Even in the very unlikely event
that the state Senator Karen Peterson's
bill to subject the legislature to the Freedom of
Information Act makes it through the General Assembly and into
the Delaware Code, it shouldn't supply much cause to celebrate.
A Band-Aid isn't going to do much good where a transplant is
The problem is that the present
law, despite all the noble language in its preamble, is heavily
weighted against openness and transparency in public affairs.
There are listed nine topics of
discussion which government agencies, committees, councils,
boards and the like can take behind closed doors. At first
glance it would seem these are legitimate and appropriately
narrow exceptions to the public's right to know. In practice,
however, they provide loopholes through which you can drive the
proverbial truck. Make that an 18 wheeler.
Topic one: "Discussion of an
individual citizen's qualifications to hold a job or pursue
training ..." Topic nine: "Personnel matters in which the names,
competency and abilities of individual employees or students are
discussed ..." Common interpretation of those provisions extends
to any talk which has to do with personnel. That could be -- and
has been -- taken to include provisions of a labor contract,
staff work rules and the salary of high-ranking public
Another provision of the law
declares that "each public body shall maintain minutes of all
meetings, including executive sessions ..." It goes on to say
that those minutes shall include, among other things, any
"action agreed upon." It further states that the minutes "may be
withheld from public disclosure so long as public disclosure
would defeat the lawful purpose for the executive session,
but no longer." (emphasis added)
Adequacy and completeness of
public bodies' minutes
aside, the most common version of executive session minutes made
public and apparently the only ones kept reads simply:
"The [public body] discussed personnel matters and pending or
potential litigation." In several cases, the deputy attorney
general in charge of reviewing freedom-of-information complaints
has ruled that fully complies with the law.
Nodding in the direction of
openness is a provision that "executive sessions may be held
only for the discussion of public business and all
voting on public business must take place at a public
meeting ..." (emphasis added) Usually that public vote is on a
motion to confirm something "as discussed in executive session"
without, of course, disclosing what that 'something' was. Again,
that has been ruled compliant.
Even when a violation has been
found, some sort of token act performed in public -- like a
revote or issuing a statement -- has been deemed sufficient to
remedy the violation.
A complete overhaul of the
present law should be directed toward limiting to a bare minimum
the reasons for barring the public's access to the public's
business; providing an independent arbiter to determine if
violations have occurred; and imposing a meaningful penalty for
Senator Peterson and a few of her
Assembly colleagues seem to be on the right track. Might we
suggest they get together and establish a taskforce reflecting
the involved interests, in both the public and private sectors,
to come up with comprehensive legislation. Only then will it be
possible to determine how many and which of our lawmakers
subscribe to the declaration of policy in the current law:
"It is vital in a democratic
society that public business be performed in an open and public
manner so that our citizens shall have the opportunity to
observe the performance of public officials and to monitor the
decisions that are made by such officials in formulating and
executing public policy. ..."
Loncki of near New Castle was the 13th Delawarean killed in the
line of duty in Iraq.
Roberts, Anthony P.
Thompson, Jarrett B.
Clifton, Richard C.
McGowan, Stephen M.
James S. "Shawn"
Sergeant 1st Class
Garyantes, Joseph P.
Palmer, Cory L.
McGinnis, Brian Daniel
Management promotes itself as an
environmentally conscious company,
so we just knew it would come up
with a way to solve the Christmas
tree disposal problem. Unless you've
spent the last few months on Mars,
you know that yard waste has been
banned from the Cherry Island Marsh
landfill. Although most folks don't
keep their cut Christmas trees in
the yard, the Department of Natural
Resources & Environmental Control,
which imposed the
branded those holiday
decorations as unwanted
Now comes Waste
Management -- which has
the largest share of the
local trash market --
with an offer which it
figures might be hard to
refuse. It will take
• They telephone to
schedule a pick-up
appointment on or before Jan. 10. We
can hear it now: If you have a fir
press '1'; if you have a pine press
'2'; and like that.
The trees are put out on Jan. 13, 20
or 27. How many
Used Christmas trees are
starting to pile
up at Bellevue State
Park and other venues in
the parks system.
folks still have the
drooping remnants around about the
end of January?
They're cut into four-foot segments.
