The Ocean View Town Council met earlier this week to discuss the possible use of Delaware Department of Corrections work-release prisoners to do outdoor maintenance for the Town.
Public Works Director Charlie McMullen said that council had previously discussed using prisoners to clean town ditches and had gone as far as holding a meeting in 2010 with Sussex Community Corrections Center Warden Bill Oettel to discuss entering into a memorandum of understanding and obtaining an equipment list from the Delaware Department of Transportation.
“Questions did arise about liability and who would be responsible to obtain approval from the property owners whose property abutted the ditch and whether or not it was the town’s responsibility to clean these ditches.”
McMullen went on to say that he believed the next step would be for the Town to determine whether or not keeping the ditches clean is the Town’s responsibility.
“If, in fact, it’s determined that it is, and the Town wishes to undertake that,” said McMullen, “then we need to maybe take an assessment of the ditches that we have throughout town to find out how many property owners are going to agree to allow the prisoners to work in the ditch, which is technically part of their property.”
“Is the Town responsible? It seems as though we ought to get an answer to that question,” said Mayor Gordon Wood.
McMullen said that he didn’t believe it would be the Town’s responsibility to have every citizen sign off on the use of the prisoners, but he suggested the Town reach out to homeowners’ associations to poll their communities.
“I think it’s a good thing if ditches in our town are cleared,” said Councilman Bob Lawless. “But in the course of doing a good thing, forever and ever amen, then what liability does that place on our Town?”
Wood asked if any members of council had reservations about using work-release prisoners, and all responded that that they did not.
Resident and former councilman Bill Wichmann spoke in favor of using the prisoners and added that he believed cleaning the ditches is a necessary task the Town must undertake.
“When Kathy Roth was town manager, we had people from DOC in here every year. They did one heck of a fine job. We changed town managers. We did it the first year after that the decision was made… In the past, Kathy sent letters — not one person objected.”
“I have to go along with what everybody has been saying,” added Councilman Tom Sheeran. “I have noticed them,” he said of the overgrown ditches. “I think the mild weather we’ve been having has really promoted growth in them, and I think it could become a major problem.”
Another resident and former councilman, Norman Ament, said he was on the council when the Town was using prisoners to clean ditches.
“I know it’s worth it. I think it’s a great idea if we can do it.”
Part-time resident Chuck Shaw said that he had reservations about using prisoners, after his neighbors told him their house was broken into by one of the workers.
“After they were cleaning, they went up, looked in all the windows, busted into the house, lived in the house for three days, stole the guy’s car that was in the garage, drove to Florida and, I think, busted into a house down there and killed somebody. There was no supervision to speak of, from what the neighbor told me. Just food for thought...”
Resident Steve Cobb requested council get verification of whether that incident actually occurred or not before they discussed the matter further.
“I remember the incident. I do not remember if that was a work-release prisoner,” said Ocean View Police Capt. Heath Hall. “I will check into that.”
The following day, June 13, OVPD Chief Ken McLaughlin offered additional information about the reported crime spree and its rumored connection to a DOC work-release crew in Ocean View.
“I believe that the prisoner in question was Gabriel Nocks of Dagsboro,” he said. “Back in 2007-2008, Nocks, who was incarcerated at SCI, was released on a weekend pass. Nocks failed to return to SCI as required. (He did not escape from a work crew.)
“Shortly thereafter, Nocks was linked to several crimes in lower Sussex, including a burglary in Ocean View. Several weeks prior to the burglary, there was a work-release crew cleaning a ditch in the area; however, the investigating officer was never able to confirm that Nocks was part of the Ocean View work crew.
“The Town of Ocean View has utilized prisoner work details many times in the past without incident,” McLaughlin emphasized.
McMullen on June 12 also gave a brief update about the town’s solar carport, which is now up and running.
In 2012, the Town was awarded an energy grant of $458,000 from the Delaware Energy Office — the second largest such grant awarded in the state.
McMullen said the array is still being tweaked but is currently saving the Town money. He noted that on its bill for June of 2008, the Town spent $800 on electricity; in 2009, $927; in 2010, $1,089; in 2011, $1,391; and in 2012 it spent just $166.
“Hopefully, this is showing something to come. We certainly can’t hang our hats on it, but it is significant savings.”
Also on June 12, Sheeran reported that the re-activated town manager search committee is currently down to three candidates after having interviewed five over the telephone.
“With any luck, by the July timeframe we should be able to make a choice. Hopefully, by the end of August/early September, we’ll have somebody onboard.”