June  14, 2004

A state legislator wants the General Assembly to slam on the brakes to stop the idea of allowing County Council members to cast votes from afar before the notion has a chance to move beyond the preliminary-discussion stage.

Representative Gregory Lavelle told Delaform that he intends to immediately introduce legislation "to make it clear [that] voting requires physical presence." He said he is hopeful he can muster enough support to get the measure enacted before the General Assembly calls it a session on June 30.

"One of the fundamental things about our democracy is that legislators feel the heat or the pleasure of the crowd," he said. "There's nothing like working under the glare of 50 angry people or, for that matter, 50 happy people."

Although it was inspired by a conversation among New Castle County Council members at an executive committee meeting on June 8, which was reported by Delaforum, Lavelle said his intended law will apply to the governments of all three counties. It will not deal with municipal governments to avoid getting entangled in complications that would delay passage, he explained, adding that the Assembly can go back and include them later. "Meanwhile, it will send them a message," he said.

The question of whether a County Council member could participate in a session and cast votes via a telephone connection came up in connection with the emergency session held on June 1. The agenda that evening was to consider and enact six ordinances giving Council greater control over spending and hiring, promoting, firing or demoting of employees in the wake of the federal indictments of County Executive Tom Gordon, chief administrative officer Sherry Freebery and executive assistant Janet Smith.

Councilman William Tansey had an out-of-state commitment that evening and Council president Christopher Coons arranged for him to listen to the proceedings and have his say using a conference telephone call. It was decided not to permit him to cast votes on the measures after Council attorney Carol Dulin said she found laws and court decisions on both sides of the question of the validity of doing so. The ordinances were passed unanimously by the six members physically present in the chamber. Tansey had little to say and later told Delaforum that he was able to hear some, but not all, of the discussion and testimony.

As Delaforum previously reported, the executive committee, which includes all seven Council members, discussed whether it would be a good idea to explore the possibility of using a similar arrangement or make other use of communications technology in the future to muster a quorum and take action -- particularly when emergency legislation is at stake.

Lavelle said dealing with unusual or particularly important issues was "all the more reason" to require legislators to be physically present, at least when it comes to voting. Requiring physical attendance if the legislator is going to participate in the debate or discussion , he said, "is not a bad idea either." A provision to do that is not included in his proposed legislation to facilitate quick enactment, he explained.

Philosophically, there is no lack of precedents for requiring lawmakers to be there in order to vote, he said. General Assembly rules require that for both voting and to avoid being counted as absent. The U.S. Congress has a tradition by which an absent senator or representative can 'pair' with a colleague holding the opposite view on a piece of proposed legislation who is present. The colleague announces their respective positions, thus putting them on record, but does not actually vote. That has the same result as their votes offsetting each other if both were present.

"We're all part-time legislators [and] we do miss sessions and do miss votes. There's no sin in that," Lavelle said. Similarly, he has no intent to deny technological progress, but cannot now envision an arrangement that would replace physical presence, he maintained.

His distance-voting proposal is actually the second piece of legislation directly affecting New Castle County which Lavelle is sponsoring and wants to have enacted this session. The other involves the function of the county auditor. It has passed the House of Representatives and is pending in the Senate.

In addition to requiring establishing an independent audit committee -- which Council has done and is in the process of coming up with appointees to fill it -- Lavelle's legislation would set a four-year term for the auditor and require a two-thirds majority vote in Council to dismiss an auditor before his or her term is up. It would also require that the auditor have uncontested access to applicable county records.

Lavelle said the thought behind that measure is that it meets a need that County Council knew about but on which it did not take timely action. Council knew about administration efforts to thwart the incumbent auditor, Robert Hicks, for more than a year "and did nothing about it," Lavelle said. "This is the same Council that took a rear to seat an ethics committee" after former members resigned en masse.

He denied that those efforts are examples of imposing state control over county government. On the contrary, he claimed, they deal with matters covered by state law. County government is a legal 'creature' of the state and state law takes precedence over county ordinances.

He said it is not unusual for government at a higher level or 'impose' its will on the lower tier. "The federal government does it all the time" and much of such legislation is backed up by withholding money from states which balk.

His proposed legislation is not an effort to 'step in and take over', Lavelle said. "It is ridiculous to say we should never do it -- just as it's ridiculous to say we should always to it. It has to be determined on a case-by-case basis."

"It doesn't mean I hate New Castle County. ... I'm not out to do a hatchet job on the county," he said. "But I'm not going to apologize for [pushing] legislation that impacts the county if there is a need for it."

2004. All rights reserved.

Return to Delaforum Newsfront

Get more information about this topic

Read previous Delaforum article: Council looks into possibility of participating by phone
Read previous Delafourm article: County Council asked to probe for more extensive corruption

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