July 2, 2003

Councilwoman Patty Powell said she is seriously considering asking the governor to remove County Council president Christopher Coons from office. She made that statement as she and two other Council Democrats angrily blasted Coons for lobbying the General Assembly to pass a measure that would make the heads of county departments beholden to the county executive for their jobs.

Coons, who also is a Democrat and makes no secret of his interest in succeeding Executive Tom Gordon, called that suggestion "ridiculous." But he partly apologized at a County Council executive committee meeting on July 1. However, he declared that his contrition applied only to the procedure he followed and not to the merits of the bill he was supporting.

Councilman Robert Weiner, a Republican, came to Coons's defense, saying that he was merely exercising constitutional rights to free expression and to influence legislation. Later in what became a heated exercise in political partisanship, Weiner acknowledged

that he and former county planning director Sean Tucker were responsible for having the bill drafted and getting Representative Wayne Smith to introduce it.

Smith, who is leader of the Republican majority in the House of Representatives, did so as the General Assembly was dealing with a pile of legislation to meet its adjournment deadline. The House agreed to a proverbial eleventh-hour suspension of rules and approved the measure by a 25-to-13 vote on June 25. The Senate, which has a Democrat majority, did not go along and the measure is now officially in committee in that chamber.

If passed and signed by the governor, the law would give the county executive power to appoint, with ratification by Council, and to remove from office the heads of the county's operating departments. That authority was taken away, at Gordon's behest, as part of the 1998 reorganization of county government. Directors became general managers and the jobs became merit-system or civil-service positions. Smith's bill does provide that future appointees "be qualified for the [respective] position by education, training and experience."

Sherry Freebery, the county's chief administrative officer, pointed out that Coons and Weiner, along with the rest of Council

Panel will study
metro government

In a sparsely noted but potentially highly significant action on June 30, the final day of its session, the state House of Representatives passed a resolution establishing a taskforce to study the possible merger of New Castle County and Wilmington city governments.

The measure was sponsored by David Ennis, Robert Valahjura and Wayne Smith, who represent Brandywine Hundred districts.

The 16-member panel was given a Mar. 1, 2004, deadline to submit its report.

at the time, supported the reorganization and, in particular, the replacement of political appointees with professional manager. "The Gordon administration asked your permission to restructure the government. You voted for it unanimously and the General Assembly codified it," she said.

Councilman Robert Woods said partisanship was obvious. "Why else would every Republican vote for it and every Democrat vote against it?" he said, adding that such results are rare in the Delaware legislature. Actually, one Republican, William Oberle, did break ranks and voted against the bill.

"The General Assembly [session] is over, but this issue isn't over," Woods said.

He, Powell and Councilwoman Karen Venezky were incensed that they were not made aware that legislation significantly affecting the county was to be introduced when Coons and Weiner were aware of it. "That is a serious infraction on your part," Venezky told Coons.

Powell was clearly the most aggrieved. "I take it personally. ... It shows a lot of disrespect and abuse of power on your part," she said. She said that Coons did seek an after-the-fact discussion with her as he did with other Council members. The executive committee meeting was convened 40 minutes after its scheduled starting time.

After Coons said he would "take full responsibility" for the process to which the Council members took exception, Powell told him, "It's too late to apologize; the damage is done."

For the most part, Coons, who presided at the executive committee meeting attended by an overflow audience, which included many county employees, sat silently as the Council members had their said. Weiner, however, took his part, saying that the right of appointment is a prerogative of just about every elected executive.

"The county executive, whether a Democrat or a Republican, should have to right to choose his own team," he said.

Objecting to what he referred to as "the stridency of the comments I'm hearing," Weiner said the Gordon administration's opposition to the proposed law reflects "an administration that would like to continue their authority beyond the time they are serving." Gordon is not eligible to seek re-election in 2004.

Asking for and receiving the privilege of the floor at the committee meeting, Freebery attempted to shift the onus of responsibility for Smith's bill to Weiner. He "want to run for county executive {and] be able to fire good people who have been merit-system employees," she said.

Freebery, who along with Gordon rushed to Dover on short notice to lobby against the bill, accused Weiner of "greasing the skids" in the Republican-controlled House and said Coons intended to do the same in the Democrat-controlled Senate.

"Ms. Freebery tried for 45 minutes to persuade [legislators] that it was not a good piece of legislation," Weiner said. To that, Woods responded, "If it is such a warm and wonderful piece of legislation, why did it have to be sleazed through?"

Suggesting that Council take a formal stand on the merits of Smith's bill, Freebery, who was appointed by Gordon to the county's second-ranking position and whose own candidacy for county executive is not beyond the realm of possibility, said, "If that's what you want, we will gladly appoint our political friends to be in there."

2003. All rights reserved.

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