a special session of Council on Jan. 25, Clark referred briefly
to an audit committee meeting on Jan. 20, but did not otherwise
disclose a specific reason for offering a motion to end Hicks's
services, effective immediately. Neither Councilwoman Karen
Venezky, who seconded Clark's motion, nor any of the five other
members who voted with them in its favor said anything during
the stormy session.
There was no question, however,
that Clark regarded a seemingly minor usurpation of his
authority by Hicks in connection with the audit committee
meeting as a proverbial 'last straw'. As Delaforum previously
reported, Clark reacted angrily after Hicks arranged for a
member of Wilmington city
government's audit staff
to take minutes. Council's finance committee had
previously agreed that Clark, as Council president and
the person to whom Hicks reported administratively,
would provide staff support for the committee.
Hicks made it clear
before his ouster that he will not go quietly.
He said he had engaged
Thomas Neuberger, a lawyer who specializes in
discrimination cases, to represent him. In a letter to
Clark and Council, Hicks requested protection under
provisions of the county's 'whistleblower' law.
Accepting Clark's invitation to
make a statement before the vote, Hicks referred to his firing
as a payback. He said it was a "reward [for] helping to provide
transparency to government."
Councilman Jea Street, the most vehement of three Council
members who spoke on Hicks's behalf, said he detected overtones
of racial discrimination. Both Hicks and Street are black men.
Street's main point, however, was that Clark's motives were
political. "My view is that you were gunning for him from the
gate," Street said. "You said, 'I'm the new president; I've got
seven votes; I'm going to take him out'."
Referring to the likelihood of a lawsuit over the firing, Street
said, "You're going to spend $1 million to get rid of someone
because he supported your opponent." That evidently referred to
Councilman Penrose Hollins who lost to Clark in the primary
election for the Democratic nomination to run for council
executive committee meeting before the special session, Clark
was supportive of Hollins's continuing as Council's president
pro-tem; that is, the member who fills in for the president when
he is absent. All 13 members supported Hollins in that regard.
Executive Christopher Coons later told Delaforum that he was
"upset" to learn about the firing. "If I were still on Council,
I would have voted to keep Hicks and provide him with a clearer
job description, additional staff and better direction," he
said. However, he added, "I respect Council's right to make
their own decisions regarding Council personnel."
Coons was largely responsible for Hicks's hiring while he
was Council president and publicly supported the auditor on
Wheeler, chairman of the audit committee, later told Delaforum
that it is "too early to tell about his (Hicks's) performance"
because the committee did not begin functioning until October,
2004. The committee completed work on a formal job description
defining the auditor's responsibilities at the Jan. 20 meeting.
Regarding the firing, however, Wheeler said he "can't say I'm
surprised." He said he had been notified of the special meeting
and its purpose, but was unable to attend because of a prior
attend a Council finance committee meeting earlier in the day at
which he endorsed Hicks's request for Ernst & Young, the
national accounting firm which audits the county's financial
reports, to perform a financial risk assessment for county
government. Reversing a previous vote rejecting the proposal,
the committee unanimously approved conducting the assessment. At
that meeting, Wheeler also said that the audit committee "thinks
the county auditor should do more auditing."
Councilman Robert Weiner at the special session said that
Council's having imposed several administrative responsibilities
unrelated to auditing upon Hicks and having denied him a staff
was a deliberate effort to render him ineffective. "He was set
up for failure," Weiner said.
Hollins criticized Clark for not disclosing reasons for Hicks's
firing. Calling it "a very extreme action" which did not appear
justified in light of commendations for Hicks's work from
several sources, including representatives of Ernst & Young,
Hollins said, "The public and Mr. Hicks should hear why."
replied that the firing was "for reasons I don't think it
appropriate to discuss" in a public meeting. Hicks had exercised
his right under the state's Freedom of Information Act to have
the special meeting open to the public instead of being held
behind closed doors.
convening the meeting, which was held after Council's regular
session and an executive committee meeting, Clark cited various
provisions in law which defined Hicks's status as being employed
'at will'. That is a term which implies a person can be
terminated for any reason or even for no reason. The law gives
Council hiring and firing authority for the auditor position.
Hollins said, however, that "fundamental fairness [dictates
that] you let someone know the reason you're going to end their
John Flaherty, of Common Cause of Delaware, shouted from the
audience that the meeting, which had been called on short
notice, was illegal and that the public had a right to know
reasons, Clark ruled that he would "not take public comment on a
personnel matter." He threatened to have Flaherty ejected from
the chamber if he persisted.
statement he read to Council, Hicks said he was being 'rewarded'
"Issuing an audit report that warned against using A.I.S. Risk
Management Services ... as a middleman for delivering county
business to the law firm of the former C.A.O.'s (chief
administative officer Sherry Freebery) brother (Michael Freebery)."
(A.I.S. was the firm name used by Lynn Moroz, a former county
employee then working as an independent contractor.)
"Reporting to Council that the executive branch, without
Council's knowledge, had modified the county's contract with
A.I.S. Risk Management Services so that the contract
automatically renewed without Council approval."
first two items referred to Hicks's first report as the auditor
which was issued in April, 2004, and touched off the controversy
over his role.)
"Reporting the previous county attorney's (Timothy Mullaney)
failure to comply with New Castle County's residency law."
"Blowing the whistle on a series of meetings that failed to
comply with the Delaware Freedom of Information Act concerning
$15 million of taxpayer money."
referred to a meeting at which Council members Venezky, William
Tansey and Patty Powell and former member Robert Woods agreed to
support a request from Wilmington city government for a public
safety grant. The law prohibits a majority of a public body from
discussing public business amng themselves. At the time of the
meeting, four members were a Council majority.)
"Speaking candidly with the public concerning audit and
"Performing the county auditor job professionally and
it was called to a vote Clark's motion was voted up by himself,
James Bell, Powell, Joseph Reda, Timothy Sheldon, George Smiley
and Venezky. Voting against it were John Cartier, Hollins,
Street, Tansey and Weiner. David Tackett responded "present"
when he was called upon to vote.