Mutual combat between two public servants

December 20, 2011

Sussex County Councilman Vance Phillips and Sheriff Jeff Christopher have a lot in common. They are both conservative Republicans, have been public servants for many years, are devout Christians who are not ashamed to talk about it and are devoted family men.

They must also have something else in common that is not as evident to outsiders – they have short fuses when it comes to sticking up for their convictions.

Those fuses exploded Oct. 26 during a meeting – of all things – to iron out their differences when it comes to the role of the county sheriff. It depends on who you talk to as to the events of that meeting, but there is really only one opinion that counts.

The Delaware Attorney General's Office ruled that no charges will be filed against Phillips even though Christopher contends the councilman hit him in the eye with a notepad and kicked him in the groin.

State prosecutors found that Christopher's account of the meeting did not jibe with what two unnamed witnesses saw. The investigation basically found fault with both men who were “engaged in mutual combat.”

So why all the fuss? Why can't two grown men get along? What pushes two intelligent men to become engaged in “mutual combat” involving county business?

It's best summed by that famous movie line: “What we've got here is failure to communicate,” spoken by Paul Newman in “Cool Hand Luke.”

Christopher has his own Christmas list for the Sheriff's Office. Even though he is an elected official, county council controls the purse strings of his department.

Christopher wants more money to train and better equip his deputies, and he also wants deputies to be more like regular police officers who can assist other agencies if the need arises. There is a giant disconnect between what Christopher thinks his office should be doing and what county council thinks it should be doing. In council's eyes, the sheriff's office provides administrative work by delivering court papers and conducting sheriff's sales. Phillips has been the leading proponent of council's thoughts and has publicly debated Christopher on the sheriff's role.

There is no doubt Phillips started the confrontation by throwing a “gum-backed notepad” (known as Post-It-Notes to the rest of the world) in the sheriff's direction.

Phillips, who has been in the hospital for nearly two months recuperating from injuries sustained in an experimental aircraft crash, apologized to the sheriff, saying he should have handled the situation better.

He said he has lots of time to reflect on that afternoon, and his life in general, and wants to bury the hatchet and work to solve differences for the betterment of all Sussex County residents.

That's commendable on Phillips' part, but will that help to close the gap between council and the Sheriff's Office?

During this joyous season celebrating the birth of Jesus, one would hope that people could see the total picture, set aside their differences and work toward solving problems. In this particular matter, I doubt even divine intervention could help.

  • 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.

    Contact Ron at