SALISBURY – Wicomico County Executive Bob Culver shared his intentions last week for sending a letter to Maryland Senate President Mike Miller outlining his concerns that wine and beer licenses approved by Maryland Comptroller Peter Franchot for the National Folk Festival were “illegal” after the comptroller’s chief of staff penned a response lambasting the county leader of “economic sabatoge.”
Last Friday, Comptroller Peter Franchot’s Chief of Staff Len Foxwell sent a letter to Culver denouncing the county leader’s “private correspondence” with Miller two weeks before the National Folk Festival was slated to begin in downtown Salisbury.
Culver’s letter to Miller, dated Aug. 27, highlighted his concerns that alcohol licenses granted by the comptroller to the City of Salisbury for the festival were in violation of state Article 2B.
“The event that the licenses are approved for is neither a Non-Profit Wine Festival nor a Non-Profit Beer Festival,” he wrote. “Furthermore, the licenses that have been issued primary purpose is to promote Maryland Wine and Beer. The approved licenses are for the Folk Festival which had no relevance to a Wine Festival or a Beer Festival.”
Culver told Miller the comptroller was aware that the folk festival was not a nonprofit beer or wine festival.
“Something that is very concerning to me is that the local Board of License Commissioners was totally circumvented both this year and last,” he wrote. “They were not consulted at all.”
Culver concludes the letter by arguing that the alcohol licenses approved by the comptroller, as well as the official’s actions, were illegal.
In a letter issued by the comptroller’s office last Friday, however, Foxwell called Culver’s letter a “surreptitious complaint” that was not shared with the comptroller’s office, the City of Salisbury, or members of the Eastern Shore delegation to the Maryland General Assembly. The letter was released to the public and sent to Miller, Salisbury Mayor Jake Day and the Council of Salisbury, the Wicomico County Council, the Eastern Shore delegation, Greater Salisbury Committee President and CEO Mike Dunn and Salisbury Area Chamber of Commerce President and CEO Bill Chamber.
“At no point have I seen a chief executive of a local government conduct official business in such an unprofessional manner,” he wrote to Culver.
Foxwell addressed Culver’s claims that permits granted to the city for the National Folk Festival, which took place Sept. 6-8, were illegal. He noted that the Office of the Comptroller, through its Field Enforcement Division (FED), acted in accordance with Maryland Code, Alcoholic Beverages, Section 1-304, which states “The Comptroller may delegate authority under this article and provisions of the Tax-General Article relating to alcoholic beverages to the Division director to issue or refuse to issue licenses and permits.”
“Mindful of the size and magnitude of the National Folk Festival, the FED exercised considerable care to ensure the City’s application was in proper order, and that the characteristics of the event itself were compatible with the terms and conditions of issuance,” he wrote. “This exhaustive process included, but was certainly not limited to, a site visit by senior officials to the grounds of the National Folk Festival to ensure the presence of appropriate retail boundaries, display signage and proper sales procedures.”
Foxwell added the comptroller’s office was also surprised that the city had called upon the agency.
“Given the extraordinary effort that was invested by government, business and civic leaders to secure the Folk Festival in the first place, and given what this renowned event would mean to the city, county and Delmarva region, it was our obvious assumption that this board – populated as it is with your appointees and allies – would have acted with due alacrity to issue the necessary permits,” he wrote. “Instead, it was quite clear to Mayor Day and his Administration that the City’s application, for its technical sufficiency, was being delayed indefinitely by your Board for reasons having nothing to do with merit and everything to do with your own personal resentments. If you will indulge my personal observation, I would suggest that, rather than engaging in mock outrage that the Comptroller’s Office acted without the blessing of your political cronies, you should be personally embarrassed that we needed to be called in the first place.”
In a press conference on Monday, however, Culver said the city “circumvented” the Wicomico County Board of License Commissioners, a state agency appointed by the governor and funded by the county, by taking its application to the comptroller’s office. He said the Board of License Commissioners and the executive’s office began sharing concerns regarding the city’s application for beer and wine licenses before last year’s National Folk Festival.
Despite letters and phone calls, officials noted a lack of communication from the comptroller’s office.
“To have a discussion, a conversation, you need two sides to engage,” said Director of Administration Wayne Strausburg. “That never happened … We’re better than this. And if we’re not, we should be.”
Culver said county officials continued to direct concerns to the comptroller’s office. He provided copies of letters sent to various state officials in 2018 and 2019.
When asked why he, instead of the licensing board, wrote to the comptroller and Miller, Culver said he got involved because of his position as county executive.
Board Chair A. Kaye Kenney – also a public relations liaison for Culver’s office – said the board contacted Culver for assistance when its concerns were not addressed.
“Mr. Culver is the executive of this county, and it is his responsibility to protect the citizens …,” she said.
Culver said the letter he penned to Miller on Aug. 27 was sent after his office learned that the Comptroller had again issued beer and wine licenses for the 2019 National Folk Festival.
“Since public safety was an issue and the Board of License Commissioners felt the Maryland law was being ignored again, we notified the state senate president, who has dealt with the comptroller’s overreach before,” Culver said this week. “This was out of concern for what was quoted to be 153,000 people being at the folk festival this year.”
Foxwell, however, questioned the consequences of Culver’s letter if Miller had invalidated the approval of the permits.
“To send a letter of this nature less than two weeks before the festival, with the willingness and intent to severely disrupt what so many had worked so hard to build, is nothing less than a gesture of economic sabotage against those very people who have trusted in your leadership,” he wrote to Culver.
The county executive said this week that he had no intention of sabotaging the event.
“Neither Wicomico County nor I ever tried to sabotage the National Folk Festival …,” he said. “Wicomico County has provided $37,500 in direct financial support to the National Folk Festival. Wicomico County has provided emergency management and medical staff, and staff time toward promoting the event.”
Culver reiterated he was simply concerned about the legality of the comptroller’s actions when he reached out to Miller. He also shared concerns from local businesses regarding the permits that had been issued to the city.
“I never asked to bring the festival down or put a stop to it …,” he said. “I believe in fairness to everybody.”
Culver said he was surprised by Foxwell’s response, but still hoped to sit down with Franchot to discuss the issue in the future.
“If he were my chief of staff, he wouldn’t be coming into my office today,” he said. “It was totally out of line.”