February 20, 2004

More than half of the members of the taskforce which drafted the proposed county rental code that was shot down by the Gordon administration and County Council attended a postmortem session and declared themselves unwilling to give up the fight.

Opinion was divided at the meeting on Feb. 19 over whether the next round will be decided by Council or at the polls in the November election. But there appeared to be general agreement that politics played the decisive role in the defeat of the code.

"This is not about the content of the legislation; this is about other things," said Steven Peuquet, of the University of Delaware's School of Urban Affairs & Public Policy.

"I don't think we failed because of lack of logic or reason," said Fred Quercetti, president of the Delaware Apartment Association.  "We're in a political process. The rental code will be in the dialogue  [during] the political campaign."

Council president Christopher Coons, who convened the taskforce and was lead sponsor of the defeated legislation, said that he had hoped the session would be the start of a renewed effort to come to terms with County Executive Tom Gordon and the administration.

Gordon, however, refused to permit anyone from the administration to attend the taskforce meeting. In a letter to Coons, which Coons read at the meeting, Gordon said he regarded any further discussion of the matter as likely to be "unproductive" and repeated a previous contention that the proposed ordinance was drafted, in large part, to further the interests of the apartment owners association. He accused the association of intimidation.

Lee Hoffman, housing chairman of the Civic League for New Castle County, said that civic organization still backs efforts to enact a rental code. It is "very interested in making that happen" and, toward end, enacted a resolution at a recent meeting "encouraging both sides to come together and work at a solution" to their differences, he said.

Although earlier in the meeting Coons cut off comments adversely reflecting upon the opposition of Gordon and chief administrative officer Sherry Freebery to the measure, he all but declared the issue pivotal in his efforts to succeed Gordon.

"This is legislation that, come hell or high water, I'm going to see passed," he said.

Because he is prohibited by law from serving more than two terms, Gordon is ineligible to seek re-election. For several months, Freebery and Coons have been sparring in what clearly is a warmup for an intense and likely bitter primary election campaign to secure the Democratic Party's nomination to run for the office in November. Gordon, who also is a Democrat, supports Freebery.

Coons charged that the open declaration of not cooperating with the taskforce followed a long period during which the Department of Land Use deliberately stalled in providing it with information. "The data we asked for we didn't get until the last few weeks" before Council voted on the measure, he said. He characterized attempting to get further information at this point, possibly by using the state Freedom of Information Act, as likely to be "a futile bureaucratic exercise."

"The sad reality is that with all this political maneuvering, nothing is getting done" to address the perceived problem of poor conditions in a significant portion of rental housing in New Castle County and, in particular, rental housing for poor people, Coons said.

He said he expected to garner six votes to enact the ordinance. As it turned out, Coons was joined by Councilmen William Tansey and Robert Weiner on the short end of the four-to-three vote. Voting against the ordinance were Councilwomen Karen Venezky and Patty Powell, and Councilmen Penrose Hollins and Robert Woods. Tansey and Weiner are the only Republicans on the Council. Four votes were needed for passage and five to override a certain Gordon veto of the legislation.

Coons said he still is attempting to sway some opinions, but has found that, in the face of "some very difficult political peril ... there is no stomach to revisit the issue" among his colleagues. No other Council members were present at the taskforce meeting although he said all were invited. Aide Lou Hinkle said he was representing Weiner, who still supports the proposed code.

Freebery "has said that no [legislation] is better than [our] bill," Coons said.

"A lot of money, a lot of time and a lot of effort was spent trying to get this done. Forty people (taskforce members) spent well over 1,000 hours working on this. ... In the six months [leading up to the Council vote] three major changes were made [to the original draft ordinance]," he said.

Nevertheless, Coons indicated that he might be open to further compromise. Noting that opposing Council members have told him they voted against the proposed ordinance because it provided for merely registering owners of rental properties and not requiring them to obtain permits. In testimony before Council, Charles Baker, general manager of the land use department, said the ability to suspend or revoke a permit would be necessary for effective enforcement of the code.

"That's not something that we (the taskforce) worked through in detail," Coons said. "I'd be perfectly willing to have that exploration."

Quercetti, however, reiterated the position that his group had taken in opposition to requiring permits that could be easily lifted. "That will drive insurance companies and [mortgage] lenders crazy," he said.

There was agreement among taskforce members that, although the legislative process is presently stalled, other approaches are open.

Because existing code enforcement policy provides for property inspections and taking action in response to code violations upon receipt of complaints from any source, Coons urged civic associations to become aggressive about entering complaints against properties where there are visible exterior conditions that warrant attention.

Christopher White, a tenant advocate with the Legal Aid Society of Delaware, said there is no reason why the taskforce cannot secure private sponsorship to produce and distribute the 'tenants guide' that the ordinance would have required landlords to distribute.

Noting that insurance and mortgage companies routinely have rental properties inspected to safeguard their interests, Quercetti pledged his organization's support for an effort to obtain accurate data on actual conditions. The apartment association claims to represent owners of 20,000 of the estimated 35,000 rental units in the county.

2004. All rights reserved.

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