Does Sussex County need its own code of ethics?
County council members are divided over the answer to that question. Currently, the county falls under the state code of ethics administered by the Delaware Public Integrity Commission.
The question of creating an autonomous code of ethics surfaced recently during a county council District 5 election forum. Democrats in the race are calling for the county to create its own code of ethics outside jurisdiction of the state code.
District 5 incumbent Vance Phillips, R-Laurel, thought the idea deserved discussion and had it placed on council’s agenda. Phillips suggested the county take advantage of a three-hour Public Integrity Commission training session. County Administrator Todd Lawson will set up a session within the next few weeks.
“I want to reserve judgement,” Phillips said, adding he would keep an open mind about a county-specific code until after the training session.
During a July 22 presentation to council, Deborah Moreau, an attorney with the Public Integrity Commission, said the General Assembly would prefer counties and towns establish their own code of ethics. So far, only eight jurisdictions have done so. In the area, Lewes and Millsboro have town codes; Dewey Beach has one pending.
Jurisdictions can create their own code as long as it’s as strict – or stricter – as the state’s code, Moreau said. The state code covers not only elected officials but all county employees. “I suggest that you should model it after the state code,” she said.
The county's commission would have be made up of residents with no ties to county government. “The advantage to your own code of ethics would be a commission of county residents familiar with local issues and the county code,” she said.
New Castle County has its own code and Kent County’s code – created prior to legislation in the early 1990s – would not pass muster if it was reviewed today, Moreau said. “It’s much less strict than the state’s code,” she said.
Moreau said the Delaware General Assembly has its own code that in printed form is less than one page. “It's very broad,” she said.
If county council votes to create its own code of ethics, it would have to be reviewed and approved by the Delaware Public Integrity Commission.
Cost is another consideration. Moreau said the state commission has an annual budget of about $210,000.
Moreau said the commission deals with about 65 formal complaints each year.
Councilman Sam Wilson, R-Georgetown, is opposed to a county-specific code. “It might be in the people’s favor to keep this out of the county. What have we gained? Would integrity be better with our own board?” he asked.
Wilson said he was cleared by the state commission of any impropriety when a complaint was filed against him that he had a conflict of interest voting on manufactured home issues because he owns a manufactured home park near his home. “I was treated very fairly,” he said.
“We need a closer look at ethics in the state and locally,” Deaver said. She also said the matter was being staged because of the upcoming election.
“The system seems to be working. I don’t think we need to reinvent the wheel,” said Council President Mike Vincent, R-Seaford. He supported a training session.