News

July 17, 2001

County Councilman Richard Abbott charged that the Gordon Administration is intent not only on torpedoing his political career but also taking down an entire economic segment of the community with him.

At a workshop-style public hearing on July 16 he described a proposed ordinance which would prohibit Council members from representing, assisting or benefiting from an association with a real estate developer as "the 'Let's Get Rich Abbott Act of 2001'." Abbott, a lawyer by profession, has clients in the real estate and development business.

"This legislation is not about ethics; it has nothing to do with ethics," he said. By branding developers and those who work with them, the law would discriminate against "thousands of hard-working, honest and law-abiding people," he said.

His wife, Jill, was even stronger in her comments, calling the proposed law an example of "political payback" and claiming that "we're here (at the hearing) because of hate."

Councilwoman Karen Venezky, who is primary sponsor of the legislation and chaired the session, attempted to rule Jill

Abbott out of order, but Councilman Penrose Hollins called for a vote by Council members present on whether to let her proceed. After a show of hands by an overwhelming majority of attenders and a brief shouting match between Richard Abbott and a member of the audience, Venezky yielded.

Jill Abbott went on to say that an alleged vendetta by County Executive Thomas Gordon and Sherry Freeberry, the county's chief administrative officer, is taking a toll on the Abbotts' family life and "doing irreparable harm to my unborn child."

Venezky said the legislation is necessary to plug 'loopholes' in state and county conflict-of-interest regulations. "The potential for conflict [of interest] still

Councilman Richard Abbott (seated at the table) makes a point at the workshop-style hearing, presided over by Councilwoman Karen Venezky (far right).

exists. I don't want to see that potential in there," she said.

Because land-use regulation is the primary function of county government, "lawyers and others who derive personal gain from land use should not be allowed to serve on County Council," she said. "We can turn a developer into a multimillionaire by just one vote on Council."

Earlier Richard Abbott told Delaforum that the proposed ordinance is just the culmination of a series of steps  Gordon and Freeberry have taken to prevent his being re-elected in 2002. Freeberry, in particular, he said, has "told me they were going to make me pay for my opposition."

That opposition, he said, goes back more than a year to when he raised questions about payment of county funds to subcontractors building the now-open Police Athletic League facility in Hockessin. He also cited his vote against this year's operating and capital budgets on the grounds that they allocated too much money and more employees than necessary to Rockwood Mansion Park. Both projects are Gordon Administration showpieces.

Neither Gordon, Freeberry nor the county's press spokesman, Tom Hubbard, responded to a Delaforum request for comment.

Several speakers at the hearing, which drew a standing-room-only audience, took issue with Venezky, claiming that singling out one economic segment is discriminatory and that doing so has the effect of besmirching anyone associated with the development community. "We have been indicted and found guilty. ... You have said [we] are all without integrity and ethics," said Roy Locker, who been in the construction business for many years.

"The simplest thing to do with this ordinance is to throw it into the nearest wastebasket," said civic activist Marion Stewart.

Venezky drew support from several others. John Flaherty, who lobbies for Common Cause, a 'good-government' organization, said it is important that "elected officials who serve the public not give an appearance of impropriety." Vic Singer, chairman of the New Castle County Planning Board said "County Councilmen who make the final decisions [on land use issues] should be held to a higher standard."

Venezky herself had the last word when she closed the session by remarking that "the majority of you who testified in opposition did so out of personal bias because you would be affected."

Interestingly enough, the proposed ordinance prohibits anyone who has a business or professional association with a developer from serving on Council. If read literally, however, it apparently does not prohibit a developer from running for office and serving. Existing ethics codes require that a Council member with a personal interest in a specific piece of legislation or other matter disqualify himself from voting on that issue.

Wording of the ordinance also appears designed to skirt imposing an obviously unconstitutional test on candidates running for office, but Richard Abbott claimed it is still unconstitutional because it hampers freedom of association. Venezky pushed aside the constitutionality question saying that she is in the process of obtaining legal advise on that.

County Attorney William Rhodunda said the proposal will be reworked to take into consideration some of the objections that has been voiced, but indicated he thinks it would past constitutional muster. In addition to the open hearing, he said he had "talked with the Delaware Bar Association about it."

"This is four members of County Council promoting good government," he said.

Abbott, who lives in Centreville and represents the heavily Republican Third District is one of two Republicans on Council. He claims to be the only "bona fide, dyed-in-the-wool Republican" on the panel. He has frequently been at odds, both politically and personally, with his colleague, Councilman Robert Weiner, who had been registered as a Democrat before becoming actively involved in politics in the also heavily Republican Second District. Weiner, who has been generally supportive of the Gordon Administration, is a co-sponsor of the controversial ordinance along with Democratic Council members Robert Woods and Christopher Roberts.

Abbott, who at times can be abrasive in expressing his views, said his opposition to several measures supported by the Democratic administration is not unusual in the U.S. two-party system. "All over the country Republicans in legislative bodies disagree with Democrats every day and vice versa. That's how it's done," he said.

But, he charged Gordon and Freeberry are unwilling to tolerate any form of opposition. "Their degree of vindictiveness is endless," he said.

He said that his attempt to obtain a copy of "the real sewer maps" for use at a June 21 meeting of County Council's Special Services Committee was thwarted even after he issued a subpoena for them, which he said was within his power as chairman to do. That led, he said, to his being ousted from the chairmanship at a meeting of Council's Executive Committee on July 3. The posted agenda for that meeting, he said, did not include that action.

Council President Christopher Coons, who has the authority to appoint and dismiss committee chairs, took the Special Services chairmanship himself. Abbott charged that Coons had been pressured by the Gordon Administration to remove him from the chairmanship for a considerable length of time and the issuance of a subpoena against county employees "gave him an excuse to do so." Coons did not respond to a Delaforum request for comment.

Council has six standing committees and every member of Council is a member of all of them with, until now, each member chairing one. The Council president chairs the Executive Committee.

Abbott said the maps in question are color-coded to show sewer capacity -- "something the administration doesn't want the public to see." Nevertheless, he added, the maps are public documents.

The councilman said also that "several people who live in my district" have told him they have been approached to challenge his nomination for re-election next year. If someone steps forward it presumably would force a Republican primary in that district. Abbott said he is willing to go that route, which he said would demonstrate constituent support.

He said also that he does not plan to contest his removal from the committee chairmanship.

2001. All rights reserved.

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