A series of ethics complaints filed on the state level against Dewey Beach officials has prompted town council to establish a local ethics board to handle accusations of impropriety.
Dewey Beach Town Council voted unanimously at its Nov. 10 meeting to create a town ethics board. According to Town Attorney Fred Townsend, this means individuals can no longer file complaints against Dewey Beach officials with Delaware Public Integrity Commission.
The PIC ruled against Mayor Diane Hanson in May 2011, saying the mayor should have recused herself from a vote that would affect the redevelopment of Ruddertowne because she owned rental properties.
Hanson successfully appealed the PIC’s ruling; a Superior Court judge overturned the PIC’s decision in August.
Commissioner Joy Howell said former PIC Chairwoman Barbara Greene is a local Realtor, which means she could have a conflict of interest in the decision against Hanson. Howell said on a local ethics board, conflicts of interest would be more apparent.
Council voted to indemnify Hanson for the cost of her appeal. At the Nov. 10 meeting, Hanson said the town has spent $60,000 defending itself against PIC complaints in the last year.
Four members of the public testified in favor of creating a local board, including property-owner Marcia Schieck, who said it would be financially wise.
Schieck and resident Susan Slye both said they had no confidence in the state commission.
“It is my opinion the state PIC is being used as a political tool,” Schieck said. She said the commission’s practice of guilty-until-proven-innocent was unfair. “I really have a vote of no-confidence for the PIC,” she said.
Referencing Hanson’s case, Slye said, “The last case I saw looked to me like a political decision.” She said the Superior Court judge who overturned the ruling against Hanson confirmed her suspicion. “I have zero confidence in the Delaware Public Integrity Commission,” Slye said.
Don Gritti said he filed two complaints with the state PIC, and he was unhappy with the commission’s responses. He said the town needs its own board because the PIC does not understand Dewey Beach.
Resident Bill Zolper, a member of the town’s former board of ethics, which was not approved by state officials, resulting in disbanding, said, “The town ought to control itself and have its own.”
Property-owner David Thomas did not say he was against the town establishing a board of ethics, but he asked what would happen if a complaint were filed against the board or a member thereof. “Who guards the guardians?” he asked.
Thomas said if a complaint was filed against the local board, it could also mean the town must hire another attorney.
Resident Marie Hutton opposed a town ethics board. She said there is no real consequence when the PIC rules against an elected official except possibly a small fine. “I really don’t even understand why you have to hire an attorney,” Hutton said.
Hutton also said it would be difficult in Dewey Beach to find residents who were impartial enough to serve on the board. Also, a local board would use the same ethics code as the state board, so its rulings would be similar, she said.
Hutton said the decision to create the board should go to referendum.
Commissioner Anna Legates said a local board and a state board would use the same ethical guidelines, but that does not mean the boards would issue identical decisions. “Everyone interprets code differently,” she said.
Commissioner Courtney Riordan, who said he was exonerated of a PIC complaint, said a local board is more able to give an objective opinion.