SALISBURY- The majority of Salisbury City Council voted this week to move forward with a charter amendment concerning power over the selection of the City Attorney despite a plea to hold off for additional public input.
The Charter Amendment Resolution changes the city solicitor’s appointment process from a nomination by the mayor to an appointment solely by the vote of the council. In addition, the city solicitor shall no longer serve at the pleasure of the mayor, but at the pleasure of the council, additional legal counsel will be retained by council only, and the duties of the city solicitor will no longer be determined and assigned by the mayor.
Right off the bat, Councilwoman Eugenie Shields set a motion to postpone the resolution in order to discuss the matter further and provide additional time for public comment. She is interested in taking the time to research other municipalities whose city attorney serves at the pleasure of the city council.
“The last work session was the first time I had heard about the change,” she said. “This is a very serious change to the charter and I think we should just not rush though this.”
Councilwoman Laura Mitchell agreed.
“I don’t understand the haste in which this is being done,” she said.
Mitchell said discussion began during a work session after the city attorney, Paul Wilber, had left the room, and by the next morning the discussion had formed into a resolution to amend the charter.
Through Mitchell’s research, she has found only two cities in Maryland, Hurlock and University Park, which have legal counsel serve at the pleasure of the city council.
“The research I have done indicate that this is a major mistake and not keeping with what the majority of the State of Maryland does,” she said. “This charter strips the mayor of many of his power into a weak mayor form of government.”
Council Vice President Deborah Campbell explained that the current language of the charter involving the city attorney is a core issue that impedes the council in performing its legislative duty.
Campbell referred to an example of being denied access to legal counsel that occurred on June 8 when Council President Terry Cohen called for a closed session to occur the following day for the council to be updated on pending litigation, which hadn’t occurred in two and half years. Mayor James Ireton had instructed Wilber not to attend the scheduled meeting because the public had not been given 24-hour notice.
“There were 20 items that the council needed to be brought current on and these various items impact other decisions the council is making,” she said. “We can’t do the city’s business in this environment. I think while names will be called and blocks will be thrown, I do believe it is the right thing to do and we need to do it now.” Councilman Tim Spies agreed.
“I think that sort of behavior is in the way of us actually knowing what is going on and moving forward with our agendas, and the agenda of the city, which is to make this a better place to live,” he said. “That is the purpose of this body and without direct access and pre-access to legal counsel we are rowing with a broken oar.”
Shields and Mitchell both stated they were not aware of any other time that council has been denied access to legal counsel and believed that the issue lies in lack of communication.
“I have never had a problem in the six years that I have been sitting on the council to get an answer from the attorney,” Shields said. “What it is, is working relationships. When you have good working relationships with people in how you do things then some of the problems could be avoided”
Mitchell added that she didn’t think a charter change is going to correct the lack of communication between the city council and administration.
“I think we are endangering separation of powers and certainly changing the structure of government is a very serious matter that we should not be doing in a week’s time,” she said.
Council President Terry Cohen along with rest of the majority of the council disagreed with the motion to postpone the resolution.
“This is being done on the regular course of hearing resolutions in accordance with state law,” she said. “I don’t think this is in haste, I think this is long overdue.”
Cohen said that the June 9 meeting was only one example of council being denied access to the city attorney.
“I think that this was a fairly serious incident though because council doesn’t know what is happening with litigation,” she said. “When we come to this table to take a vote on something, we have no idea whether or not there are background issues that we should be aware of before we cast a vote.”
The council voted down the motion to postpone the resolution for a change to the charter in a 5-2 vote with Mitchell and Shields in favor.
The city council continued to discuss the matter further, but it was clear the votes were already in place to move the resolution forward. The vote was also 5-2 to pass the charter change with Mitchell and Shields in opposition.
Following the final vote City Administrator John Pick read a letter written by Mayor Ireton who had to leave the meeting early due to a prior engagement.
Mayor Ireton stated that if the charter change will fundamentally change the City of Salisbury form of government from what has always been a strong mayor form of government to a parliamentary form of government.
“Tonight’s proposed charter change, regardless of how quickly it came to be or how little work session discussion or public input there has been, essentially signals the beginning of a strong council-president form of government – something that exists nowhere in the State of Maryland,” he wrote. “Our form of government states that the legitimacy of the office of the mayor comes from our citizens through elections, not from the legislative branch.”
The mayor added that the city’s employees will be affected by the change because it is estimated that 80 percent of the legal department work is for administration.
Mayor Ireton asserted “council leadership has invented a problem in order to afford them the ability to fire the present city attorney. There will be vehement denial of this and righteous indignation for the mere suggestion that this is the case.”