Wicomico rehires the lawyer it terminated

Wicomico rehires the attorney it terminated

In July 2019, exercising a special power it holds in the County Charter, the Wicomico County Council voted to terminate County Attorney Paul Wilber.

Wilber never stepped down.

County Attorney Paul Wilber.

By fall of that year, council members were making it clear to County Executive Bob Culver that they would agree to no scenario in which Wilber’s law firm would be the one handling county legal business.

Wilber continued his service.

By winter, the council — through its own lawyer, Bob Taylor — was engaged in a hostile battle of threatening letters with a special attorney hired by Culver to challenge Wilber’s dismissal.

Just this fall, the council enacted a harsh measure that would make it a criminal offense to accept compensation for a county leadership position without the council’s necessary confirmation approval. The measure seemed directed at two posts Culver had kept filled against the council’s wishes — Wilber’s being one of them. 

Then last week, in a move telegraphed in a “One On One” television interview by Council Vice President John Cannon, the council formally voted unanimously to keep Wilber on as County Attorney.

It’s said that in politics, all memories are short.

Council members offered no explanation or comment on their decision.

As one of their many charter amendments in 2016, the council secured the ability to hire its own legal representation. Taylor has advised the council at meetings, while Wilber and his law firm has handled the county’s significant legal business.

Paid by the hour, Taylor was paid $17,596 for his services in 2019; the county budgeted $347,145 for the services of Wilber and his associates at Webb, Cornbrooks, Wilber, Vorhis, Douse & Mathers for this fiscal year.

Wilber’s firm charges the county $170 per hour.

Having two attorneys in the room — one serving the executive and departments and another serving the council — has sometimes produced some awkward exchanges as competing legal opinions have been aired.

That was most apparent during the process to select a successor to Culver. Wilber appeared before the council on multiple occasions and offered advice on conflicts of interest and the ability to name an Acting County Executive.

During those formal encounters, the rapport between Wiber and the council members who had once fired him was remarkably positive, with his previous opponents obviously relying closely on his input.

The attorney’s arrangement with the county is at odds with the spirit of the County Charter.

The charter says the county will have a Department of Law headed by an attorney selected by the County Executive and approved by a majority vote of the County Council.

The charter treats the attorney’s position differently than other department leadership posts, specifically declaring the attorney “shall serve at the pleasure of the executive and the council,” suggesting a position requiring dual buy-in.

Since Culver’s 2014 election, the county hasn’t had a formal Department of Law since then-County Attorney Ed Baker retired. Culver had essentially promised this legal arrangement during his campaign against then-incumbent Rick Pollitt, touting its p;otential to reduce bureaucracy and ensure savings for the county’s taxpayers.