September 9, 2002

County lawmakers will be advised to resolve the ethics enforcement dilemma by keeping most of it in-house while asking the state Public Integrity Commission to keep an eye on officials who have the power to compromise the local commission.

New Castle County Council's executive committee is to receive a set of recommendations at a special meeting on Sept. 10 which, if followed, would 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.

County Council and the executive branch, which jointly provide members of the autonomous commission, have been undecided whether to appoint new members or turn the commission's function over the the state agency, which handles ethics enforcement for Kent and Sussex Counties as well as state government.

Delaforum has learned that county policy director Emily Knearl will recommend that both paths be followed.

In a report prepared for the executive committee, she recommends that the local commission be, in effect, reconstituted and continue to monitor compliance with the county code of conduct by some 1,600 rank-and-file county employees.

Adherence to the code by the 11 to 18 county officials who have any say over policies and the commission's financing, however, should be monitored by the state commission. Knearl maintains that would remove any vestige of possibly improper political control of the quasijudicial county commission. Included in that group would be members of Council,  the county executive, chief administrative officer, county attorney and department managers.

To bring the financial-disclosure and other rules that the top brass have to follow in line with what is expected of those in the lower ranks, she will recommend that state legislation be sought to make them subject to county standards rather than less stringent state standards.

County Council should continue to appoint four members to the commission and the county executive the remaining three, but the appointments should be made from a list provided by a blue ribbon advisory group, which would screen candidates and pass on their qualifications. That would be similar to the practice followed by the governor in making judicial appointments from a list submitted by the Delaware Bar Association.

That procedure would be followed to determine replacements for the resigned commission members, whose terms would be staggered over three years to provide for continuity.

Knearl will recommend that the dispute over financing for the current fiscal year be resolved by shifting about $25,000 of the $30,000 budgeted for outside investigations to finance the services of a full-time attorney and a part-time one-person office staff. The commission spent only $4,500 of its investigations budget in the fiscal year ended June 30.

The amount to be budgeted for fiscal 2004, she said, should be determined by studying the workload and function of the commission between the time it is reactivated and the county budget for the coming year is being considered.

She also will suggest that the commission place increased emphasis on ethics training for county officials, board appointees and employees.

The County Council executive committee is chaired by Council president Christopher Coons and, like all Council committees, consists of all seven Council members.

2002. All rights reserved.

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