Sussex County Council members, take notice. The eastern voting bloc wants more of a say in county affairs, and the numbers are behind them.
That was the message conveyed by grassroots lobbyists Citizens for a Better Sussex (CBS) at a March 30 meeting in Bethany Beach.
CBS President Joan Deaver led the discussion. “It’s something I hear all the time — ‘It doesn’t matter what you say, (county council members) are going to do what they want anyway,’” she said. “Well, it’s our responsibility to make things change — we’re the people who run the government.”
Deaver reviewed a little American history (downfall of King George, no taxation without representation) and quickly returned to the numbers.
“Eastern Sussex has double the population of the western county,” she said. “We’re not talking about issues — we’re talking about representation.”
She pointed to voter turnout for the 2004 presidential election as an indicator. According to Deaver, 53, 705 voters east of Route 113 came out for either Bush or Kerry. Only 22,502 people west of Route 113 turned out to vote.
“So why do three councilmen live on the west side,” Deaver asked.
Deaver said CBS wasn’t backing any candidates, but did suggest it might be appropriate to create a new Sussex County executive position, as exists in New Castle and Kent Counties).
As her slideshow presentation noted, “Some say that Sussex County Council has virtually ungoverned powers,” with no checks/balances, and “sets policy arbitrarily.”
Deaver said the present system of county government was outdated — it hadn’t been updated since 1972.
“When we have fair representation, when we get a new council, we’ll finally have a voice,” she said.
CBS has been supporting a legislative initiative that would bring two additional at-large (voted on countywide) councilmanic seats to Sussex County.
Deaver said she first started getting involved after coming before county council in regards a property next door that had come up for a change of zone. “It didn’t matter how many neighbors showed up (in opposition),” she said.
Later in the meeting, she made a similar comment regarding public participation at the county’s Comprehensive Land Use Plan (CLUP) workshops.
“It doesn’t help,” she said. “It’s just a game.”
As CBS’s Allen Ide added, “If we had a different set of (county council members) in there, we might not be meeting here today.”
Fenwick Island Town Council Member Harry Haon said he would like to add another challenge to the CBS agenda — “Find candidates,” he said. There are opportunities to get a fresh voice on Sussex County Council every couple years, he pointed out.
Council Member Vance Phillips (5th district) is up for reelection in 2006. Haon recommended CBS look for another Republican to challenge him in the primary, or a Democrat to challenge him in the general election.
However, CBS representatives said there was also a problem with the councilmanic district map. “Call it what it is — gerrymandered,” Ide stated.
Only one out of the five districts (George Cole’s 4th district) represented the county residents most affected by the coastal population boom, he said.
As Ide pointed out, even with two at-large districts, coastal residents might still get voted down 4-3, but the countywide seats would change the dynamics. “I’d like to see all five districts voted at-large,” Ide said.
Tom Savage, one of the residents in attendance, cited Attorney General Jane Brady’s recent opinion that state law didn’t support at-large voting. However, Ide said that was just an opinion, and open for challenge.
Rep. Gerald Hocker (38th district) said a bill seeking even two additional at-large seats would likely never clear House committee — much less the Senate. Haon asked him if the Republican Party had taken a position.
“Sussex County as a whole is a player in this,” Hocker replied.
“You’d have to get 21 votes (simple majority in the House), and there aren’t nearly 21 votes,” he pointed out. “You’ve got one, maybe one-and-a-half (House) districts that are upset about what’s going on.\
“I’m not going to tell you something you want to hear because you want to hear it,” Hocker told the assembled activists and guests.
He proffered a fledgling bill, drafted late last week (not yet introduced) that would add two regular councilmanic seats — not at-large.
Elections for the sixth and seventh councilmanic seats would be held in 2012, following the next U.S. Census (2010).
The councilmanic districts, based as they are on population, would likely be redrawn following that census regardless any possible added seats.
Ide chafed at the delay. He suggested they might be able to affect change more rapidly, depending on how much vocal support they could raise in the community.
As Hocker noted, the makeup of the General Assembly hadn’t changed appreciably since last year. However, Ide said there was now more of a political groundswell in the eastern county.
“If we don’t do anything, I can guarantee we won’t succeed,” he stated. “And we have to fight for something that is going to be of benefit to us. You don’t fight for something that’s of no benefit, because then if you get it, they’ll say, ‘Hey, we gave you what you wanted.’”
Deaver said the agricultural-residential zoning designation left the door open for another million Sussex County homes, even without conditional uses and changes of zone.
She said she planned to review federal law in search of support for at-large voting.
As Ide pointed out, “If this doesn’t get done in the next 90 days (the current legislative session), the world won’t stop. Nobody can tell us we have to stop working.”
“We’re just getting started,” Deaver said. “I’m going to stick with this until we have a firm, broad base — a combination of locals and newcomers.”