Wicomico County leaders at odds on a variety of matters

Page 1 of a letter responding to a Freedom of Information Act request from County Executive Bob Culver. The full correspondence can be viewed by clicking the downloads below.

Summer vacations ended with Labor Day and schools officially reopened this week. With a back-to-work atmosphere taking hold, Wicomico County’s governmental command structure remains a bit unsettled back inside the Government Office Building in Downtown Salisbury.

Among the ongoing county matters as the calendar prepares to turn to fall:

•County leaders are considering whether to impose a policy that sets totals on the funds the county should keep in reserves. There are both political and economic considerations to the debate, as spending proponents insist the county is sitting on cash that could be used for good purposes, while budget hawks maintain the fund balances are needed if the economy contracts into recession.

•The county’s legal affairs are being handled by the same law professional the County Council fired, a lawyer the County Executive hired back anyway.

•The Finance Department is being led by a longtime county employee the council refused to confirm, who also recently employed an attorney of her own to lecture the council on an interpretation of the County Charter.

•At a time when the county’s top leaders would typically be preparing for their annual presentation in New York City, an exercise related to their annual borrowing of bond money for capital projects, no such meeting was even planned.

•After weathering a County Council session on Aug. 6 — one that featured a series of challenges, disagreements, a rare voting abstention and a lack of consensus on how to address the County Executive and his reading of the charter — the council held a conflict-free meeting on Aug. 20 that lasted all of 38 minutes.

•County Council members were still scratching their heads over a bizarre Freedom of Information request, filed by the County Executive, who wanted to know the contents of a note passed from a council member to the Council President during that stressful Aug. 6 session.

In late August, several Wicomico officials were in Ocean City, networking at the Maryland Association of Counties summer conference. While the theme for this year’s MACO event at the beach was advertised as “Winds of Change” — an event designed to help municipalities address transformations needed to address citizens’ service needs — the breezes were more than just a bit unsettled back at home. 

Reserve fund 

In a work session Tuesday night, the council discussed whether to set rules for maintaining cash reserves.

Since the Great Recession, which was an unprecedented blow to county finances, officials have sought to keep cash in reserve. County officials have faced some criticism for sitting on that cash, especially when it comes to schools spending, when needs might otherwise be funded.

The measure being discussed would set a goal of an Unassigned Fund Balance of 17 percent — but not less than 12 percent — of the county’s annual operating budget in the General Fund.

Proponents argue that having such a rule would be helpful when borrowing money for capital spending in the bond markets; opponents argue county leaders shouldn’t have their hands tied by new rules.

County Director of Administration said the council needs to carefully consider the economic uncertainties facing the county, including funding requirements related to the Kirwan Commission on education funding and pending hikes in the state’s minimum wage.

Strausburg told the council on Tuesday that 17 percent “might be a little light” and a 20 percent reserves figure might actually be more appropriate.

“When people say we shouldn’t be sitting on these fund balances,” Strausburg said, “they aren’t looking at the perspective of having three months of operating funds  if something catastrophic should occur.”

Wicomico has the largest fund reserves balance, by percentage of revenues, in the state of Maryland.

County Attorney 

In May, council members effectively terminated Paul Wilber’s service after four years in the post, much to the objection of County Executive Bob Culver. Wilber agreed to stay through budget season, announcing Wednesday, July 31, as his final day.

To fill the post, Culver advertised for the post and received bids from three Salisbury law firms — Laws, Insley & Benson, Hearn & Bailey, and Wilber’s own firm, Webb, Cornbrooks, Wilber, Vorhis, Douse, Leslie & Mathers.

A panel led by the county’s Purchasing Director evaluated the bid submissions, and selected Wilber’s firm as the most qualified.

In their Aug. 6 session, the council was obviously displeased that the firm of the lawyer they ousted was being proposed as the replacement.

Councilman Bill McCain, a Democrat, stood alone is supporting keeping Wilber in the post, as his colleagues blanched at the notion. During a series of votes designed to navigate through the controversy, Council President John Cannon voiced the objections which his fellow members seemed to share.

“We are faced with a set of unfortunate circumstances,” Cannon began. “Because of primary concerns and the personnel issues, we can’t really tell the public exactly what the council concerns might be or what we’re thinking.

“There are times we have to make decisions at this table that are in the best interest of the county, even if we can’t explain it to the citizens of the county,” he said.

Cannon also expressed his displeasure with the situation.

“I was somewhat surprised that the (County) Executive would turn in a name for County Attorney with the same name as the attorney we fired. I don’t see the reason for that.”

After considerable discussion — and a vote that ended in a tie because of new Councilwoman Nicole Acle’s last-second abstention — the council was forced to extend Wilber’s termination date by 60 days.

Wilber, therefore, will continue in the attorney’s post, presumably setting the stage for another clash in late September.

