April 13, 2005

Members of County Council couldn't just say no. As a result, three measures which had been controversial coming into the semi-monthly session were put on the books unanimously. One made it that way when a councilman evidently changed his mind at, literally, almost the last minute.

During discussion of a resolution registering Council's opposition to a plan to cover, rather than remove, a large pile of contaminated material at a site near the Du Pont Co.'s Edgemoor plant, William Tansey declared that he would vote against it.

"I read the [Department of Natural Resources & Environmental Control] plan and I think it is a sound plan. ... If we keep ratcheting down on these corporations, they're going to leave," he said. He then pointedly questioned one of six persons from the public who testified in favor of the resolution about his professional credentials to evaluate proposed safeguards against the contaminants spreading.

However, when the roll was called a few minutes later, Tansey voted 'present'. With Penrose Hollins, a Du Pont Co. retiree, voluntarily disqualifying himself to avoid a conflict-of-interest perception and two members absent, the resolution was adopted, nine-to-zero.

Earlier in the session on Apr. 12, a resolution sponsored by Jea Street advocating a "holistic" approach to reduce drug-related violence in the city of Wilmington was approved on a 10-to-zero vote with Council president Paul Clark and Karen Venezky recorded as 'present'. They both questioned the plan's cost and the county's ability to financially support some of Street's specific proposals.

Street, who voted in favor of his resolution, had left his desk when the Du Pont resolution was put to a vote. Joseph Reda was out of town and excused from attending the session.

An even less expected shift occurred concerning a resolution to change Council rules to require a two-thirds majority to hire or fire members of Council's staff. During an afternoon meeting of Council's personnel committee prior to the plenary session in the evening, that resolution had drawn stiff opposition from Clark and George Smiley. They argued that it would make more difficult, if not stymie, Council's ability to muster an administrative staff. When the resolution came to a vote during the evening, however, both joined their 10 colleagues who were present, in a 12-to-zero vote in favor of passage.

The turnaround streak did not prevail entirely.

Venezky tabled a resolution calling on Council to periodically "assess the direction of the county" in terms of its spending and to establish long-term guidelines for the operating and capital budgets. She agreed that the proposal "needs more work" after sometimes rancorous debate during a finance committee meeting indicated that Council probably would vote it down.

In other matters at the plenary session, Council received a package of ordinances setting the financial course for the fiscal year which begins July 1. They included the proposed $214.5 million operating budget and the proposed $58.7 million capital budget. Also in the package was legislation to impose an overall 28.1% increase in sewer fees, set an unchanged property-tax rate, authorize a $10 million bond issue, adopt a six-year capital projects plan, and increase fees charged by the recorder of deeds and sheriff. Those measures are scheduled to be voted upon at Council's May 24 session.

Council voted unanimously and without discussion to transfer $1 million from several budget accounts to finance continuing litigation and settlement of several lawsuits involving employment and land use issues. County attorney Gregg Wilson earlier briefed the finance committee during an executive session behind closed doors.

The Apr. 12 plenary session also saw unanimous approval of an ordinance extending the Ethics Commission's power to investigate former county officials and employees for up to five years after their employment ends, restrict re-employment of ethics violators and impose daily fines for failure to file financial-disclosure statements on time.

An ordinance establishing a rental code was introduced. Its sponsor, Robert Weiner, said it is identical to the measure which the previous Council defeated in 2004. He said the taskforce convened by then Council president and now County Executive Christopher Coons will be reassembled to determine if it still favors the proposal in its original form.

John Cartier said he sponsored the resolution concerning the Du Pont material not only to eliminate an existing hazard but also "to send a strong message [that] it is not right to burden future generations with this environmental legacy."

The pile actually is inside the municipal limits of Wilmington, bordering Cartier's southeastern Brandywine Hundred district. Hollins, who disqualified himself in the matter, represents the area where it is located.

As previously reported, the pile contains about 500,000 tons of what Du Pont calls 'iron rich material', which is a byproduct from the manufacture of titanium dioxide pigment. Du Pont originally was accumulating the material for sale, but has been prevented from doing so by federal environmental regulations. The company said, in a 'project fact sheet' distributed to Council members, that the pile can be effectively covered, will not adversely impact drinking water and contains a concentration of dioxins less than what would require remedial action if they were the only contaminants in the pile.

Apparently referring to Governor Printz Boulevard or Interstate 495 which pass by the plant and the pile, environmental activist John Kearney testified that it is "the most dangerous road in America." He and others allege that Du Pont is probably the largest producer of dioxin in the world.

