September 11, 2002

County Council President Christopher Coons put off consideration by Council's executive committee of a proposal designed to resolve the ethics enforcement dilemma to allow time for consultation with the Gordon administration, the union representing county workers and the state Public Integrity Commission.

"Not everyone who should have been consulted was given the opportunity to have input," he said on Sept. 10 at a reconvened meeting of the committee. "I think it is premature for us to get too far down the road."

While sticking to a previous position that the situation should be brought to timely resolution, he said "it is more important that we get it resolved correctly." He did not indicate how long he now thinks that might take.

Those remarks came as a surprise to observers who has expected the committee to move quickly to end the impasse created when all seven members of the unpaid County Ethics Commission resigned in a dispute over how much should be budgeted to enable its part-time attorney  to handle a growing caseload.

Coons had pointedly recessed the executive committee's bi-weekly meeting on Sept. 3 so that it could reassemble for substantive discussion of the issue as soon as policy director Emily Knearl completed work on a report which would answer several technical questions and make recommendations on how to proceed. Foremost consideration in her assignment was  to resolve the impasse over whether county government should continue to have its own ethics-review commission or shift ethics code enforcement to the state commission.

Knearl completed work on the document and distributed it internally, as scheduled, on Sept. 6. [Delaforum is providing the full text of the report. Use the link at the end of this article to access it.]

As Delaforum previously reported, its pivotal  recommendation is for the county to keep most ethics enforcement in-house but to ask the state commission to keep an eye on the 11 to 18 county officials considered to have the power to compromise the local commission. Knearl maintains in her report that that would remove any vestige of possibly improper political control of the quasijudicial county commission. Included in the group under state jurisdiction would be members of Council,  the county executive, chief administrative officer, county attorney and department managers.

However, she links that proposal with a recommendation that the county seek state legislation that would empower the state agency to make the county's top brass subject to the more stringent standards, comparable to those that would still apply to the some 1,600 rank-and-file county employees.

As Knearl points out, present state law exempts local elected officials, appointees and employees required by New Castle County law to do so from having to file a financial disclosure form. State officials are required to file such forms; however, real estate interests are exempted from the state disclosure requirement.

"If a state law is passed to require financial disclosure by New Castle County officials, appointees and [some] employees, it should include the requirement that real estate information be disclosed," Knearl's report said.

Coons did not specifically refer to that point while explaining his reason for delaying executive committee discussion of the report, but Richard Abbott, the only Council member to address its contents at the meeting, did so obliquely when he said, "I think it is a fine idea to have county officials [subject to] the Public Integrity Commission. It will take the politics out of it."

All seven members of Council are members of the executive committee, as they are of all other Council committees. Coons is chairman. All but Councilman Christopher Roberts attended the reconvened session, but none of the others spoke to the contents of the report, copies of which were distributed to members of the general public before the session began 45 minutes past its scheduled time.

Coons said afterwards that the Council members did not caucus before the session and that he had spoken to them only on an individual basis to ask if they had received copies of the report. He apologized for but did not explain the delay other than to indicate that it had no bearing on the course of the proceedings.

As to the Knearl's report, Coons at the meeting referred to it as "a good first crack at this issue." But he seemed to want to distance himself from its head-on approach when he added that "it does not represent the opinion of County Council or county government."

Knearl, whose position on County Council's staff is relatively new, was present at the session but did not comment.

Coons went on to indicate that he prefers settling the issue by consensus rather than "having lawyers arguing over different interpretations."

While agreeing with Abbott that ethics in government is a major public concern, he said ethics enforcement is a complex thing which does not lend itself to easy answers.

"There are politics and political effects all over the place," he said. "I'm not sure any other government in the country has gotten it absolutely right."

2002. All rights reserved.

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