Travails of Wicomico’s Search for New Exec May Offer Lessons for Other Charter Counties

Del. Carl Anderton (right) has reapplied to become Wicomico County executive, but may be stymied again when the County Council meets. Photo by Danielle E. Gaines

First, the putative frontrunner for appointment as Wicomico County’s next executive, Del. Carl L. Anderton Jr. (R), came up a vote short in the County Council. Then, the surprise selection for the post, cardiologist Rene Desmarais, declined the appointment four days later amid blowback.

Finally, the council reopened the search process and received just two applications this week – including a second bid by Anderton in the face of continued resistance from the council majority.

Such has been the bumpy saga of Wicomico’s effort to fill the vacancy left by the July 26 death of County Executive Robert L. “Bob” Culver (R).

The council is scheduled to try again Friday afternoon. There are signs it may seek to solve this political headache by designating the county’s administrator, John Psota, as acting county executive pending the 2022 election.

Wicomico’s recent travails raise a broader question: What are the lessons or takeaways for other counties in the state with the county executive form of charter government? It’s a situation that already has confronted two other charter counties – Anne Arundel and Baltimore – who have had to fill vacant executive posts during the past decade.

Including Wicomico, there are nine Maryland counties with elected executives. The charters of the two largest, Montgomery and Prince George’s, grants the County Council only a limited role if the executive post becomes vacant.

In Montgomery, if it happens in the first three years of the executive’s term, a special election is called; only in the final year is the council empowered to fill the job through appointment. In Prince George’s, a special election is held if the post becomes vacant in the first two years. After that, the council has just two weeks to fill any vacancy that might occur; in the absence of a consensus, the County Council chair becomes the executive.

But Anne Arundel and Harford have charter provisions similar to Wicomico’s: If the vacancy occurs in the first year (slightly longer in the case of Harford), it is filled via special election. Otherwise, it’s up to the council. For Baltimore, Cecil, Frederick and Howard counties, it’s strictly up to the council – regardless of whether it’s one month or 47 months into the four-year term.

In all of these counties, the only restriction is that the appointee must be of the same political party as the prior executive. (In Cecil and Frederick, the central committee of the applicable political party also is given a role in the appointment.)

A charter amendment on the ballot in Frederick in November would modify that county’s process for filling an executive opening, including requiring a special election be held if a vacancy occurs in the first year of the term and, thereafter, designating the chief administrative officer as executive if the council fails to fill make an appointment within 45 days.

When the Baltimore County Council faced the need to name a new executive in the late spring of 2018 following Kevin B. Kamenetz’s death from cardiac arrest, it was less than seven months from the end of his second term – and the race to succeed him was underway in earnest. Kamenetz’s long-time chief of staff, Donald I. Mohler, was named executive in the interim.

The political situation in Anne Arundel County in early 2013 – nearly two years out from Election Day – was considerably more complex, and not without similarities to the recent episode in Wicomico County, where Culver died little more than a year and a half into his second term.

To be sure, a major difference between Anne Arundel and Wicomico was that, in the former, the vacancy occurred due to disgrace rather than death: The incumbent, Republican John R. Leopold, was found guilty of two counts of misconduct in office, and resigned. It may have helped to galvanize a process for reaching a consensus absent so far from Wicomico’s struggles to name a new executive.

Former Anne Arundel County executive Laura Neuman (R)

“There was a ton of news coverage, and one of the concerns that I had was restoring public trust in government,” then-Anne Arundel County councilmember Christopher J. Trumbauer (D) said in a phone interview. Trumbauer ultimately voted for Laura A. Neuman, then the economic development chief for Howard County “because she did present herself as a change agent. That’s certainly a different situation than what’s going on in Wicomico County, but was relevant to us at the time.”

At the same time, there are some striking parallels between the political maneuvering in the Anne Arundel County of 2013 and Wicomico County today:

**Both instances involved seven-member county councils with 4-3 Republican majorities, in which surprise winners emerged over the early frontrunners in the appointment process.

**In Anne Arundel, Trumbauer was among three Democrats to join one Republican in voting for Neuman, a Republican. She became county executive by a one-vote margin over the perceived frontrunner, then-Del. Steven R. Schuh. In Wicomico, three Republicans and one Democrats opted for Desmarais, giving him a narrow win over the apparent frontrunner, Anderton, on Aug. 20 before Desmarais declined the appointment days later.

**In 2014, Schuh successfully challenged Neuman in the Republican primary and went on to be elected county executive, much as Anderton has suggested he will take the matter to the ballot box in 2022 if he is not appointed to the vacancy in Wicomico.

**In both Anne Arundel and Wicomico, sitting council members eyed the county executive appointment, but were derailed after legal research raised potential conflict-of-interest and ethical concerns.

In the Anne Arundel case, then-Republican Councilmember Jerry Walker was interested in the vacancy, but opted not to apply in the face of advice from the county’s Office of Law. Last month, Wicomico County Councilman Joseph B. Holloway was among the initial applicants for the county executive vacancy in the first round, but withdrew following legal research by County Attorney Paul D. Wilber and the council’s attorney, Robert B. Taylor.

