August 13, 2001

County Council President Christopher Coons wants Councilman Richard Abbott to reimburse the county for the cost of postage used to solicit support for not excluding part of southeastern Christiana Hundred from his district. Abbott, meanwhile, said he will attempt to get Council to override its reapportionment commission's recommendation to do so.

In a memo to county auditor Richard Blevins, Coons said that after reviewing the contents of the controversial letter he concluded that it "does not convey information that furthers county concerns but, rather, it appears to be a personal plea for public support for the position that he (Abbott) was elected to."

Abbott, through Jeffrey Schlerf, his representative on the commission, opposed splitting his Third District along the freight railroad line that bisects Greenville and giving the southern portion, which also includes Westover Hills, to Robert Weiner's Second District. Under the plan approved by the commission, Abbott is slated pick up some territory along the state's arc near Newark. A proposal by Schlerf which was rejected by the commission would have moved the Rockford-Kentmere

RLAbbott.jpg (7977 bytes) RSWeiner2.jpg (6580 bytes)

section of Wilmington into the Second District.

In the letter Abbott, who lives in Centreville, maintained that the disputed portion of his district should be retained because Weiner, a Brandywine Hundred resident, is more attuned to that area.

Weiner has disputed that, claiming that he has supported Greenville community interests in the past and accusing Abbott of deliberately lying about his record. "I

have a long track record of championing Greenville's causes," he said.

The letter on county stationery reportedly went to 560 addresses. That amounts to $190 worth of postage.

Delaforum has learned that one resident of Abbott's district filed a complaint with Coons over alleged misuse of taxpayer money in sending out the letter. In addition to postage, the complaint also referred to the cost of stationery and clerical time to prepare and mail the letter. Except for noting that Abbott should have used his personal letterhead, Coons's memo did not refer to those things.

Stephanie Warhol, assistant to county clerk Betsy Gardner, who was on vacation, confirmed that a complaint had been received, but said she could not 'release' its contents until Abbott has had a chance to comment.

She would not confirm a report that Coons plans to refer the matter to Council's executive committee, which he chairs ex officio as Council president.

When asked by Delaforum about the complaint, Abbott responded, "What complaint? I don't know about any complaint." That comment was obviously intended to be taken facetiously.

He went on to say that, at worst from his point of view, there had been "just one telephone call from a citizen with some objection" compared to what he said was "a preponderance of support for my position" from the affected area. He said he had, through Aug. 10, received more than 25 letters and e.mails agreeing with him.

All eight people who spoke to the question at a public hearing held by the commission before it approved the plan testified that they did not want to be moved to Weiner's district, mainly because fragmentation of the Greenville community would lessen its influence on issues which affect it.

Although Delaforum could not independently confirm the identity of the complainant, it is believed to have been a civic activist who lives at a location in the Third District that is to continue to be represented by Abbott if he is re-elected in 2002, when reapportionment takes effect.

Abbott said the fuss over the letter beclouds "the real issue" which he said is "a handful of people who say they know better what the public wants than the public does."

He said the public hearing was a "sham" in that the only relevant material entered into the record there was not even considered when the commission took its vote. "Why even bother to go to the trouble to hold a hearing when you have no intention of listening to what the public has to say?" Abbott said.

He added that Council members are now in a position to decide whether they, too, are willing to thwart what he called "a clear expression of the public will."

 Essentially, he said, Greenville would be the only area of the county where reapportionment would be allowed to run counter to voter desires. Among the criteria used by the commission in its deliberations was a provision that a Council member not be given an undesired area nor an area assigned to a Council member against its will. In the approved plan, a minor bit of gerrymandering excludes Holloway Terrace from the Fourth District.

The recommendation currently is being translated from lines on a map to text for inclusion in a ordinance to be introduced when County Council returns from its summer recess on Sept. 11.

It is considered highly unlikely that Abbott could prevail in getting his colleagues to overturn the commission recommendation. It was approved by a 5-1 vote, with Schlerf voting against it and Tyrone Johnson, who represented Fourth District Councilman Penrose Hollins, absent but known to be supportive.

Although the commission took a bipartisan approach to reapportionment, another factor is that Coons and four Council members are Democrats and Abbott and Weiner, its only Republicans, obviously do not see eye-to-eye on this. Both the Second and Third Districts are regarded as 'safe' Republican turf.

Weiner acknowledged that he had intended to seek a resolution of the issue before it became public and would have been willing to accept Abbott's plan or something like it. Weiner's district has lost population since 1990 and has to be enlarged so that all areas of the county have nearly equal representation.

The letter and particularly its wording -- which Weiner took to be a "personal attack" on himself -- precluded any compromise.

Dave Jones, Republican chairman for New Castle County, attempted to mediate on the grounds that such squabbling would only alienate loyalist voters, not to mention financial contributors, and play into the hands of Democrats who want to extend their sway in the county.

While indicating that he sympathizes with "many Greenville residents [who] do not want to see their neighborhood split in half," Jones attempted to minimize the fuss.

"It's like brothers fighting over who gets the big bedroom when the oldest brother moves off to college," he told Delaforum. "This will all work out. Like all family dust-ups this, too, shall pass."

2001. All rights reserved.

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