League helping to keep an eye on local government

April 9, 2013

You probably know about the League of Women Voters: It’s a women’s group that every four years sponsors the presidential debates.

But the first part of that characterization is incomplete – it now includes men – and the second part barely begins to touch on the league’s mission. The group, founded in 1920 shortly after women won the right to vote, seeks to educate voters about issues all year, every year – not just during election season.

It’s also non-partisan, said Jo Klinge, the group’s communications chair. “Many of us tend to be politically active,” she said, but if they’re out campaigning for a particular candidate, they aren’t allowed to wear a League of Women Voters button. The league prohibits the local president, E. Anne Riley, from participating in partisan politics in any way.

The local branch almost disbanded several years ago. It had been based in Seaford but as the town declined with the closing of the DuPont plant, so did the local League of Women Voters.

“They were burned out,” said Valerie Driscoll, treasurer and membership chair of the local branch. “They were going to close it down.”

But a few women in coastal Sussex decided to keep it going, changing its name to the League of Women Voters of Sussex County and focusing on local issues.

“We began to address issues and their impact locally,” said Driscoll.

Their first big issue, not surprisingly, was land use. They began holding public forums. They made sure the venues had adequate parking and were handicapped accessible. Membership began to grow.

When Driscoll joined shortly after moving here from Wilmington in 2003, the local League had 20 members. It now has nearly 100, including 15 men.

Other issues of interest go way beyond the core mission of registering voters: financing of public schools, stormwater drainage, wetland buffers, planning – the league supports the hiring of a certified county planner, a position now vacant for more than three years – and affordable housing.

The next forum, “Housing For All: Fair & Affordable,” will be held at 2 p.m. Wednesday, April 10, at the Beebe Medical Arts Building, 18941 John J. Williams Highway (Route 24).

It will explore the problem of providing affordable housing for different income levels, Klinge said. Developers tend to build houses for well-off retirees and not for the people who provide much of the support services for those retirees. The public is welcome.

One of the most important functions of the League is to simply observe government in action, Klinge said. League members have been attending meetings of the Sussex County Council, Planning & Zoning and the Board of Adjustment. More recently, they’ve started going to school board meetings, depending on the number of volunteers available.

“When you’re there every week you see the patterns,” Klinge said.

As far as county council, Klinge said, “They deal mostly with land use and they have what I perceive as a strong prejudice for the developer.” Environmental and transportation concerns are addressed only when they have to be.

The Sussex branch also has 10 members who regularly go to the General Assembly in Dover.

The league, of course, remains concerned about the core mission that got the organization started: voting and voter registration.

While Delaware didn’t experience as many problems as other states, Driscoll said there was confusion about whether a photo ID was required at the polls. It’s not, but not all poll workers were informed.

They hope to get the voting issues resolved before the next election. They’ll also have plenty of local issues to keep them busy.

“We’re going to stay on land use,” Driscoll said. “We’re still standing there waving our hands, going ‘We’re still here and we’re not going away.’”

Klinge echoed Driscoll’s comments. “It has made a difference, in Planning and Zoning, Board of Adjustment, to have the observers,” she said, especially as league members have become more knowledgeable about the rules the governmental bodies are supposed to follow.

More than anything, the League of Women Voters wants people to become more interested in their government.

“We want people to get involved,” Klinge said. “Not that they have to agree with us, but to find out, to be informed.”

The league’s making it easier to do just that. For more information about tomorrow’s housing forum and about the league in general, including its Great Decisions foreign policy discussions, check the website.

  • Accomplished writers appear in the Politics column every Tuesday on a rotating basis to explore the dynamic world of politics at the local, county, state, national and world levels.

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