WBOC 16: Md. Comptroller Berates Wicomico Co. Executive, Claims 'Economic Sabotage' of Natio
SALISBURY, Md.- The Maryland Comptroller's Office is claiming Wicomico County Executive Bob Culver attempted "economic sabotage" to the National Folk Festival a mere two weeks before it was to take place.
It began with an Aug. 27 letter that Culver, a Republican, sent to Maryland Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller. In the letter, Culver said his appointed local Board of License Commissioners were not consulted at all about beer and wine licenses for the folk festival, and claimed what the comptroller of Maryland did was illegal.
But in a five-page letter to Culver dated Sept. 13, Len Foxwell, a Democrat and the Maryland comptroller's chief of staff, said the comptroller's office was not made aware of Culver's "surreptitious" letter to Miller. Foxwell said the idea of those licenses being illegal is simply not true.
"If you will indulge my personal observation, I would suggest that, rather than engaging in mock outrage that the comptroller acted without the blessing of your political cronies, you should be personally embarrassed that we needed to be called in the first place," Foxwell wrote Culver.
Foxwell added, "At no point have I seen a chief executive of a local government conduct official business in such an unprofessional manner."
Foxwell also made note of the letter's timing, shortly before 150,000 people came to Salisbury for the National Folk Festival, which was held Sept. 6-8.
"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 people 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," Foxwell wrote.
However, Culver said this was not about the National Folk Festival. He said that instead, it was about being fair to all alcohol licenses.
"What's to stop any other place from letting people walk around outside with alcohol?" Culver told WBOC. "What Peter Franchot did was issue a festival license for what are supposed to be nonprofit Maryland beer and wine festivals. This was not that."
Salisbury Area Chamber of Commerce CEO Bill Chambers was copied on Foxwell's letter. Chambers said actions like this tend to bring negative attention to a growing Salisbury economy. In a statement to WBOC, Chambers said, "We need to move forward as a community when it comes to the growth of business in Salisbury, not stifle it."
Culver told WBOC he will speak publicly on Monday about this conflict, adding there is much more to his story.
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The exchange opened questions of the executive's intentions regarding the festival that projected about $20 million in total impact for area economy in 2018 and brought more than 150,000 attendees to Salisbury this year.
According to a graphic released after the event, more than half of gross sales from National Folk Festival came from beer and wine sales this year.
It also highlights a trend of animosity apparent between the city and county levels of government — from lawsuits to independent firefighters and now alcohol permits.
State Delegate Carl Anderton, R-38B Wicomico, for one was in shock on Friday that this dialogue happened.
"I'm blown away by it," the Republican lawmaker said with a pause. "It’s just more of the same petty political stuff. ... Imagine if it had worked and those permits were lost? If that part’s gone — it would have been catastrophic."
But Culver said people are jumping to conclusions on his intentions.
"We were not trying to stop the festival," the executive said in a news conference Monday afternoon. "I never asked to shut the festival down or tried to put a stop to it."
Issues brewing with alcohol permits
Roughly two weeks before the festival, Culver sent his letter to the Democrat Senate president asserting Comptroller Peter Franchot broke the law in granting the alcohol licenses — also citing concern the local Board of License Commissioners in Wicomico County was "totally circumvented."
Culver said the licenses were in violation of Maryland's Article 2B, not being a nonprofit beer or wine festival to specifically promote Maryland products, and that areas where alcohol could be served should have been limited to "confined areas" to ensure public safety.
Salisbury Mayor Jake Day said the event, hosted by the 501(c)(3) nonprofit National Council for the Traditional Arts, went through appropriate channels to obtain the permits — a process independent of the county's board.
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The mayor also said the weekend saw no alcohol related incidents or violations.
The Maryland Code’s Alcoholic Beverages section 1-304, referenced by the comptroller's office, 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.”
Franchot approved this year's licenses, just as he did a year before.
For Culver, this isn't the first time he expressed issue with the licensing.
He said letters as well as phone calls were directed to the comptroller's office in 2018, where the board echoed similar complaints of legality.
The comptroller's office said it responded in 2018 to Culver's inquiry, stating the staff "worked to address each of (his) concerns."
The executive said he decided this year to reach out to "the next highest elected official that could possibly help," though it's not clear what the senate president could have done to affect the situation
Culver said he hoped and still hopes to sit down with Franchot and discuss the permitting, and he repeated multiple times in the conference Monday he had no intention of bringing the festival to a halt.
