SALISBURY — An unexpected move by the City Council majority to try to change the town charter is ruffling feathers in Salisbury.
“I have grave concerns about the proposed charter amendment that would have the city attorney serve at the pleasure of, and answer to, the City Council rather than the mayor, as is the case now,” said Councilwoman Laura Mitchell.
The issue emerged during a work session Monday, while the council discussed access to legal counsel. Councilwoman Shanie Shields cautioned against overreliance on city attorney Paul Wilber because of the cost.
“I think, as council, we need to be careful how we use legal counsel,” she said.
“Everybody wants to talk about how much it costs,” agreed Mayor Jim Ireton.
Beyond the cost, however, the bigger question put forth by members of the council dealt with accessibility to said legal counsel. Under the current standard, the city attorney serves at the pleasure of the mayor. Because of this setup, some members of the council felt they are not always able to access legal counsel when necessary.
“The first piece of the puzzle is to get better access … Let’s see if we can’t start moving in a way that is more effective,” said Council Vice-President Deborah Campbell.
Ireton noted that, if the council wanted to change how access to the city attorney was dealt with, they’d have to alter Salisbury’s charter.
“If you don’t have the same dictates from the charter, you’ll have to change the charter,” he said.
Going to that length made some on the council uncomfortable, especially since no prior mention of a charter change had come up.
“I’m not ready to dive headlong into changing the powers of the Mayor and Council in respect to contacting legal counsel,” said Mitchell.
In her opinion, the current situation is more than adequate. By leaving the city attorney under the jurisdiction of the mayor, argued Mitchell, the council avoided a potential conflict of interest.
If the charter is changed to cause legal counsel to serve at the pleasure of the council, she continued, the city attorney could find himself between a rock and a hard place if he disagrees with the majority of the council.
“I feel we need the separation of powers the current structure provides,” Mitchell said.
Council President Terry Cohen didn’t share the concern.
“Conflicts can exist under the current system,” said Cohen. “One protection the council offers is its required compliance with Maryland’s Open Meetings Act, which is not a requirement for the mayor.”
Shields, like Mitchell, also expressed discomfort in changing the charter.
“I don’t think that’s necessary,” she said.
Ireton agreed, saying, “Evolving, thinking out loud and changing things slowly is not changing the city charter.”
Ireton also questioned why some members of the council felt their access to legal counsel was being restricted. In his opinion, only once in recent memory has he exercised his authority over the city attorney in telling him not to attend a council meeting. The meeting in question, added Ireton, was called on too short of notice.
Cohen, however, asserted the change has been a long time coming and is not motivated solely by one meeting.
“The problems have manifested for years, but the one incident the mayor speaks of is a serious one,” said Cohen. “State law, the Open Meetings Act, not the mayor, determines what is required for council transparency. The council was compliant and legal counsel obviously concurred with the meeting. The mayor’s office had not arranged for a general litigation update and advertisement from the city attorney to council in two-and-a-half years, and what council members learn from such meetings can be a factor in open session votes.”
For her part, Mitchell never felt particularly restricted when trying to access legal counsel. One of her biggest issues, however, was how quickly the charter change seems to be progressing. At the end of Monday’s work session, Councilman Tim Spies was the only one undecided on whether the council should progress with charter alterations.
“I’d like a little more time to think about this,” he said.
However, by the next day Spies decided to side with Cohen and Campbell in pushing a charter change to this Monday’s regular meeting agenda.
Though Ireton and the council minority remain concerned, Cohen was confident the charter does need to be examined.
“Although it is likely a lot of political hay will be made, and the council is not unanimous on moving this initiative forward, a majority of the council recognizes the problems the city has experienced, where supposed checks and balances have failed,” Cohen said. “This is not a drastic change, as has been done in other cities, but it is an important and necessary one.”
Shields continued to disagree and also voiced concerns over the growing rift between the council majority and the mayor and minority.
“It’s almost like we have two forms of leadership here,” Shields said. “Salisbury is falling down around our feet like Rome.”