Responding to Tansey's comment that Council's position could induce the company to leave the area, David Tackett said, "If I have to weigh having a clean healthy place to live and the company leaving, I'll open the door for them."

Noting that Du Pont now ships the material, which is still being produced as a byproduct, to a hazardous materials landfill in South Carolina, Smiley said the company was willing to have it hauled away when wanted to sell it "but now that they've found out it's toxic, they want to cover it up."

Street's proposal to deal with violence centers around having Wilmington city government call a 'summit' conference to bring together not only city, county and state agencies but also non-profit organizations, businesses, labor unions, religious organizations, drug treatment providers, educators and others to develop a comprehensive strategy.

Referring to "a crisis of violence" in the city, the preamble to the resolution said dealing with it "requires fresh ideas, multi-jurisdictional cooperation and leadership, and the coordination of quality-of-life initiatives."

Street accompanied the resolution with a 10-part plan containing a wide array of specific actions that should be taken in both the public and private sector. Included is implementation of the relative recommendations of the former Wilmington Neighborhood Schools Committee.

Acknowledging that some of the proposals would be costly, Street asked rhetorically "What price is life?" He said that since Wilmington is a part of the county, county government is an appropriate vehicle to initiate a response. "I'm tired to going to funerals," he said.

Both Clark and Venezky said they approve of the idea in principle and voted 'present' because they did not want to be recorded as voting against the resolution. "There are some thing in here I cannot support," Venezky said. Clark said he did not "feel comfortable ... asking the city to do something we cannot provide the money for right now."

Primary justification cited for the resolution having to do with hiring and firing Council staff members, which also was sponsored by Street, was sustaining morale. Council employees, who are not covered by merit system rules, feel vulnerable knowing their job is on the line if they are in disfavor with any Council members who can gather six votes to remove them, Hollins said.

Clark argued during the personnel committee meeting that having to gather nine votes "could prove difficult" and result in its "taking too long to get anything done." William Bell replied that "if there is just cause and reason to terminate, we should be able to get a two-thirds vote."

The revolution was obviously inspired by the controversy over the firing of former auditor Robert Hicks although that was not mentioned during the discussion. However, it was clear that criticism in the news media of that and some other personnel moves was not far removed. "Those people who didn't agree with the expansion of Council and who make their living by taking shots will continue to take shots," Smiley said.

Venezky said Council has filled new positions deemed necessary as a result of the expansion along with some vacancies by a "fair and open interview process." The Council office is now fully staffed.

Weiner's pointing out that the resolution merely changed Council's procedural rules and that the rules can be suspended by a simple majority vote in any given circumstance evidently influenced Clark's and Venezky's eventually voting to adopt the resolution. Clark referred to that just before the vote was taken when he said, "Let's give it a try; it can always be changed with seven votes."

Venezky's resolution having to do with financial oversight proposed holding spending growth to 3.5% in fiscal 2006 and for three years beyond that and eventually reaching the point where revenue in any given year would cover budgeted expenditures. It also would cap bond borrowing to the extent that debt service would not exceed 10% of the operating budget. The county would "create no new programs without equal funding or cost savings in existing programs." The resolutoion also would call for the county "to streamline the workforce by a 5% reduction in authorized positions" by June 30, 2006.

"I believe that if we don't start looking at the budget strategically ... we're going to end up with a huge deficit," Venezky said. "This is an opportunity for us to be pro-active."

Hollins argued that the proposal would "put a stranglehold" on the Coons administration.

With apparent reference to the spending patterns in the previous Thomas Gordon administration, Hollins said, "The should have been done a year ago [and not] when we get an administration that has demonstrated it is going to be fiscally responsible." 

He said that Venezky supported major spending initiatives during the Gordon years and is part of Council's having "hired whomever and at whatever salary," adding, "You can't have it both ways."

Invited by Venezky, who chairs the finance committee, to comment, chief administrative officer David Singleton said the present administration "encourages fiscal restraint," but added that he "can't say if these goals are achievable. A 5% employment reduction, for instance, would require eliminating about 50 jobs, compared to 30 that the administration was able to determine this year to be expendable. The debt ceiling is now just under 10% but would rise above that mark if Council authorizes the bond issue in fiscal 2006.

Venezky said the figures are presented in the resolution as 'guidelines' and that she would be willing to modify or drop them.

Singleton said the administration's position is supportive of "a tightened budget consistent with our obligation to provide service to the public."

Clark said the the current 'listening campaign', which involves town meeting-style gatherings in each Council district, has not turned up much enthusiasm for cutting any services.

The proposed resolution calls for hiring a consultant to conduct a survey of county residents "to determine the value of services currently offered by the county."

2005. All rights reserved.

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