It was hard enough getting the trunk
down to proportions required to fit
into the stand.
fork over $15 per tree. Is a tree in
two or three four-foot segments one
or two or three trees?
course, the company letter said, you
can always cart the tree to a state
park and leave it there for a
'suggested donation' of $2. Which,
of course, is how Waste Management
and the other major trash-collection
firms want to cope with the
environmentally favorable ban. We
just knew they wouldn't disappoint.
County Council is scheduled to vote
Tuesday evening on the first step
toward addressing the county's
financial situation. Although the
best guess is that, after a bit of
posturing, they'll approve an
ordinance removing the 5% limit on
what the county executive can
propose in the way of a property-tax
increase, 12 of the 13 members
evidently want to keep mum until
they see which way the wind is
Dave Tackett responded to a
twice-sent Delaforum inquiry into
their thinking. "I do not think
repelling the 5% [limit] is a
big issue since the budget needs our
approval anyway. And if there is a
need, then perhaps more than a 5%
increase may be needed," he said. He
added that he hopes state government
will come to county government's
assistance as it did for Wilmington
city government. If so, he added,
that "it is important to show the
state we are doing everything we can
to run the county in a finically
responsible way." The bottom line as
Tackett sees it is that the
alternative, reducing services the
county provides residents,, is not
HERE to read previous
Cohen, who is far and away the
political journalist in Delaware,
notes in an article posted on her
Delaware Grapevine website that
Senator Joe Biden has quietly passed
the late Bill Roth as the
longest-serving elected public official
in major office in
state history. During the past 30
years he has risen from being a
county councilman to one of the most
senior -- and most respected --
United States senators. And it's a
not-overly-remote possibility that
he might rise to the top of the
ladder in a couple of years.
HERE to read her very
fine account of a significant
Some thoughts to start the new
• It's no mystery
why the taskforce looking into the county's financial situation
didn't waste time talking about a sales tax as a potential
'structural' remedy. In the land of 'tax-free shopping', that
just isn't done. However, we might suggest that the door isn't
as tightly shut as it might seem.
Up in New Hampshire, one of
the four other states* without a sales tax, local jurisdictions
tack a 7% tax onto restaurant checks. Try to find a parking
place in the dining-oasis lot across from Concord Mall on a
Friday night or in the vicinity of just about any eatery and
it's obvious that county government could balance the books with
a single blow. And we'd guess it wouldn't have to be as hefty a
rate as the Graniteers have.
That would give new
significance to those three little words of endearment: Let's
(* The others are
Alaska, Montana and Oregon.)
• Topping our legislative want
list for when the General Assembly gets together this month is a
ban on using a cellular telephone while driving. California
recently joined New York, Connecticut, New Jersey and the
District of Columbia in telling drivers statewide to hang up.
Many local jurisdictions have such laws.
According to the Insurance
Institute for Highway Safety, drivers using cell phones are four
times more likely to get into crashes serious enough to injury
That ranks somewhere up there with drunken driving. The
institute cites a study
which found no significant statistical difference in injury rate
between males and females, drivers older and younger than 30 and
those using hand-held or hands-free devices.
• It's hard to believe that
anyone familiar with how our state Freedom of Information Act
works -- doesn't work is more like it -- was surprised by the
deputy attorney general's ruling that University of Delaware
trustees were legal in having their executive committee select a
new university president behind closed doors. So long as a
perfunctory vote to hire is taken by the full board in public
session well after the actual choice is made, everything is
legit, according to Michael Tupman.
He ruled the same way last
summer when Delaforum questioned the closed process the
Brandywine school board used to hire a new superintendent.
Bringing actual practice into
line with the stated philosophy of promoting transparent
government should be near the top of Beau Biden's to-do list as
he takes on the role of chief enforcer of state law. He could
start by seating a pro-public ombudsman at Mr. Tupman's desk.
• We have to wonder how
closing schools serves to honor the memory of President Ford.
Rather than giving the kids a day-long recess, it would seem far
more appropriate and beneficial to use the day of national
mourning as the occasion for learning about his accomplishments
and the public services he performed.
• At a time when the Catholic
school system is endangered by rising costs, it's hard to find
educational -- or other -- justification for sending high
schoolers cross country to basketball tournaments in Arizona and