If anyone was expecting some pre-July 4th fireworks during the first meeting of the Sussex County District 5 candidates, they came away disappointed.
A June 19 forum, hosted by Millsboro Chamber of Commerce, was civil; the controversial issues that have occupied council recently – such as prayer, civility and discrimination – failed to surface. Instead, the three candidates spent about 15 minutes espousing their background and laying out their platforms.
The only ripple in the forum involved a code of ethics for Sussex County officials.
Incumbent Republican Councilman Vance Phillips, a sixth-generation Sussex Countian who lives near Laurel, said he is continuing a family legacy of service. Phillips has represented District 5 for 15 years.
Democrat Brad Connor said his experience as a Dagsboro councilman and mayor gives him a strong foundation to take his quest for public service to the next level.
Democrat Bob Wheatley of Laurel, who has served on the county's planning and zoning commission for 20 years, said it's county council and not the commission that makes the rules. “I'm ready to make the rules and not just follow them,” he said.
Connor and Wheatley will face off during the Tuesday, Sept. 9 Democratic primary.
Republican Rob Arlett of Millsboro, who has not officially filed, has announced he will run against Phillips, setting off a Republican primary as well.
The only question during the forum was posed by Phillips to Wheatley. Phillips said he liked Wheatley's idea of free training by the state's Public Integrity Commission on the state code of ethics for Sussex elected and appointed officials. “Do you mind if we do it before the election?” Phillips asked Wheatley.
“Put it on the agenda next week,” he said, adding he didn't care who got credit for the idea.
Phillips invited Wheatley to introduce his plan to council if he thought it was appropriate. “I will give you credit for it,” Phillips said.
It was Connor who brought up the idea of a code of ethics when he said New Castle and Kent County officials have a code and Sussex County needs one as well. He said Sussex County should develop its own code of ethics.
Wheatley corrected Conner. “I beg to differ but Sussex County does have a code of ethics. It comes from the state Public Integrity Commission,” he said. “But it does need to be more of a priority.”
After the meeting, Wheatley said if Sussex County or any town wants to adopt its own code of ethics, the proposed code must be submitted to the Public Integrity Commission for review and approval to confirm that it is at least as stringent as the state code and includes administrative structure, complaint procedures and advisory opinion requirements.
Wheatley said counties and the towns are not under a mandate to adopt their own codes of ethics. According to the Public Integrity Commission, only two of the 25 towns in Sussex – Lewes and Millsboro – have adopted their own code. “With the state ethics code we have the advantage of the independent, non-partisan collective experience the state commission has in administering such matters, all at no expense to the county taxpayers,” Wheatley said.
Wheatley said all Sussex officials should be educated on the code, sign off on it and abide by it.
Connor, Dagboro's mayor and former councilman, said he has been interested in local government since he moved to the town in the late 1980s. He has been active in the Sussex County Association of Towns and the Delaware League of Local Governments.
He was instrumental in pushing an effort to obtain central sewer and water for the town. “I've done my legwork, and now I want to go to the next level,” he said.
Areas of concern on his list include creating more sustainable jobs, more emphasis on the county's economic development office and more attention to state police response time in rural areas of the county. He suggested a possible state police substation in the Millsboro-Dagsboro area.
Phillips said his platform remains as it has for 15 years on council – low taxes and limited government. He said the county has a deal of sorts with its residents. “Don't ask for a lot of services, and we won't ask for a lot of money,” he said.
But, he said, it's the county's duty to provide basic services such as 24-hour paramedic coverage.
Property rights is also high on Phillips' priority list. “When I'm making land-use decisions, I think about property rights first,” he said.
Wheatley said the county has a golden opportunity to change the way the economic development office functions. “It needs to be a community activity and not just one person without staff or support,” he said.
His wife, Julie Wheatley, recently resigned as the director of the county's economic development office; the county is currently in the process of hiring her replacement.
Wheatley said the county should take a lead role in tapping into the brain trust that already exists.
On the environment, Wheatley said the county needs a policy of sensible environmental stewardship. “The economy and environment can be balanced together,” he said, adding the county needs a common sense ordinance to address storm surge and sea-level rise.