County council looks to have some say in casino locations

Sussex County Councilwoman Joan Deaver last week inquired as to whether Deputy County Administrator Hal Godwin had been instructed to lobby in favor of a proposed amendment to a bill that could impact how casino proposals are dealt with in Sussex.

Godwin, responding to Deaver’s questions at the council meeting on Tuesday, April 13, confirmed that he “was instructed to promote the idea with the legislature that there would be amendment to allow the county to participate in appointing site-discovery committees for possible future casinos in Sussex County.

According to Godwin, House Bill 194, as introduced by Rep. Pete Schwartzkopf (D-Rehoboth Beach), would create committees that would determine the sites of potential new casinos. One of those committees would be based in Wilmington, dealing with a possible casino there, and a second would deal with Sussex County locations.

For the Wilmington-area committee, HB 194 would include two appointees of the mayor of Wilmington and one by the president of the Wilmington City Council. In Sussex, however, all committee members would be appointed by the governor, rather than with county input.

Godwin said he had been directed to ask Schwartzkopf if the bill could be amended, to allow the Sussex County Council to participate in the location determination process.

“He wasn’t receptive to the idea,” Godwin said, noting that Schwartzkopf had said he was operating under the belief that any casino locations in Sussex County would end up being inside of municipalities, rather than in unincorporated Sussex and thus under the county council’s purview.

“He didn’t think the county would be playing a role in the location,” Godwin reported. “Rather, that a municipality would be playing a role in the location.”

Meanwhile, Godwin said, Rep. Danny Short had brought forward a proposed amendment for when HB 194 comes up in committee that would establish that the Sussex County location committee would have some appointees made by the Sussex County Council, as opposed to just by the governor.

Short’s amendment would, Godwin said, allow Sussex County to participate in staffing the search committee. Godwin said the intention of the amendment was “to try to get equity for us, as well as Wilmington.”

Deaver also inquired as to whether any county ordinance would supersede the controls that might be adopted at the state level. But Godwin and Councilman George Cole both emphasized that the only county ordinance currently under consideration as regards casinos is a land-use ordinance, dealing with zoning issues.

Godwin said Schwartzkopf’s thought that the unincorporated county might not be a location for any future casino was not without some basis in fact.

“The locations that are being reviewed are all within boundaries of municipalities, except one on state land,” Godwin said. “And he assured me that location has no possibility of being adopted.”

That location on state land is proposed to use state park land near the Indian River Inlet to build a casino.

Councilman Michael Vincent, however, noted that it was still possible that a casino could be located outside a municipality.

“They’re having this conversation in New Castle County also, because it’s possible it could end up outside Wilmington,” Godwin agreed.

Deaver said on April 13 that her concern over the issue wasn’t over the proposed amendment itself, but rather over how Godwin had received instructions to lobby in favor of such an amendment.

“I’m concerned that instructions were given to you to go to Dover with that idea,” she said. “I would like to have council discussions before that happens.”

“I didn’t know anything about it,” put in Cole.

Council President Vance Phillips, while not offering any information on who might have instructed Godwin to support Short’s amendment or its premise, pointed out to the council that they had “had a vacation the last week or two.”

“I took my telephone with me,” Cole replied.

But Phillips noted that the law “prevents polling county council members outside public meetings. Giving notice of an action is fine,” he said. “But taking a vote outside public purview evades the spirit of the sunshine laws.”

County Attorney J. Everett Moore concurred. “I agree. That would violate the act. There can be no consensus made in executive sessions or not in a public meeting.”

Godwin noted that he is frequently called upon to act on the council’s behalf on short notice and must sometimes do so without contacting council members.

“The bill has been introduced but is not yet out of committee,” he said. “There are a number of potential amendments, and Danny Short offered an amendment that was precisely what we were asking for: parity.

“When I’m in Dover, working on your behalf, it’s almost impossible to communicate with all five of you, and I have to make some decisions and raise some issues,” he concluded.

“But we’ve never even discussed this,” Deaver pointed out.

Cole, too, took issue with how the instruction had been given.

“It’s a slippery slope,” he said. “I’d rather have you make those decisions on the fly, rather than other things. You could start getting phone calls from the president [of the county council], and I don’t believe we’ve ever given the president the authority to make these decisions.”

Godwin said the urgency in this particular case had been unusual.

“I had been told that the bill was coming to the floor with virtually no notice, Thursday two weeks ago,” he explained. “I went up in a hurry to have a presence in the discussion, and I was told it was going to be worked and possibly passed.”

Cole said he felt touching base with council members in such a case should still be possible.

“You can call and tell us something could possibly be passed, versus asking for consensus,” he said.

“I don’t want to hear through the grapevine what we’re doing,” Deaver added of her core objection.

Councilman Sam Wilson asked that the issue of HB 194 and its proposed amendments be put on the council’s agenda for April 20, so that the council could legally take a vote to give Godwin direction on the legislation.

When that vote was taken this week, the council voted unanimously to endorse a further change in the language in Short’s proposed amendment to the casino bill. That change would veer slightly off the model planned for appointment of members of the Wilmington-area committee, with the mayor and council president there appointing three members between them.

Under Short’s current proposal, three members of the committee in Sussex would be appointed between the Sussex County Council president (Phillips) and vice president (Cole). But council members opted this week to endorse a further change in which the appointments would be made by council majority, rather than specific members of the leadership.

“Traditionally, this council has acted as a body,” Phillips noted on April 20.

Short’s proposed amendment removes positions allocated in Schwartzkopf’s bill to a retired banker, retired law-enforcement officer and retired judge, in favor of the three spots to be appointed by both Sussex and Wilmington officials to their respective committees.

Deaver remained critical this week of the handling of the issue during the council hiatus.

Phillips had confirmed on Tuesday that he had written a letter in favor of Short’s original amendment, saying, “The council president, with the administration, took action when it came up suddenly.”

“You were not authorized to write this letter on behalf of the council,” Deaver admonished Phillips. “I was not in favor of the amendment,” she pointed out. “We’re not going to have casinos in the county. We have a moratorium,” she added. Deaver emphasized that Phillips’ letter had said he was writing “on behalf of the Sussex County Council.”

Wilson, however, said he felt her criticism wasn’t justified. “She says it doesn’t represent this council. But it doesn’t have to be 100 percent.”

“The wording was maybe poorly done,” allowed Cole, noting again the language in Phillips’ letter. “But was not a formal thing, and you can’t poll the members. You could write it as council president.”

Godwin left the council meeting on April 20 to head back to Dover to monitor HB 194 from there.

Also on April 13:

• County Administrator David Baker