A potential power grab?

In 2004, Wicomico County voters adopted a system of government that would be led by a county executive, scrapping the former system where County Council had both legislative and executive powers. One reaction from this: all four of the incumbent Democratic members of County Council opted not to run for re-election in 2006; however, the first County Executive elected was Democrat Rick Pollitt.

In 2014, we had the first transfer of power between parties as GOP standard-bearer Bob Culver ousted Pollitt, who was running for a third term. At the same time, County Council maintained the 6-1 GOP edge it had received in 2010 – that was an increase from the 4-3 control they won in 2006 with only two members from the previous Council surviving the election.

So you can perhaps chalk it up to management style, or maybe the turnover on County Council over the last eight years has placed a crop of people on there who long for the old system, but Wicomico County voters are facing a bewildering array of issues on their ballot. So let’s start with the no-brainers.

Question 1 is a statewide issue that compels the Governor to appoint a new Comptroller or Attorney General from the same party as the one most recently elected and provides for a special election in a Presidential year if the vacancy occurs soon enough.

You’ll notice that this was never a problem until a Republican was elected to the governor’s chair. In fact, the last time the state had a Republican AG was in the term of Republican Governor Theodore McKeldin (1951-1959), who appointed Edward Rollins to the post to finish out the term of Hall Hammond, a Democrat elected in 1950 and promoted to the state Court of Appeals. As for Comptroller, it has exclusively been a Democrat’s position for well over a century. But maybe we could use a Libertarian as Comptroller or a Constitution Party member as Attorney General – until either can break the two-party duopoly, though, we would likely be stuck with liberal Democrats.

So because of the cynicism in addressing a problem (that really wasn’t) for strictly partisan reasons, I urge a vote AGAINST Question 1.

Question A, for Wicomico County voters, addresses the composition of the Wicomico County Board of Education. For years I have advocated for an elected school board, and after eliminating the political obstacles in the 2014 election, the path was cleared for voters to address the issue in the first three-way referendum in recent memory. Option 1 is to maintain the current appointed system, Option 2 is for a fully elected board, one each representing the five County Council districts and two at-large elected by all county residents (the same makeup as our current County Council), and Option 3 is for a hybrid board of five elected (one from each Council district) and two appointed by a locally-created board with confirmation from County Council.

Once again the cynical local Democrats have cast their lot with the fully-appointed Option 1, which provides no shortage of irony considering it’s the least democratic process. It seemed more logical that they would be for Option 3, which was the fallback position many preferred in the hearings conducted in the summer of 2015, before the enabling legislation passed earlier this year. But to maximize accountability, the best choice by far is Option 2 – a Wicomico County Board of Education with five members elected by district and two members elected at-large.

Now it gets very confusing. There are nine county charter amendments on the ballot, and to me their net effect seems to be that of reducing the power of the county executive and shifting it to County Council. I wasn’t here for the 2004 vote, but it seems obvious to me that the county wanted a strong leader and a legislative County Council.

Let’s begin with Question B and its related cousin, Question D. Both would require a special election: Question B to fill a vacancy in the County Council, and Question D for the County Executive. However, either vacancy would only be filled in this manner if it occurred within the first year or so of the term, which seems to me a rather pointless change. Having gone through this process as a Central Committee member back in 2011 (to fill the vacancy created by the passing of Bob Caldwell) I can tell you that a special election would do no better and cost the taxpayers money to boot. Thus, the proper vote is AGAINST both Question B and Question D. (Editor’s note: Councilman Marc Kilmer clarifies the intent of these questions in comments below, but I still think the ballot language is misleading. Their idea of a “special election” coincides with the scheduled primary and general elections, which is not made completely clear in the ballot summary.)

Question C deals with vacancies as well, but it’s a common-sense measure to extend the time allotted for filling positions from 30 to 45 days and have them submitted at a legislative session. This extension makes sense as County Council only meets twice a month, and having gone through the Caldwell vacancy the extra time is good for getting things right. Vote FOR Question C.

