council-executive tension issues.

“We have to be a team, without that we’ll never be as successful as we want to be,” Anderton said.

“I’m ready to go. I’ll do whatever we need to do to get this county going.” he said. “I’m looking forward to being a partner and I’m excited about it.”

Crowd voices displeasure

Because of health restrictions, the audience was limited to about 65 people. Given Anderton’s strong interview, about half of the crowd left before the council returned from closed session to make a final vote.

Many of those who waited around, however, went to the microphone to denounce the council’s decision.

Randy Day, the business head of the region’s largest employer, Perdue Farms, had difficulty hiding his frustration with the decision.

“My job as the CEO of Perdue is to get the best team on the field that I can get — you didn’t do that tonight,” Day said. “You missed that opportunity. I’m sure you have reasons and I respect them but you really missed on that.”

Day added that he was disheartened that none of the council’s candidate questions pertained to the region’s largest industry — agriculture.

“This may sound self-serving and I apologize for that, but agriculture was never mentioned in the conversation. And you passed on an opportunity to get a warrior for agriculture in this capacity. I’m just so disappointed,” Day said.

Chris Eccleston of Delmarva Veteran Builders and a former President of the Salisbury Area Chamber of Commerce, predicted the business community will stand opposed to the council’s selection.

“When you’re in a business and you go through the hiring process, typically, you try to hire the best candidate for the job,” he said. “There was only one person who showed up and put extra effort into the process this evening. It was clear from the public presentation who the best candidate was.

“The County Council, in my opinion, has sent a signal that it has no interest in moving forward. It is an abysmal way you just did this — it’s politics everywhere — and you have no interest in the best way forward for Wicomico County,” Eccleston said. “I’m embarrassed for my county. This is atrocious.”

Some council and audience members wondered aloud whether Desmarias would continue seeing patients while also serving as County Executive. His heart practice was recently absorbed by the Peninsula Regional Health System, which makes him an employee at PRMC.

While the Wicomico executive’s post pays $85,000 annually, his medical salary is almost certainly higher.

At one point, Acle said that previous County Executives had held other jobs. In Wicomico, however, there have only been two — Culver was the owner of a Downtown Salisbury restaurant that was managed by his son; his predecessor, Rick Pollitt, served solely as the executive.

The charter, in Section 402, addresses outside employment this way:

“The County Executive shall devote his full time to the duties of the office.”

Wicomico Republican Central Committee John Palmer — who is also an elected member of the county school board — addressed that issue directly with the council.

“What I’m expecting to see is the new doctor would very quickly relinquish his other jobs and devote his full time to being the County Executive,” Palmer said. “If he is not able to do that, then he should be removed from office.”

Next steps unclear

The council neither announced a swearing-in date or job start date for Desmarias. Under the County Charter, it has until Wednesday, Sept. 9, to permanently name a replacement for Culver.

There was speculation late Thursday that the Council Executive resolution might be reconsidered at the council’s next meeting on Tuesday, Sept. 3. There is recent precedent for such an action — the council just this month reconsidered a failed resolution concerning the purchase in Delmar to expand ball fields.

There was additional speculation that — because the selection was such a surprise and seemed to alarm so many people — that there would be public pressure on council members to change their minds or even ask that Demarias withdraw his candidacy.

Said Councilman Hastings: “We just chose someone out of left field who we barely know to be our County Executive.”

Desmarias will hold the office until the November 2022 election. 

Culver died of liver cancer on July 26, after nearly six years in the post. Wicomico Director of Administration John Psota is serving as Acting County Executive until Desmarias is sworn into the post.

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