Lewes resident Alicia Jones has lodged two complaints with the city’s board of ethics regarding lack of diversity in those serving the city, including people appointed to committees and commissions.
Board of Ethics Chair Mark Harris brought the complaints to mayor and city council’s April 26 meeting for discussion. As the complaints are not against a specific person, Harris said, the board is unable to take action.
“We thought this was legitimate and needs to be addressed, and hopefully speedily,” he said, noting that diversity is one of Lewes’ core values.
Jones filed a complaint in December 2020, then submitted a revised version in February 2021. She filed a separate complaint in April. The board of ethics meets in executive session, and Jones’ complaints were only made public in April. Jones provided copies of her complaints to the Cape Gazette.
Jones’ concerns center around the handling of the menhaden fishing net reel relocation and the honorific naming of West Fourth Street as Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Way. Both issues involve preserving and honoring the city’s African American history.
“The net reel represents the first inroad where African American/Blacks were equal in terms of assigned work and pay and belongs in what was once a bustling vital Black commercial/residential neighborhood,” Jones wrote in her February complaint.
The city’s historic preservation architectural review commission denied a retroactive application from the Lewes Historical Society to place the net reel on its campus at the corner of West Third Street and Shipcarpenter Street. Commissioners determined the artifact did not fit in with the rhythm and scale of the neighborhood.
Jones said the all-white commission is unrepresentative of Lewes.
“The committee in its entirety neither made an attempt to safeguard or enhance African American/Black history,” Jones said. “I believe that if HPARC was fully staffed by African American/Blacks who lived in the neighborhood, the outcome would have been different.”
The fight to keep the net reel in its new location is ongoing. Mayor and city council determined it did not have the authority to overrule the historic preservation commission. Instead, the appeal path takes the historical society to the city’s board of adjustment, and the appeal may be considered in June.
Jones’ second complaint, regarding the city’s handling of the honorific naming of West Fourth Street, was filed April 28. Although the street received an honorary title of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Way in February 2020, Jones said she wanted to create a record of the city’s actions leading up to the eventual approval.
After submitting a request to rename Fourth Street as Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard in 2017, organizers heard nothing from the city for two-and-a-half years before the effort was revived in November 2019. At the time, the city agreed to consider an honorific title instead of a permanent name change.
West Fourth Street and the surrounding area were once a hub for the African-American community of Lewes as a place to live, attend church and enjoy entertainment.
As with the net reel, Jones said the opinions of white residents who now live in the neighborhood were given more weight than those seeking to honor African American history and heritage.
“Lewes, as the First Town in the First State, has through its commissions been allowed to be a white town,” she wrote in her complaint.
She called on the city to establish a procedure for handling requests similar to the street renaming and net reel artifact relocation in the future.
She later wrote, “I believe there should be a record and documentation of the continued restrictions and ever-flexible designation of neighborhood using Lewes’ gentrification as a continued barrier to recognize the existence of a once commercial and residential segregated African American/Black neighborhood.”
She called out the city government as a whole for its lack of diversity. She said the city’s only diverse standing committee or commission is the Lewes African American Heritage Commission.
“My mission since I’ve been here is to point out incongruities,” she said. “I’ve started immersing myself and I’ve become very, very active, because this cannot persist.”
Councilman Andrew Williams said the city needs to look at ways to encourage more diverse hiring practices and expand the reach of its searches.
Mayor Ted Becker said he’s had an ongoing dialogue regarding diversity with City Manager Ann Marie Townshend. He did not respond to a request to comment further.
Deputy Mayor Bonnie Osler said the issue of diversity on the city staff, both civilian and uniformed, has been a topic of discussion for two to three years.
Harris recommended the city take more action than discussion.
“A fairly timely public attempt at solution needs to be done. The complaint, at its core, [signals] this is a problem that is perceived,” he said. “I think we need to pay attention more publicly and sooner than continued conversations.”
Harris also presented mayor and city council with two complaints from resident Rick Quill, who claims that there is a systemic bias against him in the city government, preventing him from moving forward with a project at the corner of Savannah Road and Cape Henlopen Drive.
In 2018, Quill was granted a rezoning for that property from general commercial to R-3, residential beach, a common zoning for that part of town. Shortly after the rezoning was granted, he claims the city informed him that his property would have to comply with a source water protection ordinance, limiting his building area to 20 percent of the lot or 50 percent if he submitted an environmental impact assessment.
“The city has acknowledged that they have never enforced this provision, and Councilperson [Bonnie] Osler suggested it was an arcane provision ‘nobody knew about,’” Quill wrote in his complaint, which was provided to the Cape Gazette.
In a February 2021 meeting, city officials said about 60 properties had been granted permits since 2008, when the ordinance was enacted, that did not meet the code requirements. At the same meeting, mayor and city council decided, without a vote, to grant permits to pending applications but end its practice of non-enforcement effective Feb. 8. Several applications are now on hold until the city decides what to do about the source water protection ordinance.
Since the 2018 rezoning, Quill’s property has been rezoned back to general commercial, which typically allows for 95 percent lot coverage. However, if he must comply with the existing source water protection ordinance or the proposed ordinance being considered by mayor and city council now, his maximum lot coverage will be extremely limited.
In addition to problems with his Savannah Road property, Quill also previously ran into roadblocks with the city when he tried to redevelop the Lewes Ice House property on New Road.
In both cases, Quill often urges mayor and city council to read and follow the city’s comprehensive plan, which has the force of law.
Mayor Ted Becker did not respond to a request for comment on Quill’s complaints.
In addition to the two named complainants, the board of ethics also received an anonymous complaint taking issue with Harris serving simultaneously on the board of ethics and the planning commission.
City code prohibits members of mayor and city council as well as candidates running for council seats from being active members of the board of ethics. Code does not prevent members of committees or commissions from also serving on the board of ethics. However, Harris thought the anonymous person made a strong point.
“I thought that person was correct,” he said. “I went to Ted [Becker] and asked him to choose one or the other for me. As a result, I’m off the planning commission and stayed on the board of ethics.”
Harris urged mayor and city council to consider amending city code to prohibit people from serving on the board of ethics if they are already members of one of the city’s high-profile committees and commissions, such as planning commission, board of adjustment, finance committee, historic preservation and architectural review commission, and parks and recreation commission.