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June, 2005

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Former county auditor Robert Hicks sued County Council president Paul Clark and the six other members who voted to fire him.

He alleged in a complaint filed in federal court on Jun. 29 that his "career was abruptly and illegally ended because he exposed illegality and corruption in high places." The 'high places', the 35-page

document goes on to explain, were the upper echelons of the administration of former County Executive Thomas Gordon and chief administrative officer Sherry Freebery. Hicks claimed his dismissal at a special Council session on Jan. 25 by a seven-to-five vote, with one abstention, was retribution, represented political and racial discrimination, and violated 'whistle-blower' laws.

Clark, Patty Powell, Karen Venezky and Joseph Reda are referred to as 'cronies', friends and political allies of Gordon and Freebery, and George Smiley, Timothy

Robert Hicks

Sheldon and William Bell as influenced by them. All are Democrats while Hicks is a Republican who supported Clark's opponents, Ernie Lopez in the general election and Penrose Hollins in the Democratic primary. Council's subsequent hiring of Robert Wasserbach, who is white, as auditor is alleged to have had racial overtones. Hicks, who is black, seeks reinstatement in his former job with back pay as well as compensatory and punitive damages. (CLICK HERE to read previous Delaforum article.)

    

All 13 members of County Council not only voted to enact a residential rental code for properties in unincorporated areas, but signed on as cosponsors of the ordinance.

"What a difference a year makes," declared a jubilant County Executive Christopher Coons who tried unsuccessfully when he was president of Council to have a virtually identical measure enacted. The three present members who helped defeat it the first time around voted affirmatively. Karen Venezky did so while calling it "a good first step." Primary sponsor Robert Weiner said New Castle County no longer is the largest jurisdiction in the middle Atlantic region without such a code. Michael Morton, lawyer for the Delaware Apartment Association, called the code an "important, meaningful, well-thought-out" law.

Dissent during a 15 minute non-debate on Jun. 28 had to do with the measure not going far enough. Venezky and David Tackett said it stops short of dealing with the problem of too many people living in a rental unit. Patty Powell said it makes no provision to assist low-income people displaced when a housing unit fails inspection. Jea Street said enforcement provisions require more inspectors and financing, but said he voted affirmatively because such "a code is better than no code." As "a living document that can be changed over time" the can be improved as experience dictates, Weiner said. (CLICK HERE to read previous Delaforum article.)

    

EXEMPTIONS SOUGHT: Properties in Arden, Ardentown and Ardencroft would be exempted from provisions of the Unified Development Code which prohibit more than one single-family house on a lot under provisions of a proposed ordinance introduced into County Council on Jun. 28. The measure, sponsored by Councilman John Cartier, also would not require that replacing or rebuilding more than half of a structure previously certified as legally not conforming to the code be done in a way that the resulting building meets current standards.

    

IT WORKS: Principal Julianne Pecorella told the Brandywine school board that year-around schooling at Maple Lane Elementary found favor with parents, teachers and students during its first year. Although she said it will take three to four years to gather sufficient data to measure academic benefits, early indications are that a 'balanced calendar' is "a better approach to education." The calendar calls for restarting a month early while making up the 'lost' vacation time with optional 'intersessions'. During the past year, 83% of the school's 300 students attended those enrichment or remedial classes.

Pecorella told the board on Jun. 27 that tests showed that most of the students returned to school last August at the same reading levels they exhibited when they left in June. Preventing children from falling behind during the summer is one of the main reasons for adopting a year-around scheduled. She said 12 students have opted to transfer out of Maple Lane under the public school choice law for the 2005-06 academic year, but 11 will transfer in. She said no teachers asked to be assigned to another school. Maple Lane is a kindergarten-through-fourth grade school.

    

The Brandywine school board approved a property tax rate for the coming fiscal year that is 12.2% higher than this year's, but deferred taking action on a preliminary fiscal 2006 budget.

Financial officer David Blowman told the board on Jun. 27 that the increase to $1.4365 for each $100 of assessed value from $1.2805 will yield an additional $5 million in revenue. Most of that will go to pay for security measures, improved maintenance, higher energy costs and improvements to athletic facilities. The temporary 12 tax rate increase was approved at the May referendum. Another 1.6 is for added debt-service cost and 2 is to meet increased tuition bills for Brandywine students attending special schools in other districts, principally Christina. School taxes are due on or before Sept. 30.

