More information needed on county legal matters

July 18, 2011

Sometimes reporting on government can be very frustrating, especially when it involves legal matters and executive sessions.

Sussex County Council recesses into closed-door executive sessions at most of its meetings and it’s usually to discuss pending litigation, which is permitted under state law.

One would assume that the county has a lot of legal issues if so many closed-door sessions are needed, or perhaps many sessions are needed to discuss one or two pending legal issues – there is no way of knowing. That’s part of the frustration when you are assigned to write about county government.

Rarely does council return from an executive session and take action. If it does, the discussion is done in cryptic language that only the best detectives could understand.

Minutes are taken during executive sessions, but they can be redacted to remove any information pertaining to all-important “pending litigation.”

And it’s also rare that council, or its legal staff, states the conclusion of legal matters. I can recall one instance when the court ruled in favor of the county in a lawsuit filed against DNREC over the pollution control strategy. That news was broadcast loud and clear.

It takes vigilance and open ears to keep track of lawsuits involving the county. Sometimes I get lucky and hear bits and pieces of information about appeals and lawsuits during meetings and workshops. On at least two occasions, I have overheard people in the audience talking about legal matters that led to stories. Sometimes those in the legal profession have given me a heads up about court action.

It’s not the best way to keep the public informed on county legal matters. More information is needed, and it doesn’t have to be all the details of a case. Even the name of the plaintiff (or defendant) would be great. After all, taxpayers are footing most of the legal bills.

  • Ron MacArthur has lived and worked in Sussex County all his life. As a journalist for more than 40 years, he has covered everything from county and town meetings to presidential visits. He also has a unique perspective having served as an elected official and lived on both sides of the county.

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