December 6, 2004

A well-gnawed bone of contention from the previous County Council -- the status of the county auditor -- showed up before the new one. After being elevated to a constitutional level, it was suddenly snatched away just before it would have occasioned the first political measure of the expanded Council.

It all centered on a move by Council president Paul Clark to secure a mentor from the county's finance department to, he said, educate himself and other new members on the intricacies of county government's budget and finances.

Councilman Penrose Hollins, who chairs Council's personnel committee, objected on the grounds that Clark was not following the rules in bringing on what would have amount to a temporary employee. Also, Hollins maintained, getting him in the person of an employee of the executive branch breached the division between it and the legislative branch of government and would risk breaches of confidentiality concerning Council business.

Clark's having determined that Donald Whitworth, an analyst in the finance department, also could take on the task of preparing grant applications from nonprofit agencies for Council's consideration. That job is running several months behind schedule, primarily, it is said, because of higher-priority duties assigned to auditor Robert Hicks by legislation enacted to give Council closer scrutiny of spending by executive departments that is not subject to competitive bidding.

That drew objections at a committee meeting on Dec. 6  not only from Hollins but also from Councilmen Jea Street and Robert Weiner who said they saw it as a further move by the outgoing Gordon administration to discredit and degrade Hicks. Hicks has complained that his being an auditing department of just one person is inappropriate for a government the size of New Castle County's.

That position, he told the meeting, will likely be supported in a separate report to be issued by the auditing firm of Ernst & Young in conjunction with the annual independent audit of the county's books. He added that the recently appointed internal audit committee is probably going to recommend separating his auditing function from administrative duties he has been assigned.

After more than an hour of discussion by Council members, Ronald Morris, the county's chief financial officer, headed off  a poll of the 11 Council members who attended the meeting by announcing withdrawal of his offer to 'lend' Whitworth's services to Council.

He said he had made the gesture "in the spirit of cooperation" with the new Council, but the reaction made it obvious to him that "our cooperation is not wanted." Whitworth attended the meeting, but did not say anything.

While Morris's move rendered moot what would have been the 13-member Council's first roll call on a controversial issue, it did not come before some of the members exchanged a few barbed comments.

Clark, who is newly elected to the Council presidency, said he was "only trying to solve some of the issues you left to us (the new members)." He went on to add that "it is a shame that, before we got on board, Council got into this problem." At another point in the discussion, he referred to the prior seven-member Council as "dysfunctional" and declared, "If you were all working for me, I would have fired you all."

Referring to a memo Clark had circulated to inform members and the Council staff of the arrangement, Street said it "reeks of mischief -- political mischief and personal mischief."

Weiner said it seemed as if Clark's arrangement fit into an effort in the closing days of the Gordon administration to oust Hicks in retribution for "having the courage" to confront the administration on several matters. Councilwoman Karen Venezky said she viewed Clark's arrangement as no more than "having someone come in and get something done that is not being done."

In an apparent reference to Clark's judgment in proceeding unilaterally, Councilman George Smiley said that "it's only the people who don't do anything who don't make mistakes."

Hollins asked sarcastically, "Are we going to say here is somebody who has free time [so] let's make him assistant to the police chief?" Clark said that the arrangement in no way implied that Whitworth would be Hicks's assistant, but would merely relieve him of some duties not directly related to his auditing function. While working for County Council, Whitworth would have reported to Clark. He would have continued to be paid out of the law department's budget.

"The only [benefit] we'd give him is a parking pass," Clark said.

Hicks said he was not consulted in advance about bringing in Whitworth, but "was told about the situation" after the arrangement evidently had been made. He did not, however, raise any substantive objection.

Hollins, however, claimed it was in direct violation of a Council rule that invests hiring and firing authority in Council as a whole. Except for a few specified administrative duties, the Council president "has no more authority than any of us," Hollins said. At one point, he called for the rule book to support his contention that such actions require a majority vote by Council.

The next item on the meeting agenda was a proposal by Weiner to amend Hicks's job description to include a provision that he could advocate a position before the General Assembly if the matter directly involved his position as auditor or would affect the county's fiscal position or internal financial controls. That provision has been removed from the description several weeks ago by a four-to-three vote.

Rather than call for a vote on restoring it now, Weiner said he wanted the matter submitted instead to the recently appointed audit committee for a recommendation.

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