Postponing consideration of the budget will give the district's finance committee an opportunity to review it after the close of the present fiscal year on June 30, Blowman said. Although the actual proposal may be modified somewhat, a preliminary draft presented to the board indicates that the spending plan will be in the neighborhood of $114.9 million. That would be an 11.4% increase over the present budget. Most of that growth would be in salaries and other employment costs, by far the largest spending category. Allocations for facilities and support services also would rise. (CLICK HERE to read previous Delaforum article.)

Responding to a suggestion by board member Craig Gilbert, superintendent Bruce Harter said an advisory committee will be reconvened this autumn to consider a new round of cost-containment measures.

    

MORE PERSONNEL MONEY NEEDED: County Council on Jun. 28 is expected to allocate an additional $475,000 to cover shortfalls in meeting retirement, overtime and employee benefit costs. Fiscal notes in the proposed ordinance explain that there has been a larger-than-usual number of retirements, boosting severance pay this fiscal year to $1.8 million from $1 million in fiscal 2004. Police overtime as the result of investigating five homicides also contributed to the gap. Increases in the number of claims for medical benefits produced $225,000 of the total shortfall.

    

County Council recently approved what County Executive Christopher Coons refers to as a scaled back set of initiatives. CLICK HERE to read what they are and the arrangement for their financing.

    

TOPPED OUT:

Mayor James Baker (center photo) and other public officials joined with Buccini Pollin Group management in commending construction workers for having reached the highest point in the building of a 23-story apartment along the Christina River just south of downtown Wilmington. The traditional celebration was held on Jun. 24 in the upper reaches of the tower. The 173-unit structure is scheduled to open by the end of the year. Also in the residential complex to be known as Christina Landing will be 63 townhouses and a 25 story condominium building.

    

The Recycling Public Advisory Council, as expected, endorsed proposed legislation authorizing counties and municipalities to set up non-mandatory recycling programs.

"It's not what anyone of us would sit down and write ourselves. But it's the best compromise for the state of Delaware," said council chairman Paul Wilkinson before six of the nine members on the panel voted on Jun. 22 in favor of supporting the latest version of a bill drafted in the governor's office which will be introduced into the General Assembly by Senator David McBride. There is no chance that it can be enacted before the Assembly's first session is adjourned on Jun. 30. Steve Masterson, of Waste Management, a trash-hauling firm, abstained from the council's vote.

Compromise continued until the last minute. A provision in the bill authorizing creation of recycling districts for which a single hauler would be franchised was dropped and an absolute prohibition against the Delaware Solid Waste Authority's charging a fee to accept recyclable material was softened. Nothing was changed in the way of providing more liberal state financial aid to assist municipalities meet start-up costs, however. Pasquale Canzano, of the waste authority, voted in favor of the endorsement. George Wright, of the League of Local Governments, did not attend the meeting. (CLICK HERE to read previous Delaforum article.)

If the legislation is enacted, a ban on the waste authority accepting lawn waste would go into effect on Jan. 1, 2007.

    

NOT VERY OPEN ABOUT IT: The state Department of Natural Resources & Environmental Control displays a sign in front of its office on Lukens Drive near New Castle advising folks who come to attend public meetings there to park in the rear of the building and use the back door. A sign on that door identifies it as the correct entrance to access the public meeting room. Problem is the door is kept locked. The only way to get it opened is to attract the attention of someone inside the building by rapping loudly on the glass panel in the door.

    

Focus at Rockwood Park has shifted from its being primarily the setting for a Victorian-age museum to being marketed as a 'family fun' venue.

Manager Ann Hampton told County Council's community services committee that the intent during the coming fiscal year is to increase the number of visitors by 50% while bringing in revenue to help support staffing and maintaining the facility. She unveiled a fee schedule, which will go into effect July 1, ranging from $20 for a private group to rent a small room in the mansion for a weekday evening to $3,500 for exclusive use of the mansion and visitors center for a full day or over a weekend. Thematic tours conducted by either staff members or volunteers will cost between $10 and $20.

