Political differences appear to have dealt a setback to a measure intended to clarify the duties of Delaware's county sheriffs and deputies. On April 25, main sponsor Rep. Dan Short, R-Seaford, said he would strike House Bill 290, which was requested by Sussex County Council.
That decision was announced less than two hours before the bill was scheduled to be debated in an April 25 House Administration Committee hearing. Short said the committee debate was not the path forward he and other sponsors had planned. In what he called an attempt to take control of the legislation, the measure was pushed forward by House Majority Leader and Committee Chairman Rep. Pete Schwartzkopf, D-Rehoboth Beach.
“There is a longstanding tradition in the General Assembly that if the sponsor of a bill has requested his or her legislation to be tabled in committee, the committee chairman yields to the sponsor's request. That was not the case with House Bill 290,” Short said. “It is my opinion that there was an attempt to take control of this issue from me by having it placed on the committee agenda.”
He said he had no other choice but to strike the bill and “prevent any further political stunts from happening.” At Short's request, the measure had been tabled since March 28 when it was pulled off the House Administration Committee's agenda.
Schwartzkopf denied Short's accusation.
He said it was political pressure from a small but vocal group of Republicans that led Short to strike the bill. “This small group scared the political hell out of some of the Republican representatives in Sussex County,” he said, adding many of the bill's sponsors have been threatened with primary elections if they maintained support of the legislation.
Schwartzkopf said that's exactly what happened to him in 2005 when he proposed similar legislation. “And that's the reason that Mike Vincent [county council president] has a primary,” he added.
Bill not dead yet
Schwartzkopf said the bill is not dead; it will be reintroduced under another number and stands a good chance of passing.
“This issue over the role of the sheriff and his deputies remains in limbo, and it will continue to put our citizens and the taxpayers at risk for liability as long as it remains unresolved,” said Sussex County Administrator Todd Lawson.
“That is why we remain hopeful the Legislature will come back to this very important matter and settle the debate once and for all.”
Short said he asked the committee to table the bill to allow time to pass a House Concurrent Resolution requesting the Delaware Supreme Court issue a ruling on the county sheriff's arrest powers.
He said he wanted to garner Democrats’ support before introducing the resolution.
Schwartzkopf said he told Short he had lined up 10 Democrats who would sign the resolution.
Schwartzkopf said he and Speaker of the House Rep. Robert Gilligan, D-Sherwood Park, agree a resolution to the Supreme Court is unprecedented.
“We've never done this before. We are the ones who legislate, and the court reviews what we have done.
“I'm not crazy about doing this, but I will support it,” Schwartzkopf said.
“I'm not upset that Danny had the bill stricken, because that is always an option,” Schwartzkopf said.
“I'm upset that he didn't have the courage to take the blame himself and instead to blame me. I wasn't trying to steal his bill.
“The county council has asked for our help, and it appears some legislators have succumbed to political pressure by being threatened with primaries. You have to have the strength to stand up to that, because it's the right thing to do.”
Schwartzkopf said Short stated in a committee meeting three weeks ago that some sponsors of the bill were threatening to peel off their support because of political pressure. He said he also wanted time to correct misinformation about the bill and time to prepare the resolution requesting a Supreme Court ruling.
“I gave him three weeks, and I put it on the agenda with appropriate notice just in case,” Schwartzkopf said.
“I cannot run a bill in the committee if the sponsor does not want it.”
Sussex supports legislation
Short said he introduced the bill March 22 on behalf of Sussex County Council after the Attorney General's Office opined the General Assembly should pass legislation to codify what is believed to be the intent of Delaware code prohibiting county sheriffs from carrying out police duties.
All 15 of Sussex County's Republican representatives signed the bill – as did three Democrats and four senators – and Sussex County Council unanimously endorsed it.
“The county council took a courageous vote knowing they would hear from the sheriff and his supporters, but they took that stand for the betterment of the county and to protect the county from lawsuits,” Schwartzkopf said.
Schwartzkopf said the recently released 64-page report from Sussex County shows the Sussex County Sheriff's Office has drawn criticism from other police agencies, the courts, the Attorney General's Office and county council. “But he's pushing his agenda anyway,” Schwartzkopf said.
Short said clarity on the powers of the Sheriff's Office is still needed, and he plans to introduce the resolution within a few days.