Wicomico executive, council tensions appear to ease

When the County Council met in a work session Tuesday, the past two weeks of derision between the body and the County Executive’s Office was undoubtedly on everyone’s mind.

Within about 90 minutes, however, the combatants appeared to be ignoring their differences and the county government was conducting business as usual.

As one unnamed council member admitted later in the day: “It was like last week never happened.”

Tuesday was the first time representatives of the two branches had been seated at the same table in public since the war of words commenced.

Their official encounter came six days after a letter battle had been waged between the parties.

On Feb. 11, County Executive Bob Culver sent a letter to Council President John Cannon, blasting the legislative leader for criticism Cannon lobbed at the executive’s office when senior administrative staff members no-showed a Feb. 3 work session.

Culver insisted their attendance was not warranted, and that the council had been told so.

Cannon and two council colleagues had publicly vented their frustrations that night, setting off the executive and triggering a war at the top of Wicomico’s power chain.

Culver, in his original letter, even went so far as to call on Cannon to step aside as the council’s leader.

In rebuttal, the council, drafting a letter that had majority support but was not specifically signed, attempted Feb. 13 to explain and somewhat soften the situation — but offered nothing close to an apology or back-tracking.

“It is disappointing that the County Executive has released a letter to the media making unfounded and personal charges against the County Council President and, by extension, the County Council,” the letter began.

“The County Council will continue to address these and other issues, as that is what the public expects. There will be no change in County Council leadership,” the letter concluded just six paragraphs later.

In between, the letter took Culver to task:

•“The County Executive has no role to play in the internal workings of the County Council — the council is a separate branch of government that does not answer to the executive. To attempt to meddle in the internal governance of the council shows a stunning ignorance of how county government works and a profound disrespect for the charter that Wicomico County voters have approved.”

•“Wicomico County deserves elected officials who will focus on the public good, not private disagreements.”

•“The executive may wish to focus public attention on personal issues he has with individual council members, but it is our job to work for the betterment of Wicomico County.”

Culver had also launched a broadside in his letter: “Over the last 30 plus years I have been before County Council with my businesses, and over the last eight years as a council person or executive, I have never been more embarrassed for Wicomico County as I was for the council’s behaviors last week,” Culver wrote.

Those behaviors included Cannon’s declaring the relationship between the two branches to have grown “dysfunctional” — a word that always gets attention.

“I think the public needs to know we have a serious problem here with the dysfunctional set of circumstances whereby we have quite a few, I think, very significant issues,” he began in his Feb. 3 comments.

“We have invited the executive branch to discuss with us tonight the Capital Improvement Plan, which is one of the biggest bills we’re involved with as far as citizens funding. It’s very important that it be vetted properly with the executive branch and the legislative branch.”

Cannon had also wondered aloud if Cannon’s declining to place a confirmation vote for and acting county department head was part of the issue.

“To me it’s just as if they’re stamping their feet and thumping their chest that ‘we’re not going to show up for … any event you want to do today, all simply because there was a request to put an item on the agenda tonight that we did not have time to include,” he said.

Culver waited nearly a week to respond and his own anger — as viewed through his writing — remained sizzling. After listing various internal problems he said he experienced with Cannon, Culver closed his letter with a stinging solution.

“Based on the actions above, I have little confidence that these situations will change under your leadership,” Culver wrote. “I request that you step down as Council President and allow another member to step into your role to better accomplish the business and goals of the Wicomico County citizens. If you find this a harsh request, then maybe we can refer this matter to the Ethics Commission for resolution.”

As head of the executive branch, Culver holds the reins of county government. Cannon, as leader of the legislative branch, heads a group of six other council members who maintain checks and balances on the driver.

Council members in some circumstances can grab at those reins, but the branches generally have to agree and support one another.

Culver joins discussion

Unlike the Feb. 3 session, on Tuesday county Director of Administration Wayne Strausburg and his deputy, Weston Young, appeared as scheduled to discuss the county’s pending Capital Improvement Plan.

Over a span of about 30 minutes, the conversation bounced to other issues, including a discussion about road repairs, roadside tree removal and overgrown ditches.

When talk of possibly increasing salaries in the Public Works Department to attract new hires began — the department has 10 unfilled and open positions — Culver jumped from his seat in the audience and joined Strausburg and Young facing the councilmen on the dais.

Culver asserted that the staffing shortages were more attributable to applicants’ inability to pass drug screening, then it was to wages.

The County Executive remained at the table for several minutes, openly discussing several issues. The mood was amiable and productive — business as usual.

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

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