Wicomico County leaders at odds over proposed public safety position

 

WICOMICO COUNTY, Md. – Wicomico County leaders are at odds when it comes to how public safety should be overseen and handled. County Executive Julie Giordano is aiming to put a focus on public safety by creating an Executive Advisor of Public Safety (EAPS) position. However, Council members say they are concerned that would require a referendum. And, they are also unsure that the position is even necessary.

Giordano’s Idea

The current Deputy Director of Administration role would essentially serve as the EAPS.

If Giordano’s idea proves successful, the EAPS would be charged with overseeing county public safety agencies. Those include the Department of Corrections, Department of Emergency Services, the Police Accountability Review Board, and the county’s fire service agreement. The EAPS would also serve as a representative for Giordano’s office in law enforcement collective bargaining agreements.

However, the EAPS would also be taking on a new set of responsibilities.

“They would be a liaison to stakeholders like WorWic, where they would focus on the police academy. They would focus with our municipal police departments. They would also be the liaison with our State’s Attorney and Sheriff’s Office,” said Giordano.

The EAPS would also help the county to navigate recruitment and retention issues amidst first responder agencies.

“If we don’t have our volunteer firemen, we’re looks at $1 million to $2 million at least in fire. So, we need to make sure we’re helping them as much as possible, and this position would cover them, as well,” said Giordano. “We’re very much taking a holistic approach to public safety, and I think it’s super important because these are areas of concern, whether it’s salaries, requirement, retainment.”

Right Person for the Job

Giordano says the right person for the job would have extensive law enforcement background. She admits that public safety is not her area of expertise, and needs a helping hand in that respect.

“When I was out on the campaign trail, I noticed that a lot of people were concerned with public safety. It was definitely a huge point. We have the Police Accountability Board, the fire service agreement, we had issues in the 911 [center], we’ve had issues at corrections,” said Giordano. “Just having that contact person, I think, is super important.”

Also on the campaign trail, Giordano says she heard about a lack of communication from the County Executive’s office when it comes to supporting first responders.

“We are leaders here on the Shore. We have one of the largest counties here on the Shore, and I think it’s important for us to pave the way for this,” said Giordano.

Council’s Concerns

However, County Council has some concerns over Giordano’s plans. Council President John Cannon feels oversight of county emergency services is already covered by the Director of Administration’s role.

“The Council also feels that it’s somewhat of a redundancy in government services. Those in the public arena fell as well, as far as oversight is concerned that it’s creating another layer that’s not necessary,” said Cannon. “They feel it’s not necessary to grow government, it’s not the most efficient use of taxpayers’ dollars.”

Cannon says he also has concerns about how well a person selected for a highly specialized position would fare, should they transition to a different post.

“We don’t want to compromise the structures that are already in place for the orderly succession, and transfer of institutional knowledge, should the current Director of Administration leave,” said Cannon. “The structures are already in place, and have been for several years. We take our lead from the public safety arena, and those individuals are telling us they just don’t feel that this is necessary.”

Further, creating a new governmental position would require the public to weigh in via referendum, says Cannon.

“When you get into these types of changes, it’s really considered a reorganization. By charter, reorganization would have to be through a legislative bill, which is about a two-month process. Even after it’s approved, it’s about two more months before it can be implemented,” said Cannon. “By that time, you’re already in a new budget year. So, our recommendation is that if this position is still requested in the next few weeks, just put it in the Fiscal Year ’24 budget, and the Council can address it then.”

Looming Regulations

This debate unfolds as state level regulations on police accountability are being firmed up. In 2021, the Maryland General Assembly passed legislation requiring each county to establish a Police Accountability Review Board [PARB].

Giordano says this is a golden opportunity to hire someone who would be able to handle state requirements.

“It’s definitely something that’s not going anywhere. We need to get it right here, and I think no matter what side of the aisle you’re on, people want to make sure we get it right for anybody that’s involved in the situation,” said Giordano. “We want to make sure that we are in compliance. We want to make sure that we’re not battling against anything that’s going on state regulation wise. So, that’s why this position is so important.”

Two people appointed to Wicomico County’s PARB have not been actively working with the group, says Giordano. She also says the group still needs a judge who will review cases. Plus, Giordano says lawyer Andrew Illuminati has taken on the responsibility of overseeing the PARB for the time being; a job she says shouldn’t have fallen on him.

“He’s put in over 100 hours, and that’s taxpayer dollars paying a lawyer to do something that’s not a lawyer’s job. The legal aspect has been set up, everything’s in line, and it’s really time for someone from the Executive Office to take over,” said Giordano.

However, Cannon disputes Giordano’s claims. He says all necessary appointments have been made, and he is not aware of any pending cases that Wicomico County’s PARB has before them.

“I don’t see where this position has any impact whatsoever on what the Police Accountability Board might expect,” said Cannon.

Looking Ahead

The debate started at a January 17th County Council meeting, when Giordano presented her plan. On that day, Council asked Giordano for more support to back it up. Giordano says she is currently working on getting letters of support together for the next meeting on February 7th. Illuminati is also expected to send Council a letter, outlining why he believes the new position is needed, according to Giordano.

Giordano says she blames herself for not bringing more supporting evidence to the previous meeting. However, she remains confident that she will be able to convince Council to move forward with her idea.

“I think they needed to see that support, rather than this just being my idea put forward, when they see it as a community effort, that it is something that’s super important, that it is something that is going to help 107,000 people,” said Giordano. “I think we’re both very passionate about what we believe in. I know I am. And, I think at the end of the day they want to do what’s best for the constituents, and they’re looking out for what’s best for the constituents.”

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