Salisbury Council Majority Seeks New City Attorney

SALISBURY — City Council President Terry Cohen responded this week to accusations that a special meeting called last Friday to discuss the current city attorney and the next fire chief for the city was conducted in secret.

During the meeting, which the city administration was not alerted to, the council majority decided to relieve City Attorney Paul Wilber of most of his duties and place his firm in a secondary advisory role. The council majority also sought counsel on whether a replacement for Salisbury Fire Department (SFD) Chief Jeff Simpson, who retired as of today, will need to be found through a national search process.

After learning that the administration was not alerted and that the council planned on finding a new city attorney, Councilwoman Laura Mitchell walked out mid-meeting in protest.

Mitchell has been critical of the actions of the majority before and has voiced suspicions that Council members Debbie Campbell, Tim Spies and Cohen have coordinated together outside of meetings while also trying to cut the city administration and public out of important decisions.

“Here they keep doing these secret maneuvers,” she said.

Mayor James Ireton was vocal in sharing his frustration at being kept out of the loop and noted that it only took 44 days from the time when the council voted to take over authority for the city attorney, which was previously held by the mayor, to the decision to replace his firm.

“Neither myself or the City Administrator, Mr. Pick, were invited to the afternoon meeting,” he said. “I predicted Mr. Wilber’s demise when the council took control of the legal services for the city.”

Ireton also claimed that a referendum conducted by Mitchell last autumn that would have opened a public vote on whether the council should take control of the city attorney from the mayor might have been more popular if the “public [had] known that the removal of Mr. Wilber was the real reason behind the move.”

While Cohen admits the city administration was not given special notice of the meeting, she was adamant it was not purposefully kept in the dark either. She asserted that when email notification of the meeting was sent out, the administration wasn’t considered “required” personnel. Cohen explained that the two items discussed at the meeting, the removal of Wilber as solicitor and whether a national search would need to be conducted to find the next fire chief, did not directly concern the administration.

“The mayor has had an open invitation to all our meetings,” she said. “Administration wasn’t required to be there since these were council discussions and the mayor is sensitive to staff time in meetings.  Any notification mix-up was an honest one and was remedied immediately.”

While the administration might not have been contacted, Cohen pointed out that several media outlets and the public was made aware of the session, as required by law.

“The meeting was also given due public notice and held in compliance with the Open Meetings Act,” she said.

Mitchell acknowledged that the meeting was not illegal, but argued that it was conducted in a manner not befitting a governing body.

“Again, they followed the letter of the law but not the spirit of the law or the spirit of the best interests of the city or its citizens,” she said.

Ireton also felt the administration was more involved in the meeting than Cohen would admit, since conducting a search process to find a new fire chief would run against Ireton’s endorsement of Deputy Chief Rick Hoppes for the position.

“Besides sacking Paul Wilber, the council majority has decided to contest my nomination of Rick Hoppes for Salisbury Fire Chief,” he said.

Cohen scoffed at the implication that the majority was drawing a line in the sand to oppose Hoppes.

“Contrary to reports and rumors Friday afternoon, the discussion about the Salisbury fire chief position

did not involve an assessment of the mayor’s nominee,” she said. “Rather, the discussion focused on what the council’s next step should be with the process. The mayor’s actions are a distinct departure from decades of employment practice …”

While there were plenty of sparks over the meeting itself, one further point of contention was with the law firms that are being considered to replace Wilber’s. Two were mentioned during the meeting, Hall and Long as well as Seidel, Baker and Tilghman. All three members of the majority have ties to Seidel, Baker and Tilghman, either through campaign contributions or previous use of services.

“Council’s consensus was to work on reorganizing legal services by having the current city attorney firm act in an assistant city solicitor capacity and to consider selecting one of two firms that responded to a September 2010 request for proposal (RFP) as the lead city attorney,” Cohen said.

Cohen also emphasized that neither firm has yet been chosen to work for the city in any capacity.

“Again, contrary to reports and rumors, the council did not decide upon any division of duties among the law firms, which would have been highly premature,” said Cohen.