When Leah Betts joined Milton Town Council in April 1989, George H.W. Bush had been president for three months and Milton's south side was dominated by the Draper-King Cole cannery.
The face of Milton, both literally and politically, has changed a lot during Betts' eight terms in office: The cannery has given way to an ever-growing brewery and dozens of the town's most fervid residents have come and gone from town council.
But times are changing. For the first time in 24 years, on Monday, April 1, the town council will go on without Betts, who didn't seek re-election this year.
“I think I had been there long enough,” she said. “I think the council needed some new blood.”
Betts said she told council after being re-elected in 2010 that the next three years would be her last.
“I've had a wonderful experience being a council person,” she said. “I've tried to answer all phone calls, and I always tried to call them back. I might not have had the answer, but I did call them back.”
Betts ran unopposed in 1989 and replaced John Starr on council. Jack Hudson was the mayor at the time and would remain in that role until 1994, when he resigned to accept an appointment by then Gov. Tom Carper to become a justice of the peace.
Betts said she first ran for council to help citizens and make the town better.
“I think we've come a long way,” she said. “We didn't have any development, and we had a cannery factory. Of course we did have a lot of business downtown, but not as much as when I first came to Milton.”
She continued, “I will miss it; there's no doubt, but it's time. It's been wonderful working with everyone. I have no complaints. I'm not saying you don't have some disagreements, but that's good because that's why you have seven council people.”
Betts also served under mayors G. Ruth Batten (1994-96), Jack Bushey (1996-2006), Don Post (2006-10) and most recently Cliff Newlands (2010-13). Betts became vice mayor in 1994 and will remain in that role until she officially vacates her seat in April.
During her tenure in town politics, Betts said, she has served on too many town committees to count and has been a member of many community organizations and nonprofit groups. From 1975 to 2012, Betts was a commissioner of the Violent Crimes Compensation Board. Now known as the Delaware Victims' Compensation Assistance Program, the agency uses money raised from fines and penalties imposed by the courts to provide assistance to families affected by violent crimes.
At a retirement luncheon held at The Kitchen at Paynter's Mill March 9, Rep. Steve Smyk, R-Milton, shared a story highlighting how the program – and Betts –directly helped his family.
“My father was a trooper before I was and … he had a tussle with a fella who was on PCP. My father didn't lose the fight, but he lost in the long run because he had some back problems after that,” he said. “She, for the very first time in history, got the victims' compensation board to recognize a state trooper or police officer as a victim, and my father received those benefits, and my family benefited because of it.”
Longtime Rep. George Carey, who retired in 2010 and is a close friend of Betts, recalled an instance early in his political career when he called Milton about its police department.
“I got a call saying, 'The police department needs some working on in Milton. Can you do anything about it?'” he said. “I called Milton council, and I got some good advice from Leah. She said, 'Rep. Carey, you take care of the state police, and we'll take care of Milton Police.”
He said he knew from that point on that Milton could take care of itself.
“I didn't have to attend Milton council meetings because if anything was needed, Leah would call me or Thurman Adams,” he said. “Leah has been a great asset to the town of Milton. She spoke what she thought was the best for the town.”
Betts grew up in Harbeson and attended school in Georgetown. She moved to Milton in 1949 after marrying her husband, who passed away 20 years ago. She has two sons, five grandchildren and five greatgrandchildren, most of whom live in the area. She said she is looking forward to spending more time with her family, but will always make time for those in the community in need of assistance.
“I'm going to enjoy my greatgrandchildren, and I'm still going to be active if I'm needed,” she said. “I'm here and if anybody needs me, I'll certainly be there to help them.”