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Government & Politics

Wicomico government standoff expands amid public calls for council members to resign

Wicomico County Executive Julie Giordano (R) speaks at a press briefing on Aug. 2, 2023, explaining her decision to sue the County Council over a disagreement about the continued employment of two county employees. Screenshot.

Tempers flared Tuesday as the Wicomico County Council held its first public meeting since being sued by County Executive Julie Giordano (R) earlier this month for blocking two of her high-profile nominations and stripping funding for three positions in her administration.

Some angry members of the public called for members of the council to resign — and one referred to council members as “an old boys’ club” seeking to block the priorities of the new county executive out of spite.

That isn’t too far from Giordano’s own interpretation of events.

“They continue to prove they don’t listen to citizens,” she said in an interview Tuesday.

The council and Giordano have been at a stalemate over some of her key hires for several months.

Giordano has hired 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. The county council never approved these appointments — but they never rejected them in a public session, either, merely agreeing in a private meeting that they did not favor the hires. Giordano brought Leitzel and Lankford on board anyway.

In early August, the council voted to zero out funding for the three positions, and Giordano responded by filing suit in Wicomico County Circuit Court, saying she and the council disagreed on aspects of the council’s advise and consent duties as laid out in the county charter.

Before any court case can even proceed, Giordano and the council must figure out who can represent them in the legal battle. The county attorney, Paul Wilber, represents both branches of government as a general rule and has told county officials he feels it would be a conflict of interest to represent the executive in any litigation. John Cannon (R), president of the county council, said he’s comfortable with Wilber representing Giordano because she’s relying on his interpretation of the county charter to advance her arguments.

Giordano has sought instead to hire an outside counsel, Bill Hudson of Ocean City, to represent her in this case. But she needs council approval to do so, and the council has thus far refused to act. If the council does not take action at its next meeting, scheduled for Sept. 5, the dispute is likely to land in court; council members were issued subpoenas in anticipation of a court case on Tuesday.

Meanwhile, a council vote Tuesday to hire a temporary council attorney was met with ire from certain members of the public, who interpreted that move as hiring a counsel for the upcoming legal battle with Giordano. But that’s not the case, Cannon insisted. He said the council hired Bob Benson to serve temporarily — likely for four or five months — because its regular attorney, Andy C. Mitchell Jr., is on medical leave.

Asked in an interview Tuesday whether Benson would be able to represent the council in any possible litigation against the county executive, Cannon replied, “I think he has the wherewithal to handle it.”

Giordano said she viewed the hiring with a degree of skepticism.

“It’s probably coincidental,” she said, “but it’s hard not to see some conspiracy theories here.” She said that Mitchell is continuing to work as the town government attorney in Fruitland despite his leave from the Wicomico council post for health reasons.

Half a dozen residents appeared before the council Tuesday to express their dissatisfaction over the stalemate between Giordano and the council, and some accused council members of being recalcitrant.

“Do you realize how stupid and shady this actually sounds?” one resident, Wayne Cooper, said. That brought a rebuke from Cannon, who urged Cooper to maintain a sense of decorum.

“I feel like no matter what the case may be, you can agree to disagree respectfully,” he said. “I think that’s required.”

Cooper asked whether Cannon was trying to deny his First Amendment rights.

“You are the captain of this sinking ship,” Cooper told Cannon. “I feel your leadership is no longer needed, sir.”

One woman called Councilmember Shane T. Baker (R), who was an ally of Giordano’s during the 2022 election but has largely sided with his council colleagues during these personnel disputes, “a very big disappointment,” and said he was “almost like a puppet” to the council majority (Baker later said he votes his conscience and the way he thinks his constituents want him to).

Pointing to six of the seven council members, the woman said that if Giordano fails as county executive, “it’s yours, yours, yours, yours, yours and yours fault.”

But others defended the council, including a member of the Wicomico County Democratic Club, a development that annoyed Giordano, since the council has a 5-2 Republican majority.

Another speaker, an art teacher in the Wicomico County public schools named Maria Cook, appealed for greater harmony, but made it clear she’s rooting for Giordano, who was a teacher before being elected county executive.

“I know you’re all good people,” Cook said. “I just want to see you all working together. I support our county executive, Julie Giordano. She has great ideas and I want to see you working with her.”

Following the public comments, several members of the council spoke and asserted they are operating in good faith and committed to working together, despite any differences.

“These people are elected officials,” Cannon said. “You have to consider what it takes to be elected officials. You have to be out there in the community, all the time. These people are not puppets.”

But Giordano said she continues to find the situation “frustrating and ridiculous,” and doesn’t understand why the council won’t agree to a speedy court date to resolve their differences. She said she might be willing to act as counsel pro se in the case if necessary.

“If they think they are so right in their interpretations,” Giordano said, “why don’t we just go across the street [to the courthouse] and get a ruling?”


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Wicomico government standoff expands amid public calls for council members to resign