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Wicomico exec sues county council in standoff over administration appointments

The Wicomico County government building in Salisbury. Google Street View image.

A nasty fight over personnel matters between Wicomico County Executive Julie Giordano (R) and the seven-member county council is headed to court.

Officially, it’s a dispute over Giordano’s desire to fill three high-ranking positions over the council’s objection. But it’s also the latest twist in an ongoing struggle between the executive and legislative branches in the Eastern Shore county, as Wicomico continues to settle in to its relatively new form of charter government.

Last week, Giordano, a political newcomer who was elected county executive in November, announced that she was suing the county council.

“The council has left me no choice,” Giordano said during a televised news conference.

Giordano in recent months has tried to hire Matthew Leitzel as deputy county administrator and Heather Lankford as deputy public works director, and she has been seeking to fill the vacant public works director position for several months. But the county council never approved these appointments; meeting with the nominees in a closed session, councilmembers raised objections to their appointments. But they never took a formal up-or-down vote on the nominations. Giordano hired Leitzel and Lankford anyway.

Wicomico County Executive Julie Giordano (R) on a Republican women’s Zoom call in 2022. Screenshot.

Leitzel moved to the Eastern Shore after retiring as a captain in the York City Police Department in Pennsylvania. Lankford, a civil engineer who worked for the City of Salisbury for four years and for private industry before that, has been the acting county public works director for several months.

Last week, the council voted to zero out funding for the three positions. That’s when Giordano decided to sue.

County Council President John Cannon (R) declined to say why he and his colleagues found Lankford and Leitzel inadequate, “in fairness to the nominees.”

“It’s not as if the council is trying to be difficult or obstruct,” he said.

The county attorney, Paul Wilber, represents both the executive and the council. So it isn’t clear who is going to represent each side in the pending lawsuit.

Notably, Wicomico voters narrowly approved a charter amendment last fall giving the executive full control over the county attorney’s office; previously, it had been shared by the executive and the council.

Both sides seem to be mired in their own interpretations of the county charter and the council’s ability to advise and consent on the executive’s appointments. Giordano was visibly irritated during a news conference last week announcing her lawsuit.

“This is just another vindictive measure by the county council to tie the hands of the executive branch,” she said.

Cannon, who has served on the council since charter government was established in Wicomico in 2006, called Giordano’s lawsuit “political theater” and “a waste of taxpayer money.”

“From the council’s perspective, they really don’t see any basis for the claims,” he said in an interview Monday.

Part of the dispute is over whether a county executive’s appointees can automatically assume their positions if there has been no action by the council within 45 days of their nomination. Giordano says the answer is yes; councilmembers say that because they only heard from the nominees in executive session they effectively never received proper notification of Giordano’s intentions to nominate them, so they never formally considered the candidates; Giordano said there is no way for the executive to submit items for council meetings since the council controls the agenda.

But Cannon called that argument “disingenuous,” because the council has considered and confirmed more than 30 of Giordano’s nominees since their terms began in December. He expressed disappointment that Wilber, the county attorney, would endorse her interpretation of the county charter.

The council vote to strip funding from the three positions last week was 6-1, with only Councilmember James Winn (R), a fellow conservative who was elected for the first time with Giordano last year, siding with the county executive.

Giordano said the council’s unwillingness to fill “these three vital positions” is an abuse of power and hurts the county government’s ability to recruit and retain workers. She said the council has been trying to undermine her authority since she took office.

“Defunding these positions is a form of termination, which the council council has no ability or right to do so, and this is a direct violation of the county charter,” Giordano said.

Cannon said it’s up to Giordano to find new nominees for the positions — or go through the formal nominating process for Leitzel and Lankford, even though they would probably not be confirmed.

A ‘cerebral dispute’?

There have been institutional clashes and evident dysfunction throughout Wicomico’s relatively short history as a charter county. The first executive, Rick Pollitt (D), was defeated after two terms by Bob Culver, a long time Republican councilmember who also clashed with the council on personnel matters after he became executive.

When Culver died in 2020, there was a protracted battle to replace him. It seemed as if state Del. Carl Anderton (R) was poised to win the council appointment to replace Culver, but that stalled on more than one occasion, as some conservatives grumbled that Anderton had become too close to Democrats in the legislature, where Republicans are deep in the minority. Eventually, the county’s administrative officer, John Psota, was installed as interim county executive and served in both positions simultaneously, a move that effectively empowered the council further.

Beyond the institutional tension, inevitable political tension also exists in county politics. Giordano was a teacher and parents’ rights activist, aligned with 2022 Republican gubernatorial nominee Dan Cox and the Trump wing of the GOP in last year’s Republican primary, defeating Psota 52% to 48%, a margin of about 280 votes. Democrats nominated then-Councilmember Ernest Davis for county executive, who was well-known and well-connected in local politics, but lacked Giordano’s dynamism and political organization. He lost by 8 points in a three-way general election.

Wicomico is still a red county, but there are distinct pockets of Democratic strength, and as the county’s biggest municipality, Salisbury, continues to grow as a center of of academics, business innovation, and culture, Democrats could potentially make further inroads. President Biden lost the county by less than 2 points in 2020. Some Democratic strategists remain convinced that if the party had invested more time and money into helping Davis last year, they could have captured the executive seat, because certain moderate voters and Main Street Republicans may have had some concerns about Giordano’s full-throated populist conservatism (the runner-up to Winn in last year’s council-at-large election was a Democrat who left the GOP in protest after the Jan. 6 insurrection at the U.S. Capitol).

Still, the old political axiom that there is no Republican or Democratic way of picking up the garbage, applies here. Giordano has mostly focused on the basics of governing, and at age 41, she is one of the few potential rising stars on a thin statewide Republican bench. Still, she was unable to avoid controversy earlier this year, when she attempted to hire Cox as a special counsel for personnel matters at $350 an hour. That recommendation was rejected on a 5-1 council vote. The council at the same time also nixed her attempts to hire a public information officer and a legislative aide.

Democrats hold two of seven council seats, though the factions do not always line up neatly along partisan lines on this council. Giordano won plaudits before her election from all sides last fall when she signaled her intent to appoint Bunky Luffman, a veteran government technocrat who held several positions in the Hogan administration, as her chief administrative officer.

In an interview with a Salisbury public access TV station last month, Luffman described the dispute between Giordano and the council as a family feud that may require an elder — like a judge — to resolve the differences.

“This is a cerebral dispute,” he said. “This is a ‘we disagree on language.'”

But that was before Giordano decided to sue the council and used far more provocative language during her news conference last week.

“This is really just step one of a long, frustrating process,” she said.


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Wicomico exec sues county council in standoff over administration appointments