She said about 14,500 visitors are expected to have used the park before this fiscal year ends on June 30. That would be up from 10,000 in fiscal 2004. She did not specify how much it will have cost to operate during the year, but county officials have previously said the sum is large. During a presentation on Jun. 21 she said general public use of Rockwood will remain free and that popular events such as the ice cream festival and Christmas season lighting will continue. Now under study, she said, is an arrangement to allow consumption of alcoholic beverages at catered private affairs such as wedding receptions.

    

REVENUE GROWTH CONTINUES: Lawmakers have more than $3.2 billion jingling in their pockets as they craft the state's operating budget for the coming fiscal year. That's $301 million more than was expected back in December and $42.6 million more than in May. Delaware Financial Advisory Council on Jun. 20 increased its revenue estimate for fiscal 2006 to $3,062 million, up nearly $30 million from May. Projected revenue for this fiscal year now stands at $2,882 million, a 5.4% increase over $2,735 million taken in during fiscal 2004. State spending this year will be about $55.5 million less than income. (CLICK HERE to read previous Delaforum article.)

    

WHERE TO PUT IT?: No one is saying it's too much of a good thing, but the county police force has had "to rent a few trailers" to store all the anti-terror equipment that the U.S. Department of Homeland Security is sending its way. That is after as much as possible has been put into the trunks of patrol cars. William Dill, police finance officer, told a recent County Council public safety committee meeting that there is not enough storage space in the headquarters at Minquadale to handle all the stuff. When the new public safety building is finished that should be remedied, he said.

    

NO DAWDLING: Who said politicians can't move quickly when the issue calls for it? It took literally less than a minute for Council's executive committee on Jun. 20 to receive a motion, second it, and voice vote approval. The question before the 11 members who attended the meeting was  whether to take off for the month of August. It's not that the members can't take the heat. Council traditionally calls a dog-days recess, but gave up half of its vacation in 2004 to be on hand should action of some sort be required in light of the then-recent indictment of the county executive and chief administrative officer.

    

An issue beyond its jurisdiction -- but not outside its members' range of interest -- turned out to be the most divisive that Council Council has dealt with since its expansion last year.

After heated debate, 12 members split three ways, to defeat a resolution sponsored by Councilwoman Patty Powell that would have called upon the General Assembly to enact a controversial measure to prohibit residential development anywhere that the ground held more six parts per million of arsenic. Powell, Penrose Hollins, Jea Street and David Tackett voted in favor; Council president Paul Clark, George Smiley, William Tansey and Karen Venezky voted 'no'. The issue actually was decided by John Cartier, Joseph Reda, Timothy Sheldon and Robert Weiner who abstained. William Bell was absent.

Powell said that "as elected officials, it is our job to do our utmost to protect our residents." She said that Senator David Sokola's pending bill would do just that. Clark argued at the Jun. 14 session that it would be ill-advised for either Council or the Assembly to arbitrarily impose a restrictive standard before the state Department of Natural Resources & Environmental Control completes a study to come up with a scientifically-supported standard. Sheldon urged Council to back off because taking a stand might alienate legislators and sway their votes on legislation directly affecting county government.

Martha Dennison, of the Civic League for New Castle County, testified in support of Powell's resolution while Jeffrey Bross, of the pro-development Committee of 100, opposed it.

    

GETTING READY: Final preparations are underway at the expanded Delaware Art Museum for its reopening. That will occur with a public open house on Jun. 26. The $24.5 million worth of construction, which began in December, 2002, enlarged the building in the Kentmere section of Wilmington to 100,000 square feet from 60,000 square feet. It now has 17 galleries on two floors and an outdoor sculpture park. The private museum, founded in 1912, owns 11,000 art works, including several by illustrator Howard Pyle and the original Joseph Bancroft collection of pre-Raphaelite English paintings.

Works from the museum's permanent collection as well as special exhibitions are being assembled (above) to be displayed in 17 galleries. Among those already prepared is one featuring some of the major works of Wilmington-based illustrator Howard Pyle. (below)

 
 

Among the new features of the expanded is a nine-acre sculpture park (left), the first in Delaware. An expanded glass sculpture (right) provides a colorful backdrop in the entrance foyer.

