Dewey Beach accused of violating sunshine laws

Przygocki, Leonhart petition Attorney General’s Office
Zeke Przygocki and Georgia Leonhart have filed separate Freedom of Information complaints against Dewey Beach with the Attorney General's Office. BY KARA NUZBACK
June 3, 2013

Dewey Beach faces new accusations it violated Delaware’s Freedom of Information Act.  Dewey Beach resident and former Commissioner Zeke Przygocki and Rehoboth Beach resident Georgia Leonhart filed separate FOIA complaints against the town to the Delaware Attorney General’s Office.

Przygocki’s complaint, filed May 15, accuses two sitting commissioners and the town mayor of holding a private meeting to discuss town business.

Delaware Supreme Court justices heard oral arguments April 10 in a lawsuit filed by property owners, who say an agreement between Dewey Beach and Ruddertowne developer Dewey Beach Enterprises should be invalidated.

The Feb. 26, 2011 agreement allowed DBE to build in excess of a townwide, 35-foot height limit in exchange for certain amenities, such as designated town space, public restrooms and a baywalk.

Citizens to Preserve Dewey, a volunteer group of property owners, opposes the agreement.  Commissioner Joy Howell, who attended the April 10 court proceeding, was a founding member of CPD.

CPD co-founders Joan Claybrook and Marcia Schieck also attended the oral arguments.  “CPD raised funds and provided, what appears to have been, significant financial support for the plaintiffs in that case,” Przygocki wrote.

Commissioner Anna Legates and Mayor Diane Hanson also attended the oral arguments.  Legates spoke publicly in opposition to the mutual agreement between DBE and the town before she became a commissioner.  Hanson was the only member of town council who voted against the agreement.

Przygocki, who was a commissioner in 2011, voted in favor of the agreement.

“Immediately after leaving the courthouse, Mayor Hanson, Commissioner Legates and Commissioner Howell – a quorum of Dewey’s five-member town council – met with Claybrook, Schieck, CPD members and other outspoken Ruddertowne opponents from CPD, including Betsy Damos, at Fraizer’s Restaurant on the waterfront in Dover for an extended lunch,” Przygocki wrote.

In the complaint, he said town council and CPD are colluding to undermine the agreement with DBE.  “It would be ridiculous to suggest that these matters were not discussed during the luncheon meeting,” he said.

Przygocki included two pictures of the women at Fraizer’s and says Hanson, Howell and Legates violated Delaware’s FOIA laws by discussing public business in private.

Town denies FOIA request

Leonhart’s complaint, filed April 26, says assistant Town Manager Jim Dedes illegally denied her FOIA request for a digital presentation of state FOIA laws.

At an April 6 Dewey Beach Town Council meeting, Legates said she attended a seminar in Dover which focused on Delaware’s open meeting laws.  She also referenced a PowerPoint presentation from the seminar that, she said, had been distributed to municipal officials by Sussex County Association of Towns.

In her complaint, Leonhart said she filed an April 9 FOIA request for a copy of the PowerPoint presentation.

Dedes denied the request April 22.  “First, the author of the training materials asserts that they were not prepared for any specific municipality, that no public business is discussed in the materials, that they consist of protected proprietary commercial information and, as such, are exempt from the definition of public record under the Freedom of Information Act,” he wrote.

Dedes also said the PowerPoint presentation does not relate to public business and was not compiled or distributed by Dewey Beach.  “Therefore, they do not meet the definition of a public record,” he said.

Leonhart, who writes and emails periodic newsletter Dewey Beach News, said by refusing to produce the PowerPoint, Dewey Beach is in violation of freedom of information laws.  “There are limited exceptions, and the requested material does not fall within any of them,” she said.

Leonhart said the PowerPoint was publicly presented at a January meeting of Delaware League of Local Governments.  “Any suggestion that material publicly presented at a monthly DLLG meeting, material given to attendees for their reference and use, material reportedly possessed and being disseminated to others by SCAT, can somehow be transformed into protected proprietary information is simply nonsensical,” she wrote.

Dewey Beach Town Manager Marc Appelbaum said the town has been made aware of the complaints and will file a response with the Attorney General’s Office.

Department of Justice Spokesman Jason Miller said it would take the Attorney General’s Office several weeks to respond to the complaints.

A year ago, Deputy Attorney General Kent Walker cited Dewey Beach Town Council for multiple open meeting violations.  In his July 13, 2012 opinion, Walker said commissioners had made closed-door meetings the rule, not the exception.  He determined council violated open meeting laws on at least 28 different occasions.

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