Wicomico has essentially operated without a Department of Law since Culver took office in 2014. After the County Executive form of government went into effect in 2006, charter changes called for a separate county department to handle legal proceedings.

Culver has long chosen to pay the County Attorney on a per-hour basis, without any publicly stated council objection. Wilber’s firm charges the county $170 per hour.

The county budgeted $314,000 for the Law Department this year; the total law expenditure was $347,000 in fiscal 2015.

The County Attorney holds a unique status within the County Charter, and “serves at the pleasure of the Executive and council.” The attorney can be removed by the Executive, with the council’s majority approval, or by the council itself, with a three-fourths vote.

Paul Wilber was dismissed in May on a 6-1 vote. No one has ever publicly cited any reason for dismissing Wilber.

In a letter released just before the May ouster vote, Wilber revealed that “certain members of the council requested that I resign from the office of County Attorney,” but said he would remain until a successor could be appointed.

Now that will be debated again later this month. 

Bond market 

After the County Council terminated Wilber and then declined to confirm his Finance Director, Culver said he didn’t have sufficient staffing in place to make the annual trip to New York City to acquire capital spending dollars.

To borrow money for construction projects each year, the County Executive, Director of Administration and Finance Director make presentations in New York to the three main credit-rating agencies, with the assistance of a specially hired expert bond counsel. The County Attorney is also heavily involved in the accompanying paperwork.

In addition to firing Wilber, the council in June unanimously determined that Michele Ennis should not serve as Wicomico’s new Finance Director. Culver never formally placed her name before the body for consideration, but did publicly announce her appointment early in the summer.

About $9 million in borrowing is at stake, with $7 million needed to begin construction of a new Beaver Run Elementary School and $2 million to complete the West Side Collector Road.

Beaver Run is the school board’s top construction priority and is in dire need of replacement.

The collector road, a project which Culver shelved after winning election in 2014, has been given a rebirth because its construction could create an infrastructure that would help alleviate flooding problems that have plagued western Wicomico homeowners.

As an interim measure, Strausburg has hinted he will seek local borrowing sources, possibly from community banks. He declined comment this week. 

Finance Department 

If one were to use the county’s website as a guide, Wicomico currently has no Finance Director. 

While some department heads are listed on the appropriate department web pages, there is no leadership contact information for Finance.

Culver has said Michele Ennis, previously the county’s Human Resources Director, is acting in the Finance Director’s role.

Though he announced her appointment in a news release, Culver has never placed her name before the council for confirmation. 

The executive has declared that assorted council-promoted and voter-affirmed charter amendments have wiped away the council’s review powers on top executive appointments.

Still, the charter makes clear the executive must submit department head reappointments within six months of an election, and await council approval. Culver has declined, arguing that serves to politicize their jobs.

In May, after Culver failed to provide a list of reappointments, the council made the unprecedented move of taking it upon itself and bringing each department head’s name up for a vote.

All were reappointed, except for Wilber (who was terminated under a separate chapter in the charter) and Ennis (who had stepped away from her Human Resources role and was serving as Acting Finance Director).

Ennis was appointed Human Resources Director by Culver’s predecessor Rick Pollitt, but was selected by Culver to serve as Acting Finance Director when county officials began drafting the 2020 fiscal budget last winter.

Without any public discussion, the council said no to her continuance in the post.

Regardless, Ennis has continued as Finance Director at Culver’s direction. 

Executive’s FOIA 

A strange example of mistrust in the upper ranks was revealed last month in a Freedom of Information Act request that Culver filed with the County Council.

The County Executive wanted to know what was written on a note that Council Vice President Larry Dodd passed to Council President Cannon during the contentious Aug. 6 meeting.

Replying on behalf of the council, Council Administrator Laura Hurley explained that nothing in the law required the contents of the note to be made public.

But then, she wrote — if Culver really must know — she was the actual author of the note.

“Even though we are not required to provide information regarding the handwritten notes, I want you to know that I have discussed this matter with the Council President and Councilman Dodd,” Hurley wrote.

“The Council President said the only notes that he is aware of is: (1) a handwritten note informing him that PAC 14 needed to change the tape.

“This note originated from me and was passed over to the Council President.”

PAC 14, the community’s Public, Educational and Governmental Access channels, broadcasts council sessions live, but also records them for Internet viewing via YouTube. A tape usually has to be replaced at about the two-hour mark or sooner.

Hurley continued: “(2) his handwritten note to Councilman Larry Dodd asking about someone in the audience, to which he responded orally.

“In speaking with Councilman Dodd, he confirmed that this was the only handwritten note passed to Council President John Cannon during the Aug. 6, 2019, County Council meeting.”

Passing notes in either City Council or County Council meetings is a routine occurrence between elected officials and staff members; officials are even known to leave their seats and whisper into a colleague’s ear.

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

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