Weiner refuses to participate in illegal meeting
NCCo violated meetings statute
By CHARLOTTE HALE / The News Journal
New Castle County Council violated a state open meetings law in July by discussing over the phone a proposal to give Wilmington $15 million for public safety, the Delaware Attorney General's Office has ruled.
However, Deputy Attorney General W. Michael Tupman ruled in an opinion made public Friday that corrective action is not needed because members later discussed and approved the grants in public meetings.
Councilman Bill Tansey said the opinion would make him more sensitive to the demands of the law, which requires elected county and city officials to conduct most business in public. "At the time, it didn't appear to me to be a problem," he said.
The ruling stems from a complaint filed July 20 by County Auditor Robert Hicks Jr. Hicks argued the Council violated the law when Councilman J. Robert Woods discussed the grant in phone calls with individual Council members. Woods followed up the calls by sending Wilmington Mayor James M. Baker a memo with signatures from a majority of Council members as a show of support.
Legislative aides signed the memo for Council members Woods, Tansey, Patty Powell and Karen Venezky. Council President Chris Coons and Councilmen Penrose Hollins and Robert Weiner did not sign the memo because they questioned Woods' decision to build a consensus outside a public meeting.
Woods said his intention was to follow up the memo with public discussion and a public vote. He said the situation was unusual because of the serious problems the city was facing with its finances and a "sickout" in which 161 city police officers had called in sick over two days to protest their lack of a contract.
But Tupman said because Council members exchanged information and opinions in calls, they had conducted the public's business in private.
"Since the public did not have any opportunity to monitor or observe that meeting, the meeting was is a violation of [the act]," Tupman wrote.
Tupman said Council also violated the law by giving the public less than six hours' notice of a change in time and site of a meeting at which the grant was discussed. Again, the state recommended no corrective action. Tupman said because more than 100 people attended, starting an hour later and on a different floor of the same building did not deprive the public.
Weiner disagreed with Woods that the conversations about the grant were an isolated incident. He said some Council members frequently talk about issues informally to build a consensus before votes. He said he objects to the practice because the public meetings that follow are "window dressing."
"The citizens have a right to participate in any decision by all public bodies," he said.
Contact Charlotte Hale at 324-2792 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
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