July 23, 2003

Most of County Council backed up one of their own after he accused the Gordon administration of political plagiarism, but then, in effect, lent support to the executive in the dispute over how department heads should be selected. It all resulted in a rather raucous last day before the lawmakers' summer recess.

Councilman Robert Woods agreed to table an ordinance which would give owners a five-year tax exemption for rehabilitating properties deemed historic. Councilman Robert Weiner told his colleagues that he had been working on drafting such legislation for more than two years, but had been unable to get the Department of Land Use to complete the work necessary to come up with an ordinance in final form ready for introduction.

"I was told by general manager [Charles] Baker that my ordinance was going to be reported out but given to Councilwoman [Patty] Powell to sponsor," Weiner told a meeting of Council's finance and administrative committee. Powell introduced the measure, which Weiner said parallels with some differences what he had in mind, on July 8 and it was slated for enactment at the July 22 session, the last before Council takes off, as it usually does, for the month of August.

Council did approve, by a four-to-two vote, a measure which, in effect, clears the way for County Executive Tom Gordon to appoint a director of public safety. Gordon had opposed state legislation restoring the executive's appointment authority on the grounds that it had never actually been taken away.

Sherry Freebery, the county's chief administrative officer, pointed out to the committee that Gordon had included a recommendation for an historic tax credit in his 2002 budget address. She said the completed draft was developed at the behest of the administration and given to Powell to sponsor in her capacity as chair of Council's land use committee. Councilwoman Karen Venezky, who chairs the administrative committee, said that procedure is not unusual. "All of us have been given pieces of legislation to sponsor," she said.

Woods, who said he agreed to manage the ordinance in Powell's absence before he was aware of the ramifications of quick passage, agreed with Weiner that a vote should be delayed until all concerned have had an opportunity to blend the two versions into a 'consensus'  version. "If it has been two years [in the making], I don't see any pressing urgency," he said.

Whether a meeting of the minds will be possible, however, is very much up in the air, given the heated nature of some of the remarks exchanged before Venezky cut off discussion at the committee meeting.

Weiner said that usurping his sponsorship "is one of my many punishments" for opposing Gordon and Freebery.

He charged that Gordon has refused to meet with him to discuss various matters appropriate to his legislative role. Freebery countered that that was because Weiner had said he would not meet with Gordon unless there was a witness present, a comment she indicated was regarded as an insult.

Weiner is a Republican and Gordon, who, in keeping with normal practice, was not at the committee meeting nor Council session, is a Democrat. But observers agree that their relationship has deteriorated far beyond partisan politics into one of personal animosity. There have been several recent indications that has begun to adversely affect the course of community activities in the Brandywine and Christiana Hundreds district which Weiner represents.

Council president Christopher Coons said at the committee meeting that he was "unhappy to see" an attempt to move the historic tax credit proposal forward in the way it was. To the extent that constituted "retribution [against] a Councilperson in disfavor with the administration," it jeopardizes "the cooperative relationship between the legislative and executive branches," he said. "I'm concerned about the chaos being created," he added.

Councilman Penrose Hollins was more direct in his criticism. He said it was "unethical" to usurp a legislator's work on a piece of legislation.

There was no discussion, either in the committee or on the floor of Council concerning the merits of the proposed ordinance. In summary, it would allow the tax exemption on the first $150,000 of assessed property value; require the land use department's approval of planned renovations or property improvements and certification that the work was done; and limit the total value of exemptions throughout the county to $50,000, with their being granted on a sequential basis and an applicant qualifying for only one property.

The ordinance was tabled on a voice vote with Venezky dissenting.

The ordinance creating the directorship -- actually reestablishing a position that existed before Gordon early in his tenure reorganized county government -- took the form of amending the pay scale for non-union employees in positions outside the scope of the civil service-like 'merit' system. A director of public safety was inserted into the top pay grade, which calls for an annual salary ranging between $76,570 and $118,787. The county's chief attorney is also in that pay grade.

Coons said creating the position "largely resolves" the issue which has flared openly since he and Weiner attempted to have the General Assembly in the closing days of its recent session restore the authority of the county executive to appoint directors to head county operating departments. Those positions were done away with in favor of 'merit system' general managers several years ago when the Assembly enacted legislation implementing the reorganization. The proposed legislation, introduced by Republican majority leader Wayne Smith into and passed by the House of Representatives, is presently in a Senate committee.

The matter of the extent of the executive's powers under present law or the need for new legislation "will be finally settled in January, 2005", Coons said. That is when Gordon's successor takes office. Coons and Freebery, both Democrats, and Weiner, a Republican, are known to aspire to be that person.

Coons acknowledged that Council does not have the power to confirm or reject the county executive's appointment to the new position. Except for the possibility it will have to increase the number of authorized county employees to create a slot for the appointee, approval of the pay scale ordinance was "all we need to do to put in motion the procedure to fill the post," he said.

Freebery told Delaforum that Gordon does not yet have a candidate for the position and that the intention is to wait until a new chief of county police is selected to obtain his or her 'input'. She said there is a short list of five candidates for the chief's position, all of whom are members of the force holding the rank of lieutenant or higher. She said the selection probably will be made and announced before the end of August. Both Gordon and Freebery formerly were chiefs of police.

She told the administrative committee that the position is a viable one, intended to oversee the police force, the paramedics force and the 9-1-1 communications operation. The director will "implement policies, procedures and directives issued by the executive or myself," she said. The heads of each of the units, she added, will report to the director, but will be charged with the day-to-day management of their respective units.

The final step before the committee cleared the ordinance for floor action was hearing former state attorney general Charles Oberly opine that Council still has the legal authority to create directorships and the executive can fill the positions. "You can do anything under state law unless the state specifically takes [the power] away from you," he said.

Weiner charged at the Council session that the public safety directorship was a "red herring" put forth by the Gordon administration to 'prove' that the controversial state legislation is not needed. He then read into the record a statement which, in effect, amounted to a brief in support of that legislation.

Although he said he was tired of hearing about what is essentially a state issue, Hollins said he joined Weiner in voting against the ordinance because he was not convinced of the need for the high-paid position.

William Narcowich and Richard Davis, past and present president of the Civic League for New Castle County, testified against passage of the ordinance on the grounds that the public was not aware of its contents because of an allegedly deceptive title which referenced only the pay scale and not the directorship. Narcowich said that "amounted to false advertising." Both men said they testified as interested county residents and not on behalf of the league.

Council escaped involvement in yet another contentious matter when it found itself unable to vote on an ordinance to provide an opportunity for county employees to 'buy into' a more beneficial pension plan. The measure is said to benefit a limited number of people associated with the Gordon administration. Council could not act because it has not yet received a recommendation from the Pension Board. Legislation affecting pensions is among certain categories that require an advisory opinion before Council action.

2003. All rights reserved.

Return to Delaforum Newsfront

Get more information about this topic

Read previous story: Environmental ordinance, hospital's waiver approved by Council
Read previous story: Fellow Democrats decry Coons's lobbying

What is your opinion about the topic of this article?
Click here to express your views.