OCEAN CITY – Accusations were thrown around council chambers this week as attempts were made to stop the majority of the City Council from appointing a new city solicitor.
On Jan. 13, a meeting was held where the council majority — Council President Terry Cohen, Councilwoman Deborah Campbell and Councilman Tim Spies — decided to relieve City Solicitor Paul Wilber of his duties and place him in a secondary advisory role.
This week the resolution to appoint a new primary city attorney was scheduled. The minority of the council — Councilwomen Laura Mitchell and Eugenie Shields — attempted to have the item removed from the agenda and moved back into work session for further discussion but the motion was voted down by the majority.
Mitchell started off the conversation by listing her concerns over the two choices of legal firms up for appointment, which were the law office of Hall & Long and the law office of Seidel, Baker & Tilghman.
“I have plenty of documentation of an ongoing personal and professional relationship between one of the attorneys that is sought to be appointed … with certain councilmembers, or Ms. Campbell in particular and I think that is a major conflict of interest,” Mitchell said.
Shields and Campbell also shared a concern that the council was choosing an attorney from a Request For Proposal (RFP) that was conducted in September of 2010.
“I think we need to put it out to bid again,” Shields said. “There may be other attorneys out there that we can get but at least make that effort, the fair and decent way. It is not democracy here … two people is not enough for me to look at if I am going to make a decision.”
Campbell argued that she does not have a conflict of interest with the proposed law firms. She disclosed business she has conducted with Tilghman, among other attorneys, including the most recent action of a real estate closing.
“I do use the services of attorneys here in this city and in other places,” she said. “I do not have a current case or open legal matter with either of the firms that are being considered because they submitted a response to the RFP.”
Campbell furthered that she has also received campaign contributions from Tilghman, among other attorneys in the area.
“I do know the Tilghmans socially, as well as professionally, as many lawyers in town … my family has lived in Salisbury for seven generations,” she said. “I have friends that are attorneys. I see them socially. I hire legal firms when I need legal counsel. None of these things represent a conflict. I have read and reviewed the conflict law for the city and I can assure you that I do not have a conflict in this.”
Cohen disclosed that she has also received campaign contributions from the Tilghmans but explained that is not considered a conflict of interest.
“One of the reasons campaign contributions is not considered a conflict of interest, besides from the fact that they are in the past, is if you would restrict everybody on that basis then you start making your government … have difficulty operating because everybody would have a conflict and you would restrict free speech by telling citizens not to contribute to anybody that you want to support,” she said.
Cohen expressed that she was disappointed that the discussion regarding city policy has once again turned to personal accusations against council members.
“We are trying to find the best way here in a contentious city where I looked through newspapers over the weekend and found one claim against the other and everyone accusing everybody else of having ethics conflicts,” she said. “There will be no one right way. We are doing the best we can. We feel that we would like to have a fresh pair of eyes on the matter … nobody I don’t think can look at Paul Wilber with his record and his experience and ever question his intellect, his integrity, and his level headedness.”
Mayor James Ireton chose to speak during public comments as a citizen since his office had been removed from the authority over the city’s legal counsel.
“We spent two years on a towing ordinance, almost six months on a rubbish definition, almost a decade on Harbor Pointe and I think all the public is asking for is a work session on what the public might want in a city attorney,” he said.
The council came to an agreement to meet in closed session with the proposed attorneys to further discuss council’s concerns.
The council returned to open session after 10 p.m. to take the vote.
“After meeting with the two candidate firms, the council voted to appoint Seidel, Baker & Tilghman as City Solicitor, with S. Mark Tilghman as lead representative, and to appoint Webb, Burnett, Jackson, Cornbrooks, Wilber, Vorhis and Douse as additional legal counsel, with Paul D. Wilber as lead representative,” Cohen said on Tuesday morning. “The vote was 3-1-1 … Mr. Spies, Ms. Campbell, myself voting Aye, Ms. Shields voting Nay, and Ms. Mitchell abstaining on grounds she didn’t have enough information.” It was announced later in the week that an ethics complaint was filed against Tilghman and the majority of the council by former Councilman Mike Dunn. The complaint lists a number of conflicts of interest including campaign contributions.