Wicomico Council Fills Vacant School Board Position

SALISBURY – Officials in Wicomico County last week selected Tonya Laird Lewis to fill a vacant position on the Wicomico County Board of Education, but not before a lengthy discussion on the nomination process.

On June 4, the Wicomico County Council voted for a second time to fill a vacant position on the Wicomico County Board of Education.

At a May meeting, a resolution to appoint a nominee to the board did not pass after a tie vote between candidates Tonya Laird Lewis and Gains Hawkins Jr. The tie breaker, Council President John Cannon, abstained because of a working relationship between his wife and Hawkins’ daughter.

Back on the agenda this week, the council had before it two resolutions, one to appoint Hawkins and another to appoint Lewis. However, a resolution to appoint Hawkins failed as it received no motion.

Moving ahead, the council then made a motion to appoint Lewis to the school board. But during discussion, Councilman Bill McCain asked to table the resolution

“This is not about the candidates,” he said. “It’s about the process and procedure and transparency and good governance.”

Earlier this year, the Wicomico County Board of Education Nominating Commission began the process of seeking qualified applicants to fill a board vacancy created by the death of member David Goslee, who was elected to represent District 3 late last year.

And in March, the commission submitted the names of two nominees – Hawkins and Lewis – to the county council for consideration.

McCain said his argument for tabling the resolution rested on how the council proceeded following the tie vote.

According to state legislation, the county council has 60 days to hold a public hearing regarding the nominees and can subsequently vote on a nominee to fill a vacancy. If the council deems both candidates unacceptable, the council must return the names to the commission and request the commission submit the names of two additional candidates.

“This has to go back to the committee,” he said. “That process, though, has not happened.”

McCain said he also requested the two resolutions on Tuesday’s agenda be withdrawn until the council received some legal clarification for how it should proceed in a revote.

“I have some concerns,” he said.

A motion to table the resolution, however, failed with McCain and Councilmen Ernie Davis and Josh Hastings in favor and Cannon and Councilmen Larry Dodd, Marc Kilmer and Joe Holloway opposed.

McCain then recused himself.

“I’m recusing myself from the discussion and any vote on this issue considering that we are potentially violating state law,” he said.

Kilmer told the council he believed there were issues with the nominating process. However, he said he disagreed with McCain’s argument.

“After our last meeting, it wasn’t stated we had to return to the nominating commission,” he said. “It was clearly stated we could revote if someone changes their mind, or we can send it back to the nominating commission.”

Kilmer argued the council was following the law.

“I think we are within our rights to have another vote,” he said. “We have two nominees that are acceptable. Now we have to choose which one is more acceptable.”

Dodd agreed.

“I think the board of education needs someone to desperately fill that seat,” he said. “Two candidates have stepped up to the plate and I think a recount of the vote is acceptable at this time.”

Davis and Hastings, however, said they supported seeking a legal opinion regarding the process of a second vote.

“In the last 12 hours, I have gotten a dozen calls and emails asking if we were making a choice that was not congruent with the law,” Hastings said. “I don’t know if that’s true or not, but with that reason I will abstain.”

Holloway said he was in favor of moving forward with a vote.

“Neither candidate was deemed unacceptable,” he said. “It was a tie vote. I think we need to move forward with this.”

Cannon this week also explained why he abstained from last month’s vote and why he had decided to place two resolutions on the agenda for Tuesday’s council meeting.

“I abstained on both individuals and I should not have done that …,” he said. “That’s why I brought it back to the table.”

He said last month’s abstention was unfair to Lewis, with whom he had no personal affiliation.

“I was treating both applicants as running against each other, so I told the council I had to abstain because of a conflict,” he said. “But what I realized had happened was that my conflict was with one individual only and not with both. What I have realized was in abstaining … my abstention with Mrs. Lewis penalized her.”

With no further discussion, the council voted to appoint Lewis to the school board, with Cannon, Dodd, Kilmer and Holloway in favor and Davis and Hastings abstaining. McCain recused himself earlier in the meeting.

About The Author: Bethany Hooper

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Bethany Hooper has been with The Dispatch since 2016. She currently covers various general stories. Hooper graduated from Stephen Decatur High School in 2012 and the University of Maryland in 2016, where she completed double majors in journalism and economics.