folks who worked this hard [to draft a code] are still willing
to continue to work to get it passed," Coons told Delaforum. "We
should all be able to work together to craft a compromise that
gets us moving forward on [improving the quality of] rental
the administration of County Executive Tom Gordon locked horns
on the issue. Coons claimed his proposed ordinance was a
"carefully crafted" compromise among a broad range of interests
and positions. Gordon said it would have been a weak law and
charged that strong support for it by the Delaware Apartment
Association, an organization of landlords, demonstrated that it
would be ineffective in regulating their business.
uncertain after Council voted down Coons's measure following
more than two hours of public testimony and discussion on Jan.
13 what will happen next. For several weeks, the issue has been
a hot topic among civic associations around the county. Officers
of several areawide civic associations testified in favor of
Freebery, the county's chief administrative officer, said the
only reason competing legislation was not in contention before
Council was "out of deference to president Coons" as sponsor of
a major piece of public-policy legislation and the considerable
effort he has put into advancing it.
she stopped short of saying whether there will now be an effort to bring the version
drafted by the Department of Land Use before Council in light of
apparently widespread interest in having a county rental code. Wilmington and Newark
have rental codes.
administration source told Delaforum that no decision has been
made yet on whether to push an alternate ordinance. Coons said
his reading is that the land use department's version cannot
muster the four Council votes necessary for passage either.
indicating he was willing to try again, Coons said failure to
unite Council behind a single acceptable version would likely
result in "no legislative action and all." And, he added, "even
more time will go by when we should be making progress on rental
Council voted, Coons declared that failure to enact the
ordinance would be "a tragedy."
later comments to Delaforum, he called attention to testimony at
the Council meeting concerning a recent code-enforcement 'sweep'
of an apartment complex which reportedly found some 500
violations although it was preceded by 48 hours notice and did
not cover all the units in the complex. The fact it was
conducted just five days before Council was to have voted on the
ordinance and was the only such concerted effort in at least a
year "demonstrated ... that rental property quality and code
enforcement has not been a high priority for this (Gordon's)
George Haggerty, assistant general manager of the land use
department, confirmed that in his testimony. In a different
context, Haggerty said that the department does not have a
"legislative mandate" to put special emphasis on code
enforcement involving rental property.
version of a proposed rental code would have any effect on the
underlying county standards set by various property codes.
second-ranking official in Gordon's
administration and his announced presumptive heir, Freebery
successfully urged Council to reject the measure drafted over a
period of 18 months by a taskforce Coons convened on the grounds
that it is not good practice "to pass bad legislation just to
get something on the books."
Delaforum that, had Coons's measure been enacted, it faced a certain veto by Gordon. That would have been
the first rejection of an ordinance by the executive, who is now
in the eighth and last year of his tenure of office. At least
five votes are necessary to override a veto.
proposed ordinance, Freebery testified, was deficient in that it
ran counter to what professionals in the land use department,
which would have to enforce it, deem necessary in order to do so
effectively and efficiently. The key point of contention, she
testified, was the absence of requirement that owners of rental
properties be licensed, rather than simply registered.
still present -- although cloaked in a last-minute wrap
which Coons said would be likely to keep it moot until another
provision requires Council to revisit the issue in two years --
was a controversial provision which sets a standard for random
inspection each year of at least 5% of the estimated 35,000
rental units in the county in addition to inspection of units
about which tenants or others file complaints.
enforcement action would be a constant source of legal
challenge" and not likely to pass constitutional muster, Freebery testified.
Coons, who is a lawyer, and two other lawyers who testified and
one who cited a civil rights law authority, disputed that.
Delaforum has previously reported, the Department of Land Use's draft ordinance would require licensing, at an
annual cost of $20 per rental unit, and enable the department of
follow a procedure which, it has claimed, would result in all
units being inspected over a period of five years.
came time to vote, Freebery's views prevailed in the face of a parade of witnesses
who were both unanimous and, for the most part, strong in their endorsement of Coons's ordinance.
Mostly all of those who testified had either been members of the
taskforce or could be identified with people who were.
a strong element of partisan politics in the outcome of the vote
-- something that is very usual in County Council proceedings.
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 Republicans while Coons, a Democrat, is an acknowledged
candidate opposing Freebery for his party's nomination to
succeed Democrat Gordon. Those casting negative votes are
later comments, Coons characterized that split as not so much
Democrat-Republican politics and as it is a stance relative to
being favorably or unfavorably disposed toward the county
administration. "The 'registration' that matters on Council is
really whether you are pro- or anti-Gordon and Freebery and this
issue came down more to that alliance than to partisan
registration," he said.
that Council members had been subject to "aggressive last-minute
lobbying by the administration."
and in a different context, Gordon told Delaforum that he was
"trying hard to keep politics out of the [rental code] issue."
closest any of the witnesses came to not supporting Coons's
measure at the Council meeting was a suggestion by Daniel Bockover, president of the
Council of Civic Organizations of Brandywine Hundred, that the
measure be tabled "and that we try one more time for resolution"
of the remaining differences.
rejected that idea, saying that the proposal before Council was
a "carefully crafted" compromise reached by the 40-member
taskforce, which represented a wide diversity of interests. He
described its members as "a group of people who normally don't
play well together."
indirectly confirmed immediately after Venezky alleged early in
the session that a letter sent by the apartment
association -- which
participated on the taskforce drafting Coons's ordinance and taken a lead role
in gathering support for it -- to 20,000 tenants of its members
sought to instill fear that, if the Gordon administration's
views prevailed, they would be subjected to arbitrary and
capricious intrusion into their homes.
summoned Christopher White, assistant director of Community
Legal Aid and a lawyer who represents tenants, to the podium to
testify that the same 20,000 people received a second letter
from the Delaware Housing Coalition, a tenant-advocacy
organization, explaining the proposed ordinance. He strongly
implied, but did not specifically say, that the apartment
association also sponsored that distribution.
there apparently was a bow to further compromise in that the
measure before Council actually was the second substitute for
the original ordinance. The difference from its immediate
predecessor was a provision enabling the land use department to
delay going beyond complaint-driven inspections for a second
year if the number of complaints received was enough "to permit
an effective assessment of the quality of the county's
rental-housing stock." The predecessor version allowed a
one-year delay in implementing random inspections.
pointed out that the department has estimated that the number of
complaints received, as the result of mandatory distribution by
landlords of a tenants'-rights pamphlet will climb to about
1,750 in the first year. "Coincidentally or otherwise, that
happens to be 5%" of the total number of units, he said.
Council finance committee meeting before the session, Coons
disputed a fiscal-impact note prepared by the land use
department and, as required, appended to the ordinance. It said
enforcing the law would require adding 14 new positions to the
department staff, five of which would have to be filled by the
end of the present fiscal year on June 30 and the rest in fiscal
totaled, implementation would cost about $1 million each full
year or between $3.7 million and $3.8 million between now and
the end of fiscal 2007, according to the note.
said that "is at the highest end" of the assumed range of
additional inspection-generating complaints and "implementation
costs could be considerably less." Actually, he added, any
estimate of how many additional complaints will come forth "is
anybody's guess and just a guess."
event, financing a system intended to improve the quality of
rental housing in the county "is a reasonable investment for us
to make," he said.
the swirl of public interest around the proposed ordinance, no
Council members or attenders from the public raised any
questions or made any comments at the committee meeting.
Similarly, there was little comment from Council members during
the subsequent session. Testimony there mostly covered points
that had been made repeatedly in other venues since Coons
introduced his ordinance. Taskforce members have made the rounds
of every areawide civic association in the county.