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6/18/2005
County citizens benefit from Councilman Weiner's participation in national leadership conference

By ANGIE BASIOUNY / The News Journal excerpted article
06/18/2005

New Castle County Councilman Robert Weiner is somewhat amused at the media attention suddenly focused on the National Association of Counties' annual conference in Hawaii next month.

He's never missed a conference since being elected in 1996. Thousands of representatives from counties across America meet to set legislative priorities, share strategies for good governance and seek grants for their communities.

But officials in some states are backing out of the five-day event this year because of scrutiny over the cost during tight budget times. Taxpayer money usually pays for airfare and accommodations.

"In previous years it was in such exotic places as Baltimore, Detroit and St. Louis," Weiner joked Friday. "It's interesting that all of a sudden after 10 years, because it's going to a state that is a desirable place to go, it's getting the attention of the press. I wish the conference would get as much attention when we go to other cities because the work we do is important. By sharing, we get very good legislative ideas from across the country."

The conference is set for July 15 to 19 at the Hawaii Convention Center. Officials from Alabama, Illinois, Tennessee, Virginia and Wisconsin already have backed out.

Four representatives are headed to the conference from New Castle County at a cost of about $7,800. County Executive Chris Coons, Chief of Staff Richard T. Przywara and Councilman William Tansey plan to attend the event along with Weiner.

In Kent County, five of the seven Levy Court commissioners are going this year. They are David R. Burris, Ronald D. Smith, Allan F. Angel, P. Brooks Banta and Donald A. Blakey. Banta said he didn't know how much the conference would cost Kent County. But his airfare is in the $500 range and the hotel will cost about $100 a day for five days, he said.

"It was cheaper for me to go to Hawaii [this year] than to go to Oregon five years ago," he said.

Sussex County is sending only one representative: Council President Finley B. Jones. He could not be reached for comment late Friday.

Weiner said over the years he's brought back grants and initiatives from the conferences that have helped streamline government and improve the quality of life for residents, including a $100,000 grant from the U.S. Department of Transportation for the Claymont Renaissance effort.

Ideas from the 2002 conference helped him draft legislation that alleviated traffic on Concord Pike coming from AstraZeneca. The legislation created staggered work hours, ride-sharing, telecommuting and other methods to lessen the number of motorists at rush hour.

Banta said he, too, has imported and applied ideas from the conference, including camouflaging communication towers in Kent.

"It's not just a fun trip, it's a working experience," he said.

Banta said he takes extra luggage so he can bring back material to share with constituents.

"This is an educational process," he said.

His constituents have never complained because he tells them what he learned and how he can apply it to help the county, he said.

Weiner chairs two of the conference's committees. Jones is the Delaware president for the National Association of Counties.

The association also holds a winter conference each year in Washington. It's a chance for Delaware delegates to meet with the state's congressional representatives and lobby for legislation.

At the conference in March, Weiner said, they worked to save Community Development Block Grants from federal cuts, pushed to preserve funding for Amtrak and stumped for a stronger version of the Clean Air Act.

But skepticism about business trips to coveted travel destinations is common, said Jeremy Ratner, spokesman for the National Association of Counties in Washington.

Airfares from the East Coast to Hawaii cost from $600 to $1,600. Room rates at the five Waikiki hotels listed for convention attendees range from $179 to $295 per night.

"Obviously, Hawaii is a beautiful place and there's somewhat of a perception that Hawaii is a place where people go for vacation rather than a conference ... but our days are nine to five out there," Ratner said.

Hawaii was chosen as the site for the convention seven years ago, he said. Last year's conference was held in Phoenix. Next year's is planned for Chicago. Nashville, Tenn., will host the gathering in 2008.

The Associated Press contributed to this article.
Contact Angie Basiouny at 324-2796 or abasiouny@delawareonline.com.

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