Moving to End Standoff, Wicomico Council Taps County Administrator as Acting Exec

The Wicomico County government building in Salisbury. Wicomico County government Facebook photo

Seeking to end a weeks-long standoff that at times bordered on political soap opera, the Wicomico County Council adopted a resolution Friday to keep County Administrator John D. Psota in place as acting county executive ― likely until the 2022 election.

The move came during a 12-minute council session nearly two months after the death of County Executive Robert L. “Bob” Culver (R) from liver cancer on July 26. Under the terms of the county charter, Psota already had been performing the duties of county executive, pending the council’s selection of an appointee to fill the more than two years remaining in Culver’s term.

“…Having requested and received applications to fill the vacancy, and conducted interviews with certain applicants, the council is unable to reach a consensus on the filling of the vacancy,” a resolution adopted by a 5-2 vote of the council read.

The resolution holds open the prospect that a successor to Culver could be appointed before the 2022 election. But Council President Larry W. Dodd (R) later told reporters, “I don’t expect it to happen.”

Del. Carl L. Anderton Jr. (R-Lower Shore), who was present at Friday’s meeting, was one of four individuals to apply for the vacancy in early August, and was initially seen as the frontrunner for the post. But, during an Aug. 20 council session, Anderton came up a vote short of a majority ― attracting the votes of two Democrats and a Republican on the seven-member council. Because Culver was a Republican, the county charter required that the post go to a member of that party.

The remaining council members ― three Republicans and a Democrat ― during the Aug. 20 meeting voted instead for Rene Desmarais, a cardiologist with little political experience. The appointment of Desmarais, along with questions about the process in which he was selected, created intense political blowback ― and Desmarais declined the council’s appointment four days after it was offered.

That prompted the council to reopen the application process, and Anderton applied a second time. He was one of just two applicants to submit his resume by the deadline earlier this week.

As he has in recent weeks, Anderton Friday continued to suggest he will run for job in the 2022 election. “If the desire of this community is to have me run for the seat, that’s what we’ll do,” he said in an interview, while adding that “literally thousands of community members reached out to me.”

But two of Anderton’s council supporters, Republican John T. Cannon and Democrat William R. McCain, made clear they felt it was time to move on. Both voted for the resolution to appointing Psota as acting county executive.

“I think what’s more important than anything at this point in time is that we put this behind us, we get the appointment made…and we move forward,” said Cannon, while also noting that “I will vote yes for Mr. Psota because I think he’s very qualified.”

Anderton’s remaining council supporter, Democrat Joshua A. Hastings, agreed that “as a backup option, [Psota] is about as good an option as we could ever hope for.” But Hastings said he was voting against the resolution because of the council’s “inability” to appoint a new executive as called for by the charter. He pointed to Anderton as having the “very clear support of hundreds of residents and dozens of important community leaders and organizations.”

Declared Hastings: “My ‘no’ vote is about this body’s failure to do what it was charged to do and in the way that the public was broadly left out of the process….The question that the public has repeatedly asked each of us is that of ‘What’s really happening here, is this just politics as usual?’ And to this day, I can’t answer that question.”

As part of a forthcoming review of the Wicomico County charter, Cannon said the county’s process for dealing with executive vacancies needed to be looked at. “This obviously will have to be one of those issues…where we fine-tune this process and we get something that’s more acceptable — not only for the council to have a better way forward, but also for the public’s input and their participation in this process as well,” Cannon said.

Dodd said that a charter review committee “will be forming sometime soon. We have a lot of lot of amendments and issues in the county that need to be gone over, and the charter needs to be changed.”

But in his opening remarks, Dodd sought to answer widespread criticism of what many contended was a lack of public participation and transparency in the recent selection process.

“It is noted under the Wicomico County charter and state law that the council is not required to take any specific action such as asking for applicants or interviewing anyone in order to fill the vacancy,” Dodd said, while pointing out that the council had nonetheless taken both such steps.

“Also, after discussion with the Maryland attorney general’s office regarding the opening meetings act, we understand the council is not required to conduct the selection process in open session meetings that the public may attend or watch” on TV or via webcast, he added.

After the session, Dodd contended that he and three of his colleagues who opposed appointing Anderton as county executive – Republicans Joseph B. Holloway and Nicole Acle and Democrat Ernest F. Davis ― “have nothing personal against Mr. Anderton.” None of the four publicly detailed their reasons in recent weeks for not supporting Anderton for the appointment, and Dodd declined Friday to shed further light on the matter.

“A lot of that was discussed behind closed doors. And we’re looking at it like it’s a personnel matter, so it wouldn’t be fair to [have] that discussion, especially speaking on behalf of the other council members,” he said.

‘Move forward and provide stability’

Psota was not present at Friday’s council session. In a statement issued by his office after the meeting, he said, “While I have not sought the appointment, I do believe that it is in the county’s best interest to now move forward and provide stability, so that we can collectively address the opportunities and challenges in Wicomico County’s future.”

The 57-year old official was named county administrator less than two months before Culver’s death, but spent the previous six years as the city manager of the Wicomico County municipality of Fruitland. Prior to that, he spent 25 years with the Maryland State Police as a trooper and later as an administrator.

While the Wicomico County executive’s current salary of $85,000 is the lowest among the nine county executives in Maryland, Dodd said the council had received a legal opinion that Psota can continue to receive the $120,000 salary he has been paid as county administrator.

Dodd, responding to recent suggestions that the $85,000 executive salary was a hindrance to attracting applicants for the county executive vacancy, said, “I do think the salary needs to be increased.” He also expressed regret that no action was taken when the matter was discussed in recent budget deliberations.

”There wasn’t a consensus on it, but it’s something we seriously need to address, and we should have addressed it more seriously back then,” he said.

Dodd also conceded that a divisive political environment in Wicomico County in recent years ― including frequent battles between Culver and the council ― may have discouraged some applicants.

“We had one candidate who submitted a resume, and then she changed her mind and said she didn’t want to be involved in all the fray that’s going on,” he said, without offering further details. Former Wicomico County Board of Education president Robin Holloway recently acknowledged that she was considering applying for the vacancy. But Holloway did not submit an application by this past week’s deadline.

With Psota absent from Friday’s council meeting, Dodd was asked whether the acting county executive had expressed any interest in running for the job in 2022. “…He hasn’t stated that he has any interest in running in 2022, but who knows? In two years he may change his mind,” Dodd said.

As for his own interest in running for executive, Dodd chuckled and said, “I saw that someone posted that on one of the blogs. I don’t have any interest in it. I’m happy being a county council member and representing constituents that way.”