October 16, 2002

Most, if not all, members of New Castle County Council now want to keep enforcement of county government's ethics code in-house. Council president Christopher Coons indicated, however, that it will likely take several more weeks to complete the process of putting the county Ethics Commission back on track.

Coons left open the possibility that the state Integrity Commission may be asked to assume jurisdiction over top officials who are in positions where they can exert potential control over the local panel, but the consensus of participants in a discussion of the issue at a meeting of Council's executive committee on Oct. 15 favored having its members 'independently appointed' as a way to shield them from undue pressure.

All five of Council's seven members who attended the meeting expressed support for retaining the county commission, which presently has no members or staff, but accompanying the new appointments with changes in the way it operates. All Council members are on its executive and other committees.

It was not clear where County Executive Thomas Gordon and his administration and the unions representing county employees stand. Asked to report on meetings with the executive, department managers and union officials, policy director Emily Knearl said only that they were "very productive." She offered no specifics and Council members did not press her for any.

Coons, who evidently participated in those meetings, said there are "some issues that still have to be addressed as we go forward with reconstiuting the county Ethics Commission." Foremost among those appears to be removing any appearance of political control. A close second is financing the commission's activities.

All seven commission members resigned in July in a dispute over financing. Since then, Council has been discussing whether to appoint new members or let the state panel take over. Citing an already heavy workload, the state commission has said it does not want to. Knearl previously recommended that the state keep an eye on about a dozen top people while the county panel handles cases involving rank-and-file county workers. If that is done, state legislation would be needed to keep the top county officials subject to the more stringent requirements of the county ethics code.

Coons questioned whether it would be a good idea to "force ourselves on the state commission" and the ensuring discussion indicated that Council members think rearranging the county commission's appointment procedure would be sufficient to do the trick.

Two possibilities were suggested. One would have the commission largely or entirely composed of people who serve by virtue of their office. Examples of ex-officio commissioners would be law professors and the president of the Bar Association. An alternative considered more likely would be to have such people serve as a proverbial 'blue-ribbon panel' to put forth candidates with Council and the county executive continuing to make the actual appointments. Council names four members and the executive the other three.

"You are going to have to make a strong statement for independence if you are going to get anybody who is top-notch to serve on the commission," Councilman Richard Abbott said.

While there seemed to be general agreement that the commission did not receive as much money as it should have been given, Councilman Robert Weiner and Abbott disagreed on how much is enough.

"Council needs to step up the the plate and appropriate enough funds for a full-time attorney and a full-time staff person," Weiner said. He suggested $75,000 and $30,000, respectively, as salaries for those positions with about $20,000 provided to finance operations. Commission members are not paid. Abbott said he thinks the commission can function, as it did in the past, with the lawyer and staffer working and being paid on, perhaps, a half-time basis.

"Active is going to mean more money," Councilman Robert Woods said, referring to Coons's comment that a re-established commission should have such expanded functions as an educational component to keep county workers abreast of ethical expectations.

Councilwoman Karen Venezky said that Council should take the opportunity "to be very explicit about what is expected" of the commission. In the past, she added, it "sort of wrote its own rules."

Councilmen Penrose Hollins and Christopher Roberts did not attend the meeting.

Coons gave no timetable for proceeding to resolve the issue. "We have to begin drafting revisions of the code that will accomplish the major points" and clarify such things as how the ethics commission's operations dovetail with the unions' grievance procedure.

2002. All rights reserved.

Get more information about this topic

Read previous story: Still waiting

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

Return to Delaforum home page