Rehoboth Beach will seek a charter change for Alderman's Court administration, but it's not a change they're happy about.
Mayor Sam Cooper said state officials want to give the alderman more autonomy, establish set terms to avoid the threat of firing and separate alderman from the police department to prevent conflicts of interest.
Cooper said, “I understand where the state is coming from, and I think its legitimate, but I feel put upon in some ways because talking to people up and down the state, no one has had a problem with the Rehoboth court in 30 years."
There are only four Alderman’s Courts in Delaware; in Sussex County, Rehoboth, Dewey Beach and Bethany Beach have Alderman’s Courts. In Rehoboth, the court hears traffic, civil and misdemeanor criminal cases. In most other jurisdictions, cases are heard in Justice of the Peace court.
In Rehoboth, the city commissioners appoint the alderman. State officials want the city to follow its policy, which requires municipalities to nominate an alderman and an assistant alderman, who would then be appointed by the governor and approved by the state Senate. Cooper said the city has followed that policy in the past; the change would merely codify the policy by placing it in the city charter. Charter changes must be approved by the General Assembly.
The city spends around $70,000 to operate the court.
Commissioner Patrick Gossett said the city should evaluate whether to still have an Alderman’s Court. Cooper said some have the view that alderman’s courts are kangaroo courts meant to fleece money from tourists. He said while he also has some doubt of the necessity of the court, two reasons for having it are so cases can be reviewed by a judge familiar with the problems of Rehoboth, and so police officers can stay in town, and not have to leave the city for half the day to go to Georgetown or one of the Justice of the Peace courts.
However, Rehoboth is now in need of a new alderman. Cooper said alderman Judy Catterton has indicated she wants to step down, but she will stay until the city finds a replacement. He said state officials have indicated they will not allow the city to appoint a new alderman until it adopts the charter change.
Under the state's policy, even though the alderman is a city employee, the city could not remove the alderman, unless they can show cause at a hearing of the Court of the Judiciary.
"How do you manage this position when they are appointed by the governor but work for the city?” Cooper asked.
Bethany and Dewey adopted the state policy into their charters last summer, but Rehoboth held out, Cooper said, because he felt the change would have been rushed through.
Under the charter change, the alderman would serve a two-year term and will remain in office until reappointed or a successor is appointed. The proposed charter change allows for Alderman Court to continue to operate in the city’s municipal building, as long as it remains separate from the police department or other operations that could conflict.
Cooper said finding a new judge will not be as easy as it sounds.
“You’re going to advertise for someone. Who’s going to do the interviewing? Who’s going to come up with a short list? If it’s the whole commission, then it’s going to be a very cumbersome process, because each interview will be a called meeting of the commissioners. Can you do that in executive session?” he said.
The city commissioners will debate and possibly vote to send the charter change to the state legislature at the commissioners’ Friday, April 19 meeting.