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10/16/2006
Common Cause: Councilman Weiner was 1 of Only 2 County Council Members Who Provided Oversight

Exerpt from 10/16/06 News Journal feature article:

John Flaherty, lobbyist for the government watchdog group Common Cause, thinks the expansion has provided greater checks and balances on county leadership.

"I'm not sure whether it was representation or the last couple of years of the Gordon administration that spurred a lot of people to go on with the expansion," he said, referring to the federal indictments of former County Executive Tom Gordon and his top aide, Sherry Freebery, on racketeering charges related to their time in office. "There was such a lack of oversight from the previous council. The only people who questioned anything were Chris Coons and Bob Weiner."

NCCo adjusts to growth in different category

Expansion of council hasn't been easy

By ANGIE BASIOUNY, The News Journal
Posted Monday, October 16, 2006

It's 8:07 p.m. on a Tuesday and the New Castle County Council meeting is ticking into its second hour.

Not unusual, except the agenda for this October meeting is sparse and everyone might just be home in time for "Law and Order: Criminal Intent."

Then several council members start asking questions about the land-use process, hoping to get clarity before they cast a vote on a housing development opposed by some residents.

How can this be approved without a sewer agreement in place? Why can't we vote no? Should we table this?

Penrose Hollins, the longest-serving council member, is exasperated.

The meeting, he later points out, is a good example of the "learning curve" that often has slowed council down since it expanded from seven to 13 members in 2004. Some of the newer members still aren't comfortable with county procedures and laws.

"We were talking about a retention pond in a committee meeting last week, and you'd think it was the first retention pond ever built in New Castle County," Hollins said. "It happens over and over and over again.

Everything is like the first time."

The council expansion was designed to make districts smaller and reduce the influence of a single member. Two years later, there are mixed reviews on whether the expansion was worth it.

Some elected leaders and residents say the change has accomplished little or nothing, while others say it has created a more diverse, engaged council, more in touch with the needs of constituents.

For Hollins, who opposed the expansion, it has meant more long meetings and late-night votes.

"All of the members of this council are very committed to their constituents," he said. "I also believe the seven-member council was equally committed. I don't think there is a direct correlation between more council members and better service."

But there is a direct correlation with money.

The expansion costs about $1 million annually, according to the county's Office of Finance. That pays for the six extra council members, who draw a yearly salary of $36,000, along with six extra council aides, a policy director, financial adviser, council attorney and assistant attorney.

"The concerns that I remember hearing when I was council president was that there will be greater costs, and that is certainly the case," County Executive Chris Coons said. "But I think it's also the case that this newer council is more vigorously engaged with the community, they attend more civic meetings, they're out there with the residents. And that is a good thing."

Changing views

When Coons was council president from 2000 to 2004, he signed a letter from council to the General Assembly opposing the expansion. He has since changed his mind, saying he believes people are better served in smaller districts.

The seven districts had 80,000 to 90,000 residents apiece, officials said. Each of the 13 districts now has about half that number.

Bill Dunn, president of the Milltown-Limestone Civic Alliance, has changed his mind, too. He was in favor of the expansion, but now thinks council members haven't been as responsive to the citizens as they should.

"Since the election, some of them have almost exclusively represented [special] interests and dismissed many of the civic groups out of hand," he said. "Don't get me wrong, they will attend a meeting or two, but won't give much credibility to what they hear there. Many feel they've faced a great deal of indifference."

The move to expand council was contentious from the start, when the General Assembly passed a bill in 1996 to begin adding seats by 1998.

During the next several years, lawmakers debated the number of additional seats and when they should be added, settling on an extra six for the 2004 election.

Those in favor said it made sense to redraw the districts to reflect the county's population growth, which climbed from 441,946 in 1990 to an estimated 523,008 last year, according to U.S. Census Bureau data.

But in 2003, several state legislators pushed a bill to cancel the expansion, saying it was unnecessary and expensive. The state House and Senate both approved the bill, which was met with a swift veto by Gov. Ruth Ann Minner.

"I watched the state Legislature try to kill it, and I'm eternally thankful to Gov. Ruth Ann Minner," said Councilman John Cartier, a member of the freshman class of 2004. "I think it was one of the greatest breakthroughs in representation in this state in a long time. It was way overdue."

Cartier said the expansion has had a profound impact on his district, which includes Claymont, Edgemoor Gardens and other working-class, racially diverse communities in the Fox Point and Brandywine Hundred area.

Before redistricting, those communities were part of a district that included the more affluent neighborhoods of northern and eastern Brandywine Hundred.

"Are the needs and the wants of people in Brandywine Hundred the same as the needs and wants of the people in Claymont?" Council President Paul Clark said. "That's the greatest difference with the expansion. I think the people who got elected actually represent their districts."

Cartier and Councilman David Tackett, who both came to office after working within civic organizations, ardently defend the expansion because the smaller districts allow them to work more closely with groups that need their help.

Tackett compares it with Wilmington City Council, which has 13 members to serve a city of about 72,000. He admits it may take the new council members a little bit longer to learn things, and they ask a lot more questions.

"But how is that a bad thing?" Tackett said. "We do ask questions, we seek answers. That's what we're supposed to do. I think there's been a higher demand placed on county departments because of it."

It's who, not how many

Marion C. Stewart, a member of the Civic League for New Castle County, is a fixture in the audience at council committee meetings, where the bulk of the county's legislative work is done. A keen observer of politics for more than 40 years, Stewart has seen it all.

She thinks the number of people on council is not significant.

"It's more a matter of what the people are like than it is how many of them," she said. Councilman "Bob Weiner is the same old Bob Weiner. Penrose is quiet. Jea [Street] is noisy. And David Tackett is a shining light. The change from Chris Coons to Paul Clark is more noticeable than the number of people."

She said she worried at first that the expansion would mean 13 speeches every time a vote is cast. But so far, she said, grandstanding has been minimal.

Stewart, a Republican, thinks the bigger council does make it harder for residents to figure out who represents them. But ultimately, it's about the personalities.

"One person can make such a difference on council," she said. "A good, quality person who knows what he or she is talking about can really elevate the level of discourse. I think John Cartier is that person."

John Flaherty, lobbyist for the government watchdog group Common Cause, thinks the expansion has provided greater checks and balances on county leadership.

"I'm not sure whether it was representation or the last couple of years of the Gordon administration that spurred a lot of people to go on with the expansion," he said, referring to the federal indictments of former County Executive Tom Gordon and his top aide, Sherry Freebery, on racketeering charges related to their time in office. "There was such a lack of oversight from the previous council. The only people who questioned anything were Chris Coons and Bob Weiner."

Clark said he thinks the added oversight is a major plus.

"There has been a questioning of everything in county government now, because the 13 members have all been asking things from a different viewpoint," he said.

Flaherty thinks only time will tell whether the expansion was worth it.

"It's a trade-off," he said. "You're talking about a huge amount of money, and I guess what people have to weigh is: Are you getting a million dollars more of service?"
Contact Angie Basiouny at 324-2796 or abasiouny@delawareonline.com.

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