County code of ethics considered by council members

Despite recent discussion of the idea, the Sussex County Council may decide not to create its own code of ethics, following a presentation by the Delaware Public Integrity Commission’s (PIC’s) legal counsel.

Attorney Deborah Moreau told council members this week that the Delaware Code states that a county or municipality may have their own code of ethics; however, it must be “at least as stringent” as the State’s and must be first approved by the State Ethics Commission.

“Our basic jurisdiction extends over the Code of Conduct, which regulates the behavior of State and municipal and county employees under our jurisdiction,” she noted.

Currently, Moreau said, only eight municipalities within the state have adopted their own code, beyond that of the State: Delaware City, Lewes, Millsboro, Newark, Dover, Wilmington, Smyrna and New Castle County.

“Dewey Beach has had their proposed Code of Ethics approved by the Public Integrity Commission but have not yet adopted it. Until they do, they will remain under our jurisdiction.”

Moreau pointed out that, although Kent County has what they refer to as a “code of ethics,” it was adopted in 1989, prior to the formation of PIC. She said that the Kent code was grandfathered in and is less stringent than the State’s code.

“It is much less strict than the State, and if it were reviewed today, it would not pass.”

Again, she stated that, if a town, city or county does not have their own code, they will fall under the code created by the State.

“Some municipalities want a little more autonomy — I think that’s why they go ahead and form their own boards,” Moreau said.

Moreau said the PIC has seven members representing the state’s three counties.

“None of them work for the State. They work for private employers or are retired,” she explained. “You don’t want State employees reviewing State employees. You want that level of independence.”

Each board member is paid $100 per meeting, and the PIC typically only convenes once a month.

She stated that, typically, PIC proceedings are private; however, brief synopses of the hearings and outcomes, with identifying information removed, are available.

“So you can see the issue, but you don’t know who the people are.”

Councilman Vance Phillips asked if the State’s code has a dollar amount associated with gifts given.

“The State code does not,” Moreau explained. “It comes down to whether or not it would affect their judgment. The commission has even denied lunches.”

“It sounds like a lot of this comes down to whether or not the person is going to be influenced by the action,” said Phillips.

“Yes,” responded Moreau.

Councilman Sam Wilson asked if there would be any advantage for the County to create its own code, instead of continuing to fall under the State’s Code of Ethics.

“The advantage to having your own ethics board is that people who live in Sussex are familiar with the zoning issues, the issues that happen specifically in your county — not that our commission doesn’t educate themselves on an issue that comes up.”

That being said, Moreau added, a municipality or county having its own commission would be a lot of work.

“You have to make sure your commission is fully staffed. You have to make sure the people who are on the commission are independent enough to review the matters that come before them.”

Wilson said it might be in the people’s favor to stay with the State’s commission. He added that it would also cost the County money to go with its own code and commission.

Moreau said that the PIC’s annual operating budget, including personnel costs, is approximately $210,000.

“That would be a cost council would have to consider if we were to consider … our own Code of Ethics,” said Phillips.

“Is there anything in the code about public officials’ behavior in public, other than while working on the council that it represents?” asked Councilwoman Joan Deaver.

“There’s nothing specific about it. That would probably fall under the appearance of impropriety,” Moreau said, noting that it’s tied more to conflict of interest rather than personal behavior.

Deaver asked, if a complaint was filed, who would represent the party being investigated. Moreau said that the State would provide an attorney for the party, which would be paid for by the State.

The council agreed on Tuesday to have select County department heads attend a three-hour ethics training seminar with the council, which will be open to the public.

“I don’t think we have a major issue, personally. I think what you people do is great,” said Council President Michael Vincent.