Question E removes the authority of the County Executive to select a temporary successor and assigns the task automatically to the Director of Administration. While it’s likely he or she would do so anyway, the option should remain open for the head of our government to choose. We do not have a vice-executive here, so why create one? Vote AGAINST Question E.

Question F deals with the idea of “acting” appointments, and limits their term to 90 days unless Council chooses to re-appoint them. Since the idea of “acting” is that of being temporary, this proposal makes more sense than most of the others. Three months is generally suitable to find a permanent replacement, or determine that the “acting” head can handle the job, so go ahead and vote FOR Question F.

The final four questions seem to me very nit-picky, and obviously County Council’s reaction to not getting their way on various issues.

For example, Question G gives a specific definition to “reorganization” which is much more restrictive toward the County Executive. As I see it, this is a separation of powers issue and it’s strange that we went nearly ten years without ever having to deal with this problem. So I call on voters to say they are AGAINST Question G.

Questions H and I most likely are a reaction to the County Council’s desire to have its own lawyer. Currently the County Attorney represents both the County Council and County Executive, but Council wanted to change that. I see no reason to do so, nor do I see the logic behind forcing the County Executive to recognize a personnel system established by Council as authorized by this change. Thus, we should vote AGAINST Questions H and I. (Editor’s note: Again, see Kilmer’s comments below. By charter my assertion is correct in who the County Attorney represents; but in the county today there is an “acting” County Attorney while Council retains its own, which they are entitled to do. I see no reason to change the system if Question F is passed.)

Finally, we have Question J, and that’s the one I was most on the fence about. But what weighed my decision in the end was that the County Executive is responsible for the budget, so if County Council decides to cut something out it should be the County Executive’s call as to where the money goes rather than simply placed in a particular account. For that reason, a vote AGAINST Question J is the appropriate one.

So this is the monoblogue-approved ballot for Wicomico County voters. We all face the same questions and issues.

  • For Presidentwrite in Darrell Castle/Scott Bradley
  • For U.S. SenatorKathy Szeliga
  • For Congress – I did not make a formal endorsement. If you like Andy Harris, vote for him; if not, vote for the Libertarian Matt Beers.
  • Judge – Based on the fact Dan Friedman was an O’Malley appointee, vote AGAINST his continuance in office.
  • Question 1 – AGAINST
  • Question A – Option 2, the fully elected school board
  • Question B – AGAINST
  • Question C – FOR
  • Question D – AGAINST
  • Question E – AGAINST
  • Question F – FOR
  • Question G – AGAINST
  • Question H – AGAINST
  • Question I – AGAINST
  • Question J – AGAINST

For those of you across the line in Delaware, I weighed in on your state races as well.

Before I wrap up, I just ask that you all pray we make the best choices. We all have to live with what we decide, so choose wisely. After the election, it will be time to create the understanding many among us lack when it comes to making these selections because, in a lot of cases, we all have botched the process badly.

A nation divided against itself cannot stand.

5 thoughts on “A potential power grab?”

  1. To clarify a few issues (I’ll post here and comment on your Facebook page, too) —

    On Questions B & D (special elections), the cost to taxpayers would be minimal, if any. The special elections to fill vacant council or executive seats would run the same time as presidential elections. It would just involve adding another name to the ballot.

    The council already has authority to contract with its own attorney; Question H merely clarifies this right.

    Question I would not force the executive to recognize a personnel system created by the council. The amendment would merely allow the council to initiate changes in the personnel system. Right now, the personnel system is proposed by the executive and modified or approved by the council. This amendment would allow the council to propose modifications, but the executive could veto any such legislation.

    On Question J, the executive right now doesn’t necessarily have the authority to re-assign money cut by the council. The charter doesn’t really address what should happen with money cut by the council. It merely says that the budget approved by the council should be balanced. If the council cuts the money, then technically the budget is out of balance. The council and executive have worked together to find a place for that money (usually it’s put in the undesignated fund balance), but that requires submitting an amended budget to the council. Question J would formalize the current process in case there is ever a time when the executive and council cannot come to an agreement.

