year ago County Executive Chris Coons and an expanded County
Council led by Paul Clark took office pledging a policy of
'transparent' government. Both have, indeed, done several things
to make county government more responsive than it was formerly.
They have participated with the respective Council members in
town meeting-style 'listening sessions' in every Council
district. The quinquennial comprehensive planning process has
been opened to any resident who wants to participate. Meetings
of county officials with community groups and others are easy to
In several situations in recent weeks,
however, some of the transparency has been cloaked by a curtain
of secrecy drawn around matters of the public's business. The
administration has informed Council, but appears to want that
information to remain in-house.
Most recent of the incidents occurred on
Dec. 20 at a meeting of Council's finance committee. It involved
a dispute between auditor Robert Wasserbach and Ernst & Young,
the accountant firm that was hired to assess the extent of
financial risk which county government has. Wasserbach told the
firm that he and the audit committee which oversees his work "do
not feel the product (the risk assessment) is commensurate with
the cost of the services provided." He said county employees did
"much of the work" and the audit report contains "major
deficiencies." He listed 14 of them in some detail. Value of the
contract with the firm is $49,500.
doesn't take one learned in political science to conclude that some
negotiations are in the offing to resolve the dispute and that the path
potentially could lead to a courtroom. That conclusion was used to justify the
committee's going into executive session to "discuss pending or potential
Talking about legal strategy is
one of the topics shielded from public view by the state Freedom of Information
Act. Although the law specifies that public disclosure should be of the kind
which would jeopardize the government agency's position, the provision -- like
other shields in the only mildly effective law -- is frequently interpreted in
its most liberal sense. And, of course, no public agency is likely to pay much
heed to the fact that the law does not prohibit going beyond its exceptions in
the cause of more openness.
Before clearing the conference
room and shutting the door, Councilwoman Karen Venezky, who chairs the finance
committee, declined to elaborate on what sort of strategy was at issue. Pressed
on that point, she told Delaforum, "I don't think [responding] would be
appropriate. I'm reading what I am supposed to be reading." That was a
deliberately vague statement apparently intended to be put on the record to
satisfy requirements of the state law.
Prior to that, the public -- and
evidently some of the Council members -- heard about the dispute for the first
time. It would be easy to say 'Who cares?' and dismiss a bean-counter dispute as
a non-issue. However, anyone who has been watching Council would immediately
recognize a situation rife with political implications.
Former auditor Robert Hicks was
summarily fired early in the year by a divided Council. Matters which led to
that action centered on his having embraced an Ernst & Young recommendation, in
its audit of the county's fiscal 2004 financial report, that the county conduct
commission a risk assessment.
Councilman Penrose Hollins, who
supported Hicks at the time, picked up on that at the committee meeting. He
questioned why some, but not all, members of Council received copies of
Wasserbach's letter to Ernst & Young. He sarcastically recalled that one of the
complaints against Hicks was that he did not keep Council informed about his
activities. "Apparently that's all right now," he said. William Tansey said he
also had been "overlooked" in the distribution of the letter.
Hollins later told Delaforum
that a "double standard" was applied in the committee's support of Wasserbach in
the dispute. "If [Hicks] had questioned the external auditor, all hell would
have broken loose," Hollins said.
Although committee members at
the conference table had copies of the Wasserbach letter and the 130-page report
that was its subject, Venezky initially rejected a request by long-time civic
activist Marion Stewart that those documents be made available to the public.
After the executive session -- which lasted just shy of an hour -- Venezky
provided copies, pointing out that the report was still considered a draft. She
said her doing so was making an exception to a requirement that a formal Freedom
of Information Act request be submitted in order to obtain access to them.
The report discusses levels of
the financial risk inherent in 55 county government activities. The only one
said to pose that highest level of risk is liability associated with two
The Wasserbach-Ernst & Young
matter followed by a week a closed-door session of Council's executive committee
at which it was briefed on the administration's decision to settle lawsuits by
developer Frank Accierno involving the Christiana Town Center shopping center.
Immediately after that session, information officer Christy Gleason distributed
a press statement announcing the settlement.
It was not clear how much legal
strategy could be involved after lawsuits are settled nor how disclosing a
settlement about which the other party already was necessarily aware would
jeopardize the county's position.
Two weeks before that, the
executive committee was told -- again privately -- that the internal police
investigation of how off-duty jobs were arranged and paid for had been
completed. Sources have revealed that a police officer alleged to have forged
signatures on checks, some of which were payable to himself, has been dismissed
from the force and three other officers disciplined for improprieties in
handling an off-the-books fund.
Citing a paragraph in state law
which mandates that "all records compiled as a result of any investigation
subject to the provisions of this chapter and-or a contractual disciplinary
grievance procedure shall be and remain confidential and shall not be released
to the public," Gleason declined to confirm or deny the
reported discipline. County officials have interpreted that to mean they cannot
let the public know, in a general-terms way, what is going on.
Gleason did confirm, however, that information
from the investigation has been
referred to the attorney general, who will make a decision on whether to
instigate criminal prosecution. Forgery is a felony.
In that instance, the entire
county police force has been tainted with an implication of corruption.
Withholding information leaves the public to speculate on how widespread that
might be. There is also a political angle in that the 'discovery' by the current
administration of the long-standing practice of how off-duty jobs for nonprofit
organizations were handled and paid for led to the resignation of former police
chief David McAllister, a protégé of the former Gordon administration. The
agreement under which McAllister left contained provisions imposing apparently
airtight secrecy over how it came to be.
When it comes to transparency
it's time for county government to let practice catch up with policy.
DIRECTORS AND DRAMA COACHES: At the point in the program where you would
customarily thank the folk who planned and worked to make the production
successful, the judge wants you to say that the whole thing simply evolved by
itself and no one had anything to do with making it happen.
Nathan Warmack wanted to honor his heritage
by wearing a Scottish kilt to his high school dance. Then a principal told him
to change into a pair of pants. What began with a few yards of tartan has
sparked an international debate about freedom, symbols and cultural dress.
Inmates of the Minnesota Correctional Facility -- and their
neighbors -- are singing 'Don't Fence Me In'.
to read the New York Times article about what is probably the only
maximum-facility in the world where the only separation from the what's 'on the
outside' is a low-trimmed hedge.