A dialogue should have started following reaching out to the comptroller in 2018, according to Wayne Strausburg, director of administration in the county executive's office.
"We've had a year since then," he said. "That never happened. I've said this before on other issues. We're better than this. And if we're not, we should be."
Speaking on behalf of the comptroller's office, chief of staff Len Foxwell sent a response to the executive Friday.
“In this letter — which was forwarded to our office at our request on Sept. 12 — you expressed specific displeasure with the nonprofit beer and wine festival permits," Foxwell wrote.
"Given that you raised the issue in your private correspondence with Senate President Miller, allow me to respond to your charge that we ‘circumvented’ the Board of License Commissioners," he continued. "Like you, we were quite surprised that the Comptroller of Maryland was called upon to exercise our lawful duties in the first place."
Knowing the magnitude of the festival and its economic impact "cannot be overstated," Foxwell said his office took great care in reviewing the city's applications, including a site visit by senior officials to the grounds.
The county maintains its own board for approving such licenses — Culver's own aide A. Kaye Kenney a chairwoman — yet both years the city applied with the Comptroller's office for the necessary permits.
Day said rumors had been circling that permits for the festival in 2018 might be blocked, so the call was made to approach it through the comptroller.
The mayor also said applications are filed with the comptroller for Friday events each month in the city, as well as the Autumn Wine Festival, which is under Wicomico County jurisdiction, without issue.
"We serve beer and wine every month," Day said. "Why didn't he oppose?"
Richard Duvall, attorney for the state-appointed Wicomico County Board of License Commissioners, said these licenses are different than what the comptroller issued for the festival.
Duvall said the permit issued was intended for a nonprofit event "where the primary purpose of the sale of the alcohol is the promotion of Maryland, either wine or beer."
Day touched on that idea before the news conference, noting brands like Evo Lot 3 among other local names were featured at the festival.
Amid differing interpretations of recent events, the letters sparked assumptions across Facebook and other platforms — as many thought the goal was sinister.
"To send a letter of this nature less than two weeks before the Festival ..." Foxwell wrote, "is nothing less than a gesture of economic sabotage against those very
people who have trusted in your leadership."
An apparent trend in animosity
In one way or another, it seems Salisbury and Wicomico County have never particularly gotten along.
Day said he knew coming into his role as mayor there had been "decades of tension between city and county."
Anderton said it's an "unhidden fact" the senate president and comptroller Franchot do not get along, and he said the Day-Culver relationship isn't much different.
And it comes at both sides.
The city and the county executive have been found at odds on multiple subjects — such as the splitting of volunteer fire Station 13 in 2017 and the territory it would inhabit, city-county tax bills, as well as independent projects such as marathons or the National Folk Festival.
In spring 2018, Wicomico County sued its neighbors in the Government Office Building over an air conditioning system.
The differences pre-dated Day or Culver's elections, and as city and county administration were set to meet and discuss the bill, the county executive moved to seek $354,673 from the city via Wicomico County Circuit Court, as previously reported by Delmarva Now.
Day and Culver have agreed on some subjects, though, eventually coming to a long-needed Fire Services Agreement in 2017 as well as other initiatives.
"I have no problem with Jake," Culver said, having been out-and-about festival weekend this year. "I have no problem with the festival. ... As far as Jake's enthusiasm and drive for improving Salisbury — I'm all for it."
But as the mayor sees it, the latest instance exceeds the trend.
"So is it all connected to sort of that pattern of county-city?" Day said. "You know, I don't think it's connected because if you look ... it's an anomaly, right? It is a disproportionate response."
The future of alcohol sale at Folk Fest
Culver hopes change can come to the permitting process.
"We need to come together," he said.
Anderton expressed concern with bad precedent.
"Human pride is a fragile thing," he said, hoping the executive's letter doesn't cause future problems for the county. "It can be your natural instinct to hold a grudge."
Just a few hundred feet down the hall from each other, the question remains as to whether the city will now approach the comptroller earlier or apply through the county board come next summer.
"If the concern is public safety, look no further than the event having no public safety incidents, no alcohol violations, no violations of the state permits," Day said, defending the festival. "I mean, don't those things matter? Doesn't that evidence matter?"
Salisbury is set to host the festival for one more year, and then the city looks to continue hosting its own take on the national festival as the years continue.
"It's not something I am going to waste much time thinking about, you know, as I lay my head in bed," Day said of Culver's assertions. "I will go about doing all the other things that we have to do."