An already tense meeting about pickleball -- of all things -- escalated into a match of accusations and defensive explanations when the Wicomico County Council met in regular session last Tuesday night.
After hearing a succession of citizens declare their opinions on whether Wicomico should accept state and nonprofit funds to convert venerable Harmon Field into a hub for pickleball players, council members began debating whether to approve a county Parks and Recreation Department proposal to construct 12 pickleball courts at the site where basketball and softball has been played for decades.
Under the direction of Parks, Recreation and Tourism Director Steve Miller, the county would secure some $700,000 in state grant money, as well as $300,000 from the neighboring Mid-Delmarva Family YMCA, to change the county site’s public mission.
The debate had become emotional, with two council members adamantly opposed to the plan, one expressing strong reservations, three fully onboard and one not showing his hand.
Council President Larry Dodd and Vice President Joe Holloway were firmly in the “no” camp. Dodd, who has a long history as a supporter of youth baseball in the community, was adamant the field be leased at a low cost to the Delmarva Pony League, for the purpose of establishing a girls softball program that would serve as a companion to boys program, played on a field less than a mile away.
Viewpoints were volleyed back and forth when Councilman John Cannon dropped a bomb into the debate.
Cannon wanted to know why Dodd had sent a letter to the state’s top spending authority -- the Maryland Board of Public Works -- asking that the state postpone Wicomico’s $700,000 grant.
Cannon asked why the letter was sent, and why it wasn’t first shared with either the County Council or County Attorney.
“Explain to me why you refused to share the letter,” Cannon demanded.
Later, he added: “It shocks me when I see a Council President, Mr. Dodd, who unilaterally goes to the state and undermines this County Council on business of the citizens of this county -- and tells them ‘Do not send that $700,000.’”
The 50 or so spectators in the audience gasped aloud, seemingly in reaction to Dodd’s action rather than Cannon’s attack.
In the middle of Cannon’s statement, Acting County Executive John Psota could be heard to declare that Dodd’s action had also undermined the executive’s office.
A somewhat sheepish Dodd replied: “I sent a letter saying we weren’t prepared for it at this time. I sent it as a representative of the citizens”
Dodd’s letter was actually an email communication, and was obtained by the Salisbury Independent.
It read in part: “It has come to my attention that the Wicomico County Department of Rec’s and Parks has reached out to the Board of Public Works for funding for a pickleball complex. This request has not been approved by the council and several members of the council have some serious concerns about destroying a perfectly good baseball/softball complex ….”
Dodd then goes on to describe the park’s amenities, including “a 2-story brick concession stand/press box, two aluminum bleachers and a complete fence surrounding the ballpark.”
“My constituents are not in favor of destroying a perfectly good baseball complex either. I have pictures of Harmon Field if you are interested,” Dodd wrote. “I am requesting that the Board postpone discussion and action on this matter concerning Harmon Field.”
It was signed with his name, which was followed by “President, Wicomico County Council.”
When the Board of Public Works -- made up of Gov. Larry Hogan, Comptroller Peter Franchot and Treasurer Nancy Kopp -- met the following day, it tabled action on Wicomico’s funding.
The funding has since been restored.
After the final votes concerning the pickleball courts and the association with the YMCA, Holloway attempted to assuage his colleague.
“You probably shouldn’t have done it,” Holloway told Dodd, “but we hadn’t had a public hearing (so it wasn’t a conflict). I don’t agree with you doing it, but I probably would have done the same thing.”