Connor says the ethics issue still belongs to him

August 5, 2014

It’s been my issue and they’re not going to take it from me,” said Brad Connor, Sussex County Council District 5 candidate, in a Thursday interview.

Connor, a Democrat, launched his campaign this spring with a call for Sussex County to adopt its own code of ethics.

Amazingly enough, the issue gained traction, so much so that everybody else in the race suddenly decided that a code of ethics was a swell idea.

That includes Connor’s Democratic primary opponent, Bob Wheatley of Laurel, and the two Republicans, incumbent Vance Phillips of Laurel and challenger Rob Arlett of Frankford.

(District 5 stretches across the southern border of Sussex, extending all the way from the beach in Fenwick to the Maryland state line, including Dagsboro, Millsboro, Selbyville and the rural areas outside Laurel. The two Democrats and the two Republicans will face off in a Sept. 9 primary to choose the candidates for the Nov. 4 general election.)

But while there’s apparent agreement about following a code of ethics - or what the state calls a Code of Conduct - candidates and county council members differ on what path the county should take.

Connor has been unequivocal about the need for Sussex to adopt its own code and establish its own commission.

Others, including Wheatley, Phillips and County Councilman Sam Wilson, contend there’s no reason for Sussex to go to the time and expense of writing a code and staffing a commission. Taxpayers are already paying for the state commission, they say. Why should county taxpayers pay twice for a service already provided by the state?

That’s a good question, especially in a state as small as Delaware.

Among the municipalities that have their own code is the city of Dover. According to City Clerk Traci McDowell and Commission Chair Tom Jackson, the cost is minimal.

McDowell said the commissioners are volunteers; the main expense is paying an attorney to attend the meetings. But that doesn’t come up often, since the commission meets only as needed.

She said the commission heard one complaint each in 2003, 2005 and 2012, and three complaints in 2013. “Some years you don’t have any expense at all,” McDowell said.

She thinks it’s a good idea for Dover to have its own code and commission. “I think it definitely works,” McDowell said. “It’s very fast, and when there’s a complaint people want that resolved quickly.”

Jackson seemed equally pleased with Dover’s system. Most complaints, he said, are resolved within 30 days.

Deborah Moreau, the state Public Integrity Commission’s legal counsel, said 95 percent of its cases are resolved within 45 to 60 days.

Dixie Boucher of Lewes said she filed a case a few years back that took more than a year to resolve. Moreau, however, who was not with the commission when that complaint was filed, said that would be an unusual case.

Still, Jackson thinks Dover having its own commission is a good idea. “I just don’t know what the downside of that can be,” Jackson said. “I don’t think there is one.”

And that takes us to the nub of the issue. People are distrustful of government. Otherwise, calls for an ethics code wouldn’t have taken hold as an issue, and the other candidates wouldn’t have felt the need to jump on the bandwagon.

Recently, after an ethics code became a campaign issue, Councilman Phillips asked Moreau to brief Sussex County Council about the state’s code of conduct.

Phillips asked Moreau about the cost of maintaining the state office. When she replied $210,000, Phillips said that Sussex would have to consider the possibility of taking on that expense, suggesting that the county’s expenses would match the state’s.

But judging from Dover’s experience, that appears unlikely. The state has to pay a small but full-time staff; the county wouldn’t have to hire any staff. Sussex County’s commission would be more like Dover’s, meeting only when complaints were filed.

If Sussex County is relatively free from corruption and conflicts of interest, the cost would be negligible. Dover had several years where the expense was zero; no complaints were filed.

If, on the other hand, Sussex is riddled with conflicts of interest, it would be to the county’s benefit to have its own code of ethics and commission, to ensure that matters are cleared up quickly. Also, there is the advantage that people from Sussex would be more familiar with the issues, such as land use.

At the meeting, Phillips asked if Moreau would be available to talk to county staff and officials about the state code. After Moreau agreed to come back for a three-hour training session, Phillips said it would be a good idea to reserve judgment about the county adopting its own code or following the state’s until after the training session.

Phillips also said the public should be invited to the session.

Getting the public involved in the issue is Connor’s priority.

“When I go door to door, that’s what I hear about,” Connor said, referring to the ethics code.

It’s time for the whole county council to hear. Before members decide which way to go, county council should find out what the voters think, by holding public hearings.

  • Accomplished writers appear in the Politics column every Tuesday on a rotating basis to explore the dynamic world of politics at the local, county, state, national and world levels.