  2. (As posted in response on my FB page)

    B and D: So let’s say, Heaven forbid, we have another Bob Caldwell situation where a Council member or CE passes away a year into the term. Under the current rules, the new person finishes the remaining three years of the term.

    But the idea of a “special election” to me is one which is of a unique date, and the amendment only specifies the ending of a term. I believe this can and will someday be interpreted as demanding an election within weeks of the vacancy, and that would be costly. The amendment should make clear that the Council member would stand for election in the next General Election, which will hopefully have county issues every two years because school board members will have staggered terms. But it does not.

    On H, why does the Council have its own attorney? When did they get that authority? I see no reason to have separate legal counsel on a permanent basis.

    For Question I, you already have a system where Council proposes modifications once the CE leads on the issue – as you say in your comment, “the personnel system is proposed by the executive and modified or approved by the council.” To do otherwise would shift the balance of power unnecessarily since it is the Executive’s job to lead and the Council’s job to approve. If it were as proposed, more than likely Council would be able to override any veto and I think you know this.

    Again on Question J, this should be at the CE’s discretion since he creates the budget.

  3. Also re-posting for those who don’t have Facebook:

    On B & D, the amendment very clearly specifies that the special election be held at the same time as the primary and general election during presidential election years. There is no way it can be interpreted otherwise, since it’s spelled out clearly in the amendment. What’s on the ballot is a summary of the amendments, not the actual amendments themselves. Did you have a chance to look at the actual amendments that are posted on the county website: http://www.wicomicocounty.org/DocumentCenter/View/5250 ?

    Section 304 of the charter gives the council authority to hire its own attorney. There really shouldn’t be a reason to have separate legal counsel on a permanent basis. Unfortunately, we find ourselves in a situation right now where the executive has decided to hire an acting county attorney without seeking confirmation from the council. That means we have no say in the hiring of the person who we would rely upon for legal advice. That is why the council chose to exercise its authority to hire separate legal counsel. Question H was actually suggested to us by the executive because he felt the charter did not grant the council authority to do what we did. I disagree with his interpretation, but we decided to accommodate his request and place the question on the ballot.

  4. In response:

    Then you have created a problem with the summaries, since they are deceptive on Questions B and D and I believe others will interpret them the same way I did, as a separate “special election.” If you look at the state question summary it lists the portions of the state constitution that are affected, but your summaries do not do the same with the county charter. (I recall Mark McIver had issues with how Question A was written, too, so it seems the issue is in the language used.) I would rather this be made more clear before voters, and there is no need to pass this charter amendment now because it wouldn’t be effective until 2018 anyway. It needs to be redone in a more specific manner (and accommodate unaffiliated Council members, which aren’t covered unlike any unaffiliated CE would be.)

    I think your problem with Question H would be resolved with the passage of Question F, which I support. You have an “acting” county attorney, which would either have to be made permanent with your approval or allowed to remain “acting” for another three months. So I see no need to change the system there.

    I believe Bob Culver had a point…some of these should have been thought out more by a Charter Review Committee that you had the power to appoint.

  5. The council didn’t create a problem with the summaries, since we didn’t write them; the acting county attorney did.

    Unaffiliated council members are covered in B, since it requires that anyone appointed must be of the same political party as the person they are replacing.

    As I mentioned, Question H really changes nothing, since the council already has power to appoint its own attorney. I find it ironic that this amendment has sparked such opposition from the executive since it merely clarifies the current charter and was suggested by him.

    Four of these amendments (including B & D) did come from the charter review committee. If the executive had a complaint about the process, he had ample time to bring up these complaints when the process was ongoing. Instead, he was silent about this issue until the process was complete and his complaints could not be accommodated. That indicates that perhaps these complaints are a bit hollow.

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