Supreme Court to rule on Dewey mayor’s ethics

Justices hear arguments from Hanson, PIC
June 13, 2013
Delaware Supreme Court will rule on charges that Dewey Beach Mayor Diane Hanson committed ethical violations. SOURCE FILE PHOTO

Delaware’s highest court is set to decide whether ethical violations against Dewey Beach Mayor Diane Hanson should be overturned.

The Public Integrity Commission initially cited Hanson for ethical violations in May 2011, saying she should have recused herself from a vote to limit the height of Ruddertowne because she owned rental properties nearby.

Hanson appealed the ruling in August 2011, saying no evidence was presented to support the assumption that she would benefit from her vote to clarify the 35-foot height limit for Ruddertowne’s zoning district.

Superior Court Judge E. Scott Bradley favored Hanson’s appeal and reversed the PIC’s ruling in August 2012.  “Merely because Hanson and DBE would be renting rooms in the same town hardly means that they would be competing with each other,” Bradley wrote.

Public Integrity Commission Counsel Janet Wright submitted an appeal of Bradley’s decision Jan. 4 to Delaware Supreme Court. “PIC did not err as a matter of law and had substantial evidence to support its conclusion that Ms. Hanson violated the Code of Conduct,” Wright wrote.

Justices Carolyn Berger, Henry duPont Ridgely and Jack Jacobs heard oral arguments in the case June 12.  Berger and Jacobs questioned why the PIC was appealing the lower court’s decision.  “This is being appealed because there’s a principle involved, or what?” Berger asked.

“What’s at stake here?” Jacobs asked.

Wright said the decision could impact the PIC’s rules of procedure because, the court ruled, PIC did not follow them.  “We’re talking about principles and procedures,” she said.

Wright then outlined the PIC's evidence against Hanson.

In Hanson’s testimony before the PIC, she admitted she owned property adjacent to the Ruddertowne complex and that she was being sued in federal court by Ruddertowne developer Dewey Beach Enterprises, Wright said. The height ordinance would not have passed without Hanson’s vote, she said.

“Both of her attorneys testified it was meant as a defense in the federal suit,” Wright said.

Hanson’s attorney David Finger argued the town attorney testified the ordinance was meant to protect the town in the federal lawsuit, not Hanson.  Her lawyer testified only that he had discussed the matter with Hanson, but he never detailed the discussion, Finger said.

He said the evidence in the case leads to two inferences, but the inference that Hanson had a conflict of interest is based only on speculation.

For a conflict to exist, Finger said, Hanson would need to benefit from the vote when compared to others who are similarly situated, which she did not.

Jacobs said Hanson’s property is oceanfront, while Ruddertowne is bay front.  “It’s a different market,” he said.

In her rebuttal, Wright maintained Hanson would benefit from her vote.  She said one of Hanson’s properties is a condominium, and DBE plans to open condominiums at Ruddertowne.  “They’re only one block away,” she said.

Berger said the justices would take the testimony under advisement.  She did not say when a ruling would be issued.

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