Less than four days after his surprise appointment as the next Wicomico County executive stirred both consternation and controversy, Dr. Rene Desmarais – a cardiologist with little prior political experience – announced Monday that he had decided to decline the post.
In a letter to the Wicomico County Council – which appointed him last Thursday evening on a 4-3 vote – as well as to “the people of Wicomico County,” Desmarais said he had reached a “difficult decision…after a weekend of self-reflection and consultation with a number of his close personal and professional associates.”
Desmarais was one of four original applicants to fill the vacancy left by the July 26 death of the previous county executive, Robert L. “Bob” Culver Jr., from liver cancer. Culver, a Republican first elected in 2014, was in the middle of his second term running the largest county on the Eastern Shore.
“I believe the greatest benefit I can provide to my patients and to my friends in Wicomico County is to continue practicing medicine,” Desmarais said in his letter declining the appointment. “I am humbled by the selection and grateful for the opportunity; however, my true calling remains my patients and the well-being of our community through my cardiology practice and being a full-time member of the Peninsula Regional Health System team.”
A former president of the medical staff of Salisbury-based Peninsula Regional Medical Center, Desmarais would have been required under the Wicomico County charter to devote full-time to the county executive post – which, at a salary of $85,000 annually, is the lowest paid among the elected executives in the nine Maryland counties with that form of charter government.
Reached by phone Monday evening, Desmarais declined further comment. While he has been active in the Maryland State Medical Society (MedChi) as a trustee, his only experience in the broader political sphere was an unsuccessful run for the Maryland General Assembly in 2014.
Desmarais was appointed executive during a special meeting of the Wicomico County Council last Thursday after Del. Carl L. Anderton Jr. – who had been seen as the early frontrunner for the post – fell just short of a majority of the seven-member body. Because Culver was a Republican, the council is required under the county charter to choose another member of the GOP to succeed him.
While Anderton garnered the support of three members of the council – two Democrats and a Republican – the remaining four council members, three Republicans and a Democrat, opposed his appointment. Those four council members then voted for a resolution to appoint Desmarais.
The council’s decision sparked a series of critical responses from members of the audience during the Thursday meeting’s public comment period – including from the CEO of Perdue Farms, the county’s leading employer – unhappy with Anderton being passed over.
Fueling the crowd’s anger was that three of the four council members who voted not to give the job to Anderton – including President Larry W. Dodd (R), Joseph B. Holloway (R) and Ernest F. Davis (D) — offered no public explanation for their votes. The other supporter of Desmarais’ candidacy, Nicole Acle (R) said little more than that he would bring a “fresh perspective” to the county.
The unhappiness over the appointment process continued Monday morning at an open air forum on the steps of the Government Office Building in Salisbury sponsored by two area business organizations: the Greater Salisbury Committee and the Salisbury Area Chamber of Commerce. The session also included groups ranging from the Fraternal Order of Police to the NAACP to the Wicomico County Republican Central Committee, according to a story posted on the website of the Salisbury Independent.
“We are here today because it has become obvious in the four days since the council made its decision — as shockwaves have rattled the public — that two questions are looming rather large over the selection process. Why? And, what in the world just happened?” Greater Salisbury Committee CEO Mike Dunn was quoted as saying. Referring to the process followed by the council to select a new county executive, Dunn added: “Put simply, we believe it was flawed, and it did not serve the public well.”
Anderton, a former mayor of the town of Delmar and former president of the Maryland Municipal League, was elected to the House of Delegates in 2014 in a major upset – defeating then-Del. Norman H. Conway (D), who was chairman of the House Appropriations Committee at the time. But Anderton has built a reputation for being willing to reach across the political aisle both in Annapolis and at home – which multiple sources said was responsible for resistance to him among some segments of the local GOP.
His council supporters – Democrats Joshua A. Hastings and William R. McCain and Republican John T. Cannon – cited Anderton’s experience in public office, along with his grasp of issues while being interviewed by the council Thursday, as making him the most qualified candidate for executive.
In a phone interview Monday evening, Hastings said: “I literally received more than 100 calls, texts and emails within the 48 hours after the [Thursday] vote from individuals who basically said, ‘Enough is enough with politics in Wicomico.’”
Added Hastings: “…They wanted the process to be fair, and they wanted more middle of the road candidates who reach across the aisle…I was very proud of the Wicomico County community.”
With Desmarais out, it was not immediately clear where the process of finding a new Wicomico County executive stands. The County Council indicated late Monday that it “will issue a press release on this matter in the near future.”
In the absence of an appointed executive — who would be eligible to run for a full term in the 2022 election – Director of Administration John D. Psota is serving as the acting county executive.
Under the county charter, the council has 45 days to appoint a new county executive once a vacancy occurs in that office. That currently puts the deadline at Wednesday, Sept. 9, in the wake of Culver’s death in late July.
However, the attorneys for the executive and legislative branches are said to be looking into whether Desmarais’ appointment and subsequent withdrawal restarts the clock – potentially pushing back the deadline for making an appointment into the first week of October. This issue may be discussed further when the council holds its next scheduled meeting in a week, on Tuesday, Sept. 1.
Anderton and Desmarais were part of an initial field of applicants for the executive post that also included Holloway and former county finance director Michele C. Ennis. But Holloway – regarded as one of the council’s most conservative members – withdrew his candidacy a week ago, after the county’s legal staff raised questions about whether members of the council could support one of their colleagues for executive without running afoul of ethics and conflict-of-interests statutes.
That left Anderton, Desmarais and Ennis as the three candidates who were publicly interviewed by the council last Thursday prior to the vote to select Desmarais. Ennis, who last year was caught in a battle between Culver and the council over who had power of appointment over the finance director’s job, was seen from the start as having little chance of getting the county executive appointment.
The latest turn of events appears to leave Anderton as the only viable aspirant from among the original four applicants. But the council also retains the option to consider other potential candidates who did not initially offer themselves up for the post.