Boys and Girls State students take over County chambers

Coastal Point • Maria Counts: High school juniors from across Sussex County filled Sussex County Chambers last week as part of the American Legion's Boys and Girls State program.Coastal Point • Maria Counts: High school juniors from across Sussex County filled Sussex County Chambers last week as part of the American Legion's Boys and Girls State program.About 40 high school juniors filled the Sussex County Council chambers last Thursday, April 16. They were not in chambers to request a grant or make public comment on a proposed ordinance, but rather as representatives of Girls and Boys State.

Boys and Girls State are programs through the American Legion, offering high school juniors the opportunity to become part of the operation of local, county and state government.

“The national organization requires them to be a member of the junior class, becoming seniors in the fall,” explained Lyman Brenner, chairman of Delaware Boys State. “The state of Delaware has added, too, that they must be in the upper third of their class academically.”

Boys State has existed in Delaware since 1946, and those who wish to participate may be recommended from their school, previous Boys and Girls State participants, American Legion posts or military service academy nominees.

According to their website, “Boys State participants learn the rights, privileges and responsibilities of franchised citizens. The training is objective and centers on the structure of city, county and state governments. Operated by students elected to various offices, Boys State activities include legislative sessions, court proceedings, law-enforcement presentations, assemblies, bands, choruses and recreational programs.”

As part of the program, Boys and Girls State participants visited Sussex County Council to tour the county administrative offices and serve as council members during a mock council meeting.

“For a guy who went through the same process back in the ’90s, when I was in high school — literally sat in this building and went through Boys State — it’s very enjoyable,” said County Administrator Todd Lawson. “I kind of feel this is my way to give back to the folks who could potentially hold leadership positions in the future. These are our men and women of the future. It’s a neat exercise.”

During the mock council session, students rotated through various topics, so that each was able to take a turn sitting on the dais. Students portrayed council members, as well as the County attorney, finance director and clerk.

“Public service, I think, is a great thing. As you go on through your life… it’s always good to participate in your local community and give back. I think that’s an obligation that we all have,” said Council President Michael Vincent, adding jokingly, “All I ask is whoever is going to be the president, that you don’t break my gavel.”

Students were given presentations from county officials that they would need to discuss and then vote on.

Lawson presented students with the County’s draft vendor and food truck ordinance. The proposed ordinance would create a streamlined process to allow vendors to operate on property zoned as commercial without having to go through the traditional process of applying for a special-use exception before the Board of Adjustment.

“Are these permits, once received, one-time permits or do you have to constantly get them reviewed after a few years?” asked Indian River High School junior John Douds, who served as county solicitor during the exercise.

Lawson said the current intent is to have those applying for the permit to go through the process once.

“They will not expire unless the location or the activity changes,” responded Lawson.

“Will someone check that everything is being done lawfully?” Douds asked.

Lawson said that, through the permitting process, the County will know the location of the activity and will be able to check up on their activity.

Bryce Molnar of Sussex Central High School, serving as the exercise’s finance director, asked if the program would be fiscally self-sufficient.

Lawson said it would not but noted that dealing with these types of permits would only be one duty of a County staffer.

The mock council voted 7-1, to approve vending, including food and vending related to summer activities. Chris Mulberry of Cape Henlopen High School, serving as council president, was opposed.

The mock council voted unanimously that the vendor should be required to provide proof of a valid business license and health permit. The mock council approved the overall vendor ordinance with a 6-2 vote.

Other issues discussed included the county’s dog-control contract, a conditional-use application from Blue Hen Organics and the Chesapeake Bay Watershed implementation plan.

“With these young people, we don’t have to do a whole lot of teaching. They get there, they figure it out on their own, which impresses me. It gives me my fix of teaching for the year,” said Lyman, who previously taught American history and American government.

Boys State will he held June 14 to June 18 at Wesley College, where students will have the opportunity to see how the state’s government works.

“It’s a hands-on program,” said Lyman. ‘We spend Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday mornings in Legislative Hall, in both the House and Senate chambers, and we get to use the governor’s office. The young men have to find things on their own that deal with State issues and write proposed legislative bills for either the house or senate.”

The students will be divided into parties, as well as the legislative branches.

“Those who are in the House, they will debate the House-proposed bills, and either amend, approve or defeat them,” said Brenner. “We’ve had bills proposed by both the boys and girls that members of the House and Senate have latched onto, and have become laws.”

Students will also get to shadow their counterparts — be it the governor, state senators or state representatives.

“They get to see the inner workings of the political scene, as well as the actual legislative process,” he said. “They begin to understand how our government works and how they, as individuals, work to influence how the state itself is governed and what types of laws and things they can work toward.”

Lyman noted that Boys State alumni include state Sen. Brian Townsend and former Delaware Attorney General Beau Biden.

“The young men from Delaware — we pick two each year to go to Boys Nation. In the last 10 years, we’ve had two students come back with perfect evaluations, and they were both from Sussex County,” said Lyman. “Our young men are articulate, knowledgeable, and they do the state of Delaware proud.”

Lawson said the students who visited the County offices were “quite impressive” and that he looks forward to the event every year.

“This particular group — they’re in this group because they like civics, they like government, they like leadership roles, they like being decision makers,” he said. “It’s neat for them to come in and see how we do what we do. Some days, this room is packed because of the decisions that are made here. It’s nice to see someone that has an interest in the role we play in everyone’s day-to-day life.”