The widely contrasting personalities of the three people seeking to be the next Wicomico County Executive were on intimate display at last Thursday night’s forum at Salisbury University.
Acting County Executive John Psota, appointed to the seat 20 months ago by the County Council following the passing of the elected executive, Bob Culver, used his time at the microphone to explain how the position is designed and to stress that experience is a key requirement for the post.
His fellow Republican and July election primary challenger, public school teacher Julie Giordano, aggressively voiced her disappointment with the Executive Office leadership, while insisting change is desperately needed.
County Councilman Ernie Davis, who as the lone Democrat in the field has no election opposition until the November general election, expressed frustration with the county’s ability to grow and advance. None for remaining quiet at council meetings until pressed, Davis cited his ongoing concerns about open positions within key departments and a slowness in wiring the county for Internet broadband.
The trio began the forum by discussing their backgrounds and qualifications. Giordano said she had grown up in a family of Republicans and has served as a teacher for 17 years, most recently at James M. Bennett High School. She holds bachelors and masters degrees from Salisbury University.
She said people often ask her why would leave teaching for elected office.
“I would be willing to leave because this county needs a new leader – period,” she said.
A lifelong conservative Republican, she said: “Conservative values have been at the core of my upbringing.”
Davis touted his 28-year career in small business, which followed his 20 years as Maryland State Trooper. Davis and his wife operate a power-washing business that has expanded to his owning a fleet of school buses and trucks.
He was first elected in 2014 to represent the council’s District 1 and was re-elected in 2018.
He said he has worked to raise broadband service as an issue and played a role in lobbying for a replacement school at West Salisbury Elementary.
Psota, a lifelong Salisbury resident and SU grad, had a 25-year career with Maryland State Police prior to becoming the Fruitland City Manager. He was hire in July 2020 to succeed Wayne Strausburg as the county’s Director of Administration, but was later picked to serve as Acting Executive.
The county’s long-controversial revenue cap was discussed. The measure approved in 2004 limits the amount the county can raise from property taxes to 2.5 percent annually, which in this near era of 8 percent inflation could soon affect county budgeting.
Giordano cited the cap’s “positives and negatives,” before saying officials should “keep the cap where it is.”
Davis said the measure needs study and pointed out the cap is “hindering the county.” He noted that state lawmakers from other jurisdictions have been reluctant to send money to Wicomico when the county could raise more money itself.
“Annapolis doesn’t like (the cap),” Davis said. It hurts our support. We need to adjust it.”
Psota explained that while many people believe the cap to be on the property tax rate, the measure only targets revenues.
The just-released budget includes a cap-mandated 1-cent cut in the property tax rate, all at a time when inflation is growing and employment expenses are rising.
Strengths and weaknesses
Candidates were asked a classic job interview question: What are your strengths and weaknesses?
Psota said his deep experience in municipal government and time in the executive’s post is an asset, but said he struggles with the political aspects.
“I, quite frankly, am not a politician. I don’t do well with the politics part of it,” Psota said. “I am a straight shooter … and that can be a detriment.”
Davis said his knowledge of all segments of the community are an asset, but admitted to his reputation as being quiet during council sessions.
“I can be too quiet,” he said, but I don’t talk just to talk.”
Giordano said people will often challenge her by saying: “you’re just a teacher, what do you know about running a county?”
“I resent that statement,” she said, “because just being a teacher is not an easy task in this day and age. I am not just a teacher.”
She went on to cite her professional background in Human Resources and in curriculum development within the school system.
“I’m not a boss, because a boss has a title. I am a leader, because I have the people,” she said.
Giordano did admit to a weakness: “I can be a bit abrasive,” she said. “I understand that.”
Open county positions
Both Davis and Giordano criticized the open positions in county departments. Te problem is especially acute in the county’s highest ranks, with open positions for Director and Deputy Director of Administration in Psota’s own office, as well as the high-profile post of County Engineer.
Psota responded that the uncertain political landscape has made hiring at-will employees difficult, as professionals are unwilling to take a job that could be stripped from them depending on the imminent election results.
Davis countered that “if they’re competent, they shouldn’t fear for jobs.” Giordano said she “has a transition team ready to go – we’re ready to roll,” has already tagged people to serve as her deputies and as Public Works Director.
Dan Cox support
Conservative politics was a question point, with Giordano being quizzed on her support for Republican gubernatorial contender Dan Cox, who is viewed as a hardline right-wing candidate. A General Assembly member, Cox led an effort to impeach Republican incumbent Gov. Larry Hogan.
“I like Dan Cox. I hope it is Dan Cox (who wins the nomination),” Giordano said. “He stands for a lot of the same things I stand for.” However, she called Cox’s effort to impeach Hogan “a little ridiculous.”
“If it ends up being a Democrat (elected as governor), it is what it is,” she said.
In the 15 years of the County Executive form of government, tension between the executive and council has been a constant.
Davis said the relationship would improve if the Executive’s Office maintained a better dialogue with council members, especially so the council can be prepared to deal with percolating issues.
Giordano received the biggest laugh of the night from the audience with her declaration: “I work with 17-year-olds every day – I’m sure I can work with the County Council.”
Psota suggested that while relations might appear tense, the results suggested otherwise.
“Collaboration is there with the council,” he said. “We have gotten a tremendous amount of work done in the past 20 months. We do an amazing job collectively -- but there are two branches, legislative and executive.”
Psota said his top three priorities are implementing a water and sewer for the county, improving the county’s airport and seeing that the entire county has access to broadband.
Davis echoed the same three priorities, though he placed broadband as the top concern.
Giordano said her top priorities were to invest more in education and schools, improve public safety by recruiting and increasing pay for first responders, and getting the county’s water and sewer plan on track.
The three contenders differed too in the summations. Without naming him directly, Giordano assailed Psota’s leadership.
“Every current issue in Wicomico County is manmade,” she said. “Right now our county is hurting. It is made by a lack of leadership and a stagnant administration.”
Davis worried aloud that not enough was being done to communicate with the county’s major businesses, to understand their needs and survival concerns.
“We’ve lost a lot of businesses (over the years),” he said. “We need to talk to the business community and learn what we need to do to ensure they stay here.”
Davis also said he will work with the school board to raise teacher salaries.
Psota seemed to reject the negative connotations.
“I hear the rhetoric and quite frankly it’s a little alarming,” he said. “Wicomico County is doing great things – we are in a great position. The Executive’s Office is far from stagnent. It’s a little frustrating (to hear).”
Psota called the County Executive post an “awesome responsibility.”
This is an extremely important position,” he said. “It is not a ceremonial position. It is a hands-on position in which experience matters.”
The event held at Guerrieri Student Union was sponsored by Salisbury University’s Institute for Public Affairs and Civic Engagement, in partnership with the Greater Salisbury Committee and Salisbury Area Chamber of Commerce to host forums for citizens to hear from Wicomico County Executive candidates next week.
The forum was recorded by PAC 14. A full replay is available on PAC 14’s YouTube webpage.