News

October 27, 2004

Rather than invite what he said would be protracted and costly litigation pitting the legislative and executive branches of county government against each other, Council president Christopher Coons decided not to press for an override of the county executive's veto of legislation imposing a temporary freeze on personnel actions.

Instead, Coons introduced a new ordinance identical to the vetoed one, but without what he described as a "minor typographical error" which he indicated may have been the basis for the veto.

That bit of parliamentary maneuvering came as the last seven-member Council wrapped up its business and passed without ceremony into history.

At 9:38 p.m. on Oct. 26 Coons brought down the gavel, ending a chapter in local political history dating back to 1967 when an executive and council replaced the three-member levy court -- whose

Seniors' tax break
may be sweetened

The income threshold for seniors to qualify for exemptions from the county property tax would be raised to $50,000 a year, from $40,000 under terms of a proposed ordinance introduced on Oct. 26 by Councilwoman Patty Powell.

The amount of property value exempted also would go up to and from the same amounts.

The measure could come to a vote as soon as Council's session on Nov. 16.

lineage went back to Colonial times -- as the government of the northernmost and most populous of Delaware's three counties.

Barring any unforeseen and highly unlikely circumstances, Council will next convene on Nov. 9 to have the six new members and president elected seven days earlier sworn into office. It is scheduled to hold its first business session the following Tuesday evening.

It will be then that Coons's new ordinance, which has five co-sponsors, is expected to be brought to a vote. As Delaforum previously reported, it is uncertain at this point what, if any, role Coons will have in those proceedings.

In one of those much-cherished 'only in Delaware' moments, the 

state legislature included in the law expanding Council a provisionthat its members, including the president, take office immediately upon election and certification of the results by Superior Court. Rank-and-file members, who are elected by districts, previously did so on that timetable, but the president, who is elected at-large, waited until January to be seated. That's the month in 2001 in which Coons began his four-year term. A constitutional principle prohibits shortening the term of an elected official while it is being served.

Except for Coons's, the terms of all the incumbent members run until 2006. The six newcomers will be elected in districts spun off from the former ones.

Coons, who is the Democratic candidate seeking election to succeed Tom Gordon as county executive, has deferred until after the election a decision whether to see what happens with a dual presidency or to simply resign. He hinted at the Oct. 26 session, however, that he might be leaning toward the latter by quipping that he "may be sitting at home listening to what you do on the radio." Council sessions are not broadcast, but sound bites from them sometimes make it to the late news programs.

The new county executive takes office in January. Christopher Castagno is Coons's Republican opponent.

Be all that as it may, if the smaller Council went out without much attention being paid, its passing did not come up short of controversy.

The vetoed legislation for which Coons introduced a replacement was aimed at preventing the Gordon administration from using personnel actions involving county employees as a way of rewarding or punishing some. Gordon and other officials have flatly denied any of that is happening or intended. Coons said, however, that "circumstances still warrant close monitoring" of the situation.

The original ordinance was approved by a six-to-one vote with Councilman William Tansey casting the negative one. He is the only member not listed as a cosponsor on the new measure. Five votes would have been necessary to override a veto. That will increase to nine if the new ordinance is enacted and then vetoed.

As Councilman Penrose Hollins noted, such a scenario is possible, if not likely. That, he said, would render the matter moot as the only other regularly scheduled Council meeting before Gordon leaves office is not be held until December and that is the earliest a veto could be overridden. That would seem to allow little possibility that the law, of it is indeed needed, would accomplish anything.

Councilwoman Karen Venezky said she favors going along with a recommendation from the Human Resources Advisory Council that permanent legislation to apply to all future changes in administration be enacted to bar transfers of political appointees to jobs protected by the civil service merit system. At the end of the Dennis Greenhouse administration eight years ago, a specific prohibition of that practice was enacted, but it did not survive a Greenhouse veto.

Coincidentally, Lynn Moroz, whose hiring as the ounty's insurance and control manager, sparked the original legislation, was in the midst of another controversy earlier in the day before Council's finance committee. Moroz previously had worked for county government as an outside contractor.

Council was asked to approve a $1,049,946 premiums-and-fee payment to Marsh U.S.A. Inc., an insurance brokerage firm which placed eight county insurance policies with underwriters. The policies went into effect Oct. 1 and the payments are due before Oct. 31. Failure to make them would invalidate the policies.

Venezky, who chairs the committee, called the payment request into question because of a media report that the New York state attorney general is investigating Marsh in connection with allegations of improper bidding practices. While Venezky and her committee accepted an explanation from representatives of the firm and Moroz, that the New York situation has no relationship to the firm's business in Delaware, it was brought out during discussion that Marsh has been working for the county under a continuing contract which has not been subject to bid for several years.

Moroz agreed that "it is probably time" that the relationship were reviewed and said that will happen during the coming year.

The payment was approved when it became clear that Council had no alternative other than to put the county at risk of uninsured liability.

Before the finance committee met inpublic, it was closeted behind closed doors with acting county attorney Dennis Siebold. The lengthy session evidently involved discussion of not only the Gordon veto but also a decision earlier in the day to drop plans to go to market with a controversial $80 million bond issue. That was done after it appeared likely that Court of Chancery would issue a temporary injunction blocking the sale.

The injunction was sought in a taxpayers suit filed by Richard Korn and Andrew Dal Nogare challenging some budget reserve funds created by Gordon to, among other things, ward off the necessity to increase county property taxes. The taxpayers allege that, except for those established by law to protect against overruns in the operating and sewer budgets, the funds are illegal.

The court is expected to hear arguments on the suit, probably in December.

Korn was a candidate in the September primary election seeking the Democratic nomination to run to succeed Gordon. He opposed Coons, who won, and Sherry Freebery, the county's chief administrative officer.

Another controversy was sidestepped when Councilwoman Patty Powell agreed not to bring a proposed ordinance that would make numerous changes in the county's property code to a vote. Councilman Robert Weiner thanked her for having acceded to his wishes to delay action on the measure she is sponsoring until the new Council members are seated. Many of his Brandywine Hundred constituents object to some of the proposed changes in the code, Weiner said.

Council, however, was not able to get past another controversy when residents of communities which suffered property damage during the September storm turned out to protest what they and their state senator, Karen Peterson, alleged was favoritism to other communities. That was based on a newspaper article which seemed to imply that some remedial projects in the Red Clay Creek valley had been given immediate priority without their having been able to participate in reaching that decision or even being aware that it was being made.

2004. All rights reserved.

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Read previous Delaforum article: Veto override sought
Read previous Delaforum article: There may be two Council presidents
Read previous Delaforum article: Property code revision ready

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