Wilber and Taylor cited a precedent from an April 1960 case before the Maryland Court of Appeals that emerged from Anne Arundel County prior to the adoption of charter government. The case, Hetrich vs. County Commissioners of Anne Arundel County, upheld a lower court finding that the president of the board of commissioners was ineligible to be appointed acting county manager.

“…The appointing board cannot absolve itself of ulterior motives if it appoints one of its own, whether or not his vote was necessary to the appointment, since the opportunity improperly to influence the other members of the board is there,” the Court of Appeals ruling reads. “The necessity that public bodies be free from personal influence in making appointments to office cannot be secured when the appointee has the real opportunity his associations and relations afford to place his colleagues under obligations they may feel require repayment.”

Wilber and Taylor also cited a December 2014 opinion from then-Maryland attorney general Douglas F. Gansler (D), in which Gansler said an effort by the Frederick County Board of Commissioners – in its final days of existence – to appoint then-Board President Blaine R. Young (R) to the county planning board was not valid. The opinion had been requested by Frederick County Executive Jan H. Gardner (D), who had defeated Young for that newly created post a month earlier.

If there is a major difference between the 2013 process in Anne Arundel and the current Wicomico vacancy, it is perhaps the gap in the number of interested applicants. Sixteen applicants were interviewed by the council for the Anne Arundel opening, including then-county chief administrative officer John R. Hammond, former Annapolis Alderman David H. Cordle and former Maryland first lady Kendel Ehrlich, in addition to Neuman, Schuh and others.

With Holloway’s withdrawal, there were just four applicants last month in Wicomico, including Anderton and Desmarais. Besides Anderton, the only other application received Monday was from the 15-year county government employee Lawrence Pate Matthews, the county’s general services supervisor and a code enforcement officer prior to that.

County Councilman Joshua A. Hastings (D) contended that the dearth of resumes demonstrates the need for the Wicomico executive’s annual salary of $85,000 to be raised.

The Wicomico executive is the lowest paid among the nine charter counties, according to a fiscal year 2019 survey by the Maryland Association of Counties. The comparable figures are $95,000 for Frederick County and $98,000 for Cecil County. No other county executive earns less than $137,500 (Harford), with four – Baltimore, Howard, Montgomery and Prince George’s – at $175,000 or more. The Prince George’s executive was highest, $213,500.

Wicomico County Councilman Joshua A. Hastings (D)

“We have a charter review committee every couple of years, and there’s been recommendations in the past that the county executive pay be lifted to something that is reflective more of other counties, and…the council has turned it down in the past,” Hastings said in a phone interview. “This really shows that they need to look at that again.”

He added: “There are a lot of folks in the county – some who are retired or who are executive material – but they didn’t put their names in. You think that’s either happening 1) because of the compensation or 2) because of the politics in that kind of a situation.”

Hastings’ latter comment points to a factor that may have played as large if not larger role in discouraging applications in the Wicomico process: the county’s discordant political environment.

Despite both executive and council being in Republican control since 2014, the strong-willed Culver frequently battled with the council – where there also have been sharp divisions, as highlighted by the recent executive appointment process. Several sources attribute part of the problem to a county charter in which lines of executive and legislative authority are sometimes blurred.

Following the 2013 appointment process, Trumbauer – now policy and communications director for Anne Arundel County Executive Steuart L. Pittman Jr. (D) – sought to turn such decisions over to the voters in the future.

“It puts a lot of pressure on the legislative body to pick somebody, and the dynamics of having seven voters is much different than having a couple of hundred thousand voters,” said Trumbauer. “And so I worked on legislation to try to enable mail-in only elections for special elections – to make sure there was an easy way to do that.” But an effort by Trumbauer and now-Sen. Pamela G. Beidle (D-Anne Arundel) to craft a local bill along this line died in the county delegation.

“Now, in the pandemic, we just had a mail-in only primary that seemed to work pretty well,” said Trumbauer. “But at the time there was a lot of pushback on it.”

Absent a move to greater reliance on special elections when vacancies occur, “the other improvement or enhancement that I would have liked was to have a greater public participation process,” Trumbauer said in reflecting on his 2013 experience.

While the candidates came before the council to make their cases, “there wasn’t really time or a mechanism like you have during a real campaign, for people to outline their agendas, and for you get a sense of how they’re going to operate and what kind of team they might put together,” Trumbauer said. “So you’re casting your ballot based on the CliffsNotes version of this candidate.”

The lack of a public participation element also has dogged the current Wicomico process, with some quietly asking why the council – knowing Culver’s cancer was terminal and that they would be facing a decision on a successor – did not plan more to set up a way for the public to be involved.

“Put simply, we believe it was flawed, and it did not serve the public well,” Greater Salisbury Committee CEO Mike Dunn said of the process at a gathering last month, days after the first effort to appoint a new county executive had ended amid controversy.