    

Cameras at Concord Pike and Naamans Road have caught what transportation secretary Nathan Hayward called "an unbelievable number" of drivers running red lights.

As of the last count, just under $53,000 in fines have been collected from more than 600 violators there. But, according to Delaware Department of Transportation spokesman Michael Williams, that is just something over half the number who were caught in the act. Another 700 vehicle owners signed affidavits claiming that someone else was driving. Even if you believe them, he said, the law provides that the registered owner is responsible for paying the $75 fine no matter who was actually driving. If the owners don't cough up the money, they will be flagged when they next go to renew their registration.

So far, the busy north Brandywine Hundred intersection is the leading all camera locations in the state, Hayward said. The sophisticated equipment is beginning to pay for itself even though it is intended to improve safety at places with high accident counts rather than as revenue generators, he said. DelDOT will press for authorization to expand the program. Two cameras at Concord and Naamans went into operation on Jan. 21. They monitor traffic turning left onto the pike from westbound Naamans and going north on Concord through the intersection.

Statewide, 22,477 citations were issued through Jun. 8 for violations recorded at the 20 intersections which are being monitored.

    

NOT ANOTHER ONE: Residents of the Paladin Club are nonplused about yet another postponement by the Board of Adjustment of a hearing on the appeal by Edgewood Village l.l.c. of a Department of Land Use order to rebuild an historic wall it had partly destroyed. "The whole process is beginning to take on an awful smell ... [a] smell like the politics of old," said Jim Jones, president of Friends of Paladin, a civic group which is pressing to have the wall restored. That seems more so, he added, because the new hearing date, Jul. 7, is during the week of the Independence Day holiday "when many people are away."

The latest postponement, the third, was "due to a scheduling conflict," according to Vince Kowall, assistant land use administrator. In response to a Delaforum inquiry concerning apparently conflicting schedule information advertised in Brandywine Community News, he said the weekly newspaper's deadline had passed before "we learned of the continuance." The News Journal ad listed the continuance as a separate item, but he blamed an "oversight" for the case also being listed in the agenda for the Jun. 23 hearing included in the same advertisement. (CLICK HERE to read previous Delaforum article.)

    

PRINCIPAL APPOINTED: Brandywine School Board confirmed the promotion of assistant principal Lincoln Hohler to be principal of Harlan Intermediate School. He succeeds Anita Thorpe, who is retiring. Another personnel action at a board meeting on Jun.13 was the hiring of Barbara Meredith, project director for Blenheim Homes, to be director of support services. She was co-chair of the facilities taskforce which produced the building renovations plan for which district residents approved financing in the recent referendum. She succeeds William King who resigned to take a position at Purdue University.

Most of the board meeting was devoted to a workshop session initiating the process for developing a five-year strategic plan to follow the present one, which runs until 2007. Superintendent Bruce Harter said the new plan's theme will be "moving from a very good school district to a great one." The district is out "to create a performance breakthrough," he added. It is hoped that the new plan will generate sufficient community support to secure approval at a tax referendum in spring, 2007, to finance it. The workshop focused on developing a charge for a volunteer taskforce to recommend provisions of the plan.

    

ONE DOWN, FIVE TO GO: New Castle County has come to terms with the first of six unions whose contracts expired on Mar. 31. Under terms of the new three-year pact with the United Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, 165 school crossing guards will get annual pay raises of 3% and an improved benefits package. County Executive Christopher Coons declined to say if the settlement is indicative of what between 1,200 and 1,300 other employees will receive. Continuing negotiations "are steadily making progress," he said, adding that the parties "are under an agreement not to [publicly] discuss details."

    

COMMISSION TO BE REVIVED: County Council agreed to confirm long time civil rights activist and community leader James Gilliam as chairman of the Diversity Commission. That is to be the first step in a move to reconstitute the five-member commission. It has been inactive since terms of its members expired. Gilliam told Council's executive committee on Jun. 6 that his goal is to extend commission concerns beyond employment to provide opportunities for firms owned by persons identified as members of racial and ethnic minorities in county government's procurement and contracting activities.

