News

March 12, 2003

There is virtually no chance that the state law expanding New Castle County Council to 13 members, from the present seven, will be repealed or altered, according to Council president Christopher Coons.

"We could probably get [enactment of] a change in the [state] Senate [but] I don't think we could do it in the House [of Representatives]," he told a meeting of Council's executive committee on Mar. 11. He explained that a strong Republican majority in the lower house "which won't even discuss it in caucus" would be all but impossible to overcome. Democrats control the Senate.

Since voter registrations would seem to indicate that dividing present districts, as required by the law, would create seats for at least three new Republicans and possibly as many as five, that division is not explicable by partisan politics. Council, which presently consists of six representative districts and a president elected at-large, has five Democrats and two Republicans.

Coons said that when  he attempted in 2001 to lobby the General Assembly on behalf of a Council resolution asking that the law be amended to provide for a nine-member Council, in lieu of the present seven-member body, he had "a polite, brief exchange [and] the answer was 'no'." The law was enacted five years ago and takes effect for the November, 2004, general election.

Because neither Delaware's three counties nor its incorporated municipalities, including Wilmington, Newark and Dover, have home rule, the state legislature controls the shape of their governments and sets the groundrules for how they are to function.

Council member William Tansey said a more recent conversation with Representative Wayne Smith, majority leader in the House of Representatives had the same result. "He said 'no and that's the end of the conversation'," Tansey said. Councilwoman Karen Venezky said she "got the same response" when she attempted to raise the issue with Smith at a recent breakfast meeting with legislators.

Smith disputed Tansey's account saying that it neither reflected his attitude toward receiving opposing views nor accurately described their discussion of the issue. But the legislator told Delaforum he remains opposed to changing the law. "I think the current law is fine," he said. "We've talked about this several times in [the Republican] caucus and there does not seem to be much support at all for rolling back the expansion."

Referring at the executive committee meeting to an effort by the Council of Civic Organizations of Brandywine Hundred to have the law repealed in favor of further study, Penrose Hollins said, "They're just kidding themselves. They should stop wasting everyone's time."

Brandywine Council has enlisted the support of the Civic League for New Castle County, a broader umbrella civic group, according to William Narcowich, its president. He told the County Council committee that his organization passed a resolution at its January meeting adopting the Brandywine Council's position by a vote of 20-to-4. The resolution, which he said had not previously been made public pending preparation of a more clearly worded one, superceded one passed in 2001 calling for the law to be amended to provide for a nine-member County Council.

Narcowich said he still favors nine -- eight district representatives and a president elected at-large -- so that Council members are in "closer touch with the community" and to prevent the possibility that a majority of them could live in incorporated areas rather than the unincorporated areas in which 75% of the county's population lives. Hollins, who lives in Wilmington, took issue with the implication that such members do not act for the benefit of the county as a whole.

Brandywine Council president Daniel Bockover, who did not attend the executive committee meeting, previously has said his main objection to a larger County Council is the additional cost that it will incur.

County Council member Robert Woods said he voted in favor of the 2001 resolution but no feels there has been enough change in the way that county government handles land use matters -- by far the bulk of Council's work -- to justify "taking a second look" at the issue. Specifically, he referred to far fewer controversial rezoning requests coming before Council following enactment of the Unified Development Code.

Woods said he now favors retaining the present seven-member setup but accepts the fact that the law calls for expansion. "People are confused," he said, but added that that "is the law; it has happened."

Tansey, who was elected to Council in November, said he is surprised by the amount of time the position, which is considered a part-time effort, entails. "I'm in here [several] hours a day," he said. He agreed with Hollins that the law is not likely to be changed. "I think we're wasting our time; we just have to accept it," he said.

Coons did not take a vote or poll of members' positions, but concluded that the consensus of the committee meeting was that "seven would be better than not expanding" but that Council will comply fully and in good faith with the law if it is not altered between now and June 30, when the General Assembly adjourns the present session. All Council members are members of the executive committee.

Carol Dulin, its lawyer, said that Council by Aug. 1 will have to establish an ad hoc commission, composed of representatives of each of the present Council members, to set geographic boundaries creating the additional districts. That will provide  the required 90 days to complete its work so that Council can approve the new districts by Oct. 31, which is 60 days before they are to become final by Dec. 31.

To a lay observer, it would seem that the commission's work will be simply a matter of drawing either north-south or east-west lines across present districts, splitting them into two zones with nearly equal population. The law requires that those populations not deviate more than 15% from the average of all districts, but Council set a plus or minus 5% as the standard when districts were reapportioned for the 2002 election and the commission established for that task was able to meet it.

The law said that present districts should simply be divided, rather than requiring all-new districts, since 2000 U.S. Census data remains the basis for the apportionment.

Nevertheless, Dulin said, the commission and Council will have to be attentive to such details as assuring that candidates to represent the additional districts are able to meet the one-year residency requirement and that the new districts are numbered appropriately. Presumably, the portion of the existing district in which the present Council member lives becomes the 'old' district and the other portion will be the 'new' one. Present members will not stand for re-election in 2004. Electing the new ones to four-year terms then will provide for a staggered Council membership.

Coons said that Dulin's timetable essentially gives Council until July to begin the districting process. The Assembly is slated to adjourn its present session on June 30. "If nothing is done [to change the law] by then, we'll be ready to move forward," he said.

2003. All rights reserved.

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