Wicomico Charter Review Committee won't recommend government format change

By Greg Bassett
Posted 4/14/21

The panel tasked with presenting possible changes to the Wicomico County Charter has decided to work within the existing document and not recommend changing the county’s form of …

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Wicomico Charter Review Committee won't recommend government format change

Posted

The panel tasked with presenting possible changes to the Wicomico County Charter has decided to work within the existing document and not recommend changing the county’s form of government.

In a meeting March 25 at the Wicomico Youth & Civic Center, the Charter Review Committee members took up the issue of the County Executive form of government -- then voted unanimously that reverting to a Council-Manager government wasn’t up to them..

Because so many of the potential charter changes are related to historical conflicts between the County Council and Executive, the committee’s discussion led to a review on whether a recommendation should be offered to re-establish the pre-2006 governmental structure.

“That was a separate ballot question -- the voters decided that in this county,” said panel member Tony Sarbanes, who served on the County Council when voters agreed to the change.

“I think if we’re going to go into that territory, it ought to go back to an election item,” he said. “We have a charter to look at under the existing form of government -- what we are going to do is look at it and make it better.”

Sarbanes said he saw no indication that the public was eager to change the government structure and cited the public’s sizable margin of support for the County Executive format back in 2004.

Sharptown Commissioners President Doug Gosnell supported that thought.

“I was asked to be on a Charter Review Committee, not asked (to decide) whether we ought to get rid of the County Executive government,” Gosnell said. “I’m here to make this work.”

In what panel Chairman Mike Dunn called the “first big job of the Charter Review Committee,” the members voted unanimously that they would only make amendment suggestions based on the document already in place.

This later prompted an objection from Robert Taylor of Salisbury, who until recently served as County Council Attorney. Speaking in the public comments portion near the meeting’s end, Taylor said the panel members’ vote to act within the County Executive format “puts on the cusp of dereliction of duty.”

Taylor -- an outspoken opponent of the County Executive form -- said the committee had made its decision without proper public input.

County Council Vice President Joe Holloway of Parsonsburg rose to support Taylor’s viewpoint. “I am disappointed that you brushed aside the County Executive issue so quickly,” he said. Holloway added that he would like to see the matter discussed further in the next meeting.

The County Council could vote to place a change in the format of government on the ballot for a public referendum. Voters could also petition the council to make such a move, but there are no signs of a public effort in that regard.

When the county waded into its governmental conversion efforts some 17 years ago, officials first held a straw-poll referendum, and then two years later held a binding referendum.

Relying on the Charter Review Committee to change the form of government would have to be considered less than ideal, as Article X of the charter gives the County Council power to commence with a charter termination.

Section 1001 declares that five affirmative votes from the County Council’s seven members to return to the previous council-manager system would be enough to allow it to become a referendum question.

If a grass-roots effort to terminate the charter were to germinate, proponents would need signatures from 20 percent of the county’s 50,662 registered voters, or just over 10,000 people.

Councilman John Cannon of Salisbury complimented the committee’s work thus far, as well as its decision to act within the current County Charter framework.

“You have been very diplomatic, very professional in how you’re managing yourselves, which is great,” Cannon said. “I don’t think you did a disservice to your position tonight in taking the vote that you did. You chose to move forward with the issues at hand. The first priority is to correct the charter as it exists.”

At the March session, the panel agreed it will take public comments at the end of its meetings. Meanwhile, the county has established a website portal -- available through wicomicocounty.org -- where the public can submit questions and offer viewpoints.

The committee decided it will spend its meetings over the next year going through the charter sequentially.

It also agreed to occasionally call in experts to offer input and information on more-difficult issues, by explaining how other governments might act, what the history behind a charter provision might be, or offering appropriate data.