The committee, meanwhile, was told that Council and the county executive have a ways to go to bring 17 boards and commissions up to strength. Among them, there are 34 vacancies and 29 serving members whose terms have expired. The executive is charged with making some of the appointments and Council with others, but Council president Paul Clark said he expects a cooperative effort to fill the seats. Most of the appointees serve in a volunteer capacity while a few receive what amounts to token compensation. This table lists the current status of the panels.

 

Seats

Vacancies

Expired
terms

Audit Committee

Board of Adjustment

Board of Assessment Review

Community Services Advisory Board

Compensation Commission

Diversity Commission

Ethics Commission

Fire and Ambulance Advisory Board

Historic Review Board

Human Resources Advisory Board

Library Advisory Board

Board of License Inspection and Review

Planning Board

Pension Board

Resource Area Protection Technical
Advisory Committee

Special Services Advisory Board

Wilmington Housing Authority Board of Commissioners (1 county appointment)

5

7

13

9

7

5

7

7

9

3

13

5

9

12

9

9

1

0

1

4

7

0

2

2

0

1

0

3

1

1

1

2

9

0

0

1

7

0

7

3

1

1

1

1

5

0

1

0

0

0

0

    

NEW DAY DAWNING: County Executive Christopher Coons praised the Friends of Rockwood for having held fast during the previous administration and said the volunteer organization will have a major role to play in promoting the park and assisting with activities there. "You could have chosen as a group not to re-engage," he said. "We have all endured some difficulty [during] the past few years. ... You can [now] look for a different relationship with New Castle County." He obviously was referring to the clash over its role with his predecessor, Thomas Gordon, but did specifically name him.

Speaking at a ceremonial ribbon cutting at the park's new visitors center on Jun. 5, Coons said county government "spent $16 million of taxpayer money" to restore and redesign the historic site. The center cost $6 million of that. Although he and others have criticized that as, at best, extravagant, Coons referred to the park as a "gem" and lauded it as a venue for educational and recreational activities for a broad array of patrons. Before Gordon and his administration decided to make it a showplace, the property was sparsely used and largely unrecognized for a quarter century since being donated to the county in 1976.

    

AUDITOR LEGISLATION PASSED: The state House of Representatives passed a bill to redefine the role of the New Castle County auditor. Expected Senate approval of the measure, sponsored by Representative Gregory Lavelle, could end the long-running controversy over the position. Lavelle said a somewhat revised version of the legislation, upon which the House acted, was a compromise worked out with county officials. County Council in March enacted a resolution which included a version of what it would like to see enacted.

The proposed law would not specify a term for the auditor who would be appointed by County Council, but would require a two-thirds vote to fire him or her. The auditor would have to be a certified public accountant and would not be allowed to engage in partisan political activity. It calls for an audit committee of outsiders to oversee auditing activity and sets forth a procedure for initiating and reporting audits. Prior review by and comments from affected persons would be required before an audit report would be made public. (CLICK HERE to read previous Delaforum article.)

    

It had to happen sooner or later -- Delaforum recently spotted a youngster conversing on a cellphone while riding her bicycle near Brandywine High.

    

CUTS MAY BE RESTORED: Delaware Department of Transportation officials expect to be able to come up with financing for the department's entire fiscal 2006 capital program. "There is belief that the seemingly increased federal dollars will complement the state-side share enough to bridge the gap," spokesman Michael Williams said in response to a Delaforum inquiry. Wilmington Area Planning Council, which questioned the basis for cuts in DelDOT's initial plan, has withheld support for a pared-down version. Williams said the department "hopes to iron out [that] issue" in time to meet the federal financing deadline. (CLICK HERE to read previous Delaforum article.)

    

FINANCING SOUGHT: County Council has been asked to provide $614,721 in start-up money to launch two of County Executive Christopher Coons's initiatives. One of two resolutions expected to be voted upon on Jun. 14 would close out the housing development revolving loan pool to provide $414,721 to finance the 'problem properties' program. The other would move $200,000 from the fund to assist first-time homebuyers to the new 'hometown heroes' fund to assist emergency response personnel buy homes. Both of the funds from which the money is coming are self-renewing through repayment of previous loans.

Last updated on June 30, 2005

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