November 11, 2004

County Executive-elect Christopher Coons said he plans some personnel and structural changes in county government, but has not yet determined how extensive they will be nor who will be involved.

Whether the revamping will amount to a shake-out depends, he said, on "a through review of departmental operations" and what he determines to be necessary to "restore public confidence [and] remove the people and practices which led to the federal criminal indictments" of incumbent executive Tom Gordon and chief administrative officer Sherry Freebery.

"I know an indictment is not the same thing as a conviction and any trial is at least six months away, but every candidate promised change. ... That's what I was elected to do," Coons told Delaforum in an interview.

He declined to name names and said he will "obey the rules of the merit system," but indicated that he looking at possible terminations all the way up to the general manager level. The moves,

however, will be selective and reflect an understanding that "we have a number of people with years of knowledge and experience" in the county workforce.

Reminded that a year and a half ago he sought state legislation to restore the executive's power to appoint department directors, Coons said he may renew that effort. But the more recent creation by County Council of position of director of public safety demonstrates that may be a better route to take, he said. No one has been appointed to the public safety job. As part of a general reorganization of county government, the Gordon administration obtained state legislation to bring the top department officials into the civil service merit system.

Coons noted that, of about 1,600 employees, he will have only about 60 slots to be filled by appointment. There are about 100 vacancies in the workforce, some of which he said he would like to redefine in order to be able to use them to staff offices that will be necessary to implement the initiatives he promised during the

Christopher Coons

election campaign. Overall, he said, he would like to hold county employment at or close to present levels.

At the top of the government structure, Coons said he is influenced by the corporate model of a chief operating officer, chief financial officer and chief information officer with a chief of staff acting as a coordinator and a vehicle for keeping the chief executive up to speed. He said he is close to deciding among candidates for those positions

In the current administration, he said, Freebery effectively combined three of the functions in herself. The chief administrative officer is provided for in law and the position will be filled, "but I see it functioning differently from the way Ms. Freebery has done," he said.

Coons said he will actively seek suggestions from county employees and the public concerning the transition to a new administration through a special-purpose Web site and, possibly, a series of public forums involving himself, County Council president Paul Clark and both new and incumbent Council members.

Coons said he has met with Gordon since the election and has received a promise of "full cooperation and [willingness] to be helpful in any way he can."

For his part, Coons said he not only has resigned his former position as Council president but also will return the salary he is to be paid between now and the turn of the year to the county coffers. In legislation expanding Council from seven to 13 members, the General Assembly provided for the new president to take office immediately after the election while Coons's term under the former law did not run out until January.

Coons said he expects to be able to work cooperatively with the new Council despite friction in the recent past between himself and some members and the fact that none of the newly elected members have had any experience in elective government office. Unlike the former Council, the new one is dominated by younger people with full-time jobs rather than being comprised mostly of retirees. Service on Council is considered a part-time job.

Council has an 11-to-two Democratic majority and Coons is a Democrat. But party politics traditionally plays a limited role in local government in Delaware.

Coons said he will leave W.L. Gore & Associates, except for possibly doing a limited amount of consulting work for what is his family's company. As in-house counsel, Coons was involved with Gore's ethics program and government relations.

The initiatives Coons will seek to implement soon after he takes office on Jan. 4 are:

A redevelopment authority to promote and support use of existing but unused or underused commercial and industrial property, including so-called 'brownfield' sites;

An emergency services corps to assist shorthanded volunteer fire companies with administrative and operational support while encouraging careers with emergency-responders;

Expanding the library system to more closely link it with schools, small businesses and community organizations; and

Marketing of locally grown produce to support and preserve working farms.

Beyond those, he cited several issues of immediate concern.

In the interview with Delaforum, Coons said public safety and security is a key one. He has already joined an organization of county executives seeking to have federal financial support for 'homeland security' allocated more on the basis of threat rather than of population.

Although New Castle County has a relatively small population, it is highly vulnerable to terrorist attack, he said. "We have, either in the county or close by, a nuclear power plant, major [oil] refineries and a critical [interstate highway] bridge," he said, adding that the county is crossed by both the major railroad and highway linking East Coast cities and is on the flight path of one of the nation's largest airports.

"We're a potential target and we ought to be receiving significantly more assistance" to protect against and deal with potential terrorism, he said.

He said the issues of how to pay for extension of the county sanitary sewer system into its southern portion, flood control and mitigation, a revised property code and mandatory recycling are all high on his agenda. He has not lost sight of his previous unsuccessful effort as Council president, to enact a rental property code, which he considers is still needed.

The county, Coons said, must shape a policy and a process for handling requests for grants by charitable and other nonprofit organizations. In the past, this has largely been done on an ad hoc basis "and we don't even know at this point what has been promised [to requestors] and what promises need to be fulfilled," he said.

Another probable issue is "better coordination" among the police forces of the several incorporated municipalities in the county.

Coons during the campaign promised to 'safeguard' the county's reserve funds -- which he expects to find total about $200 million when he takes office -- to avoid the need for a property tax increase during much, if not all, of his four-year term. Although he is not scheduled to submit his fiscal 2006 budget proposal until March, Coons said he is looking to hold the increase in overall spending to no more than 4%.

2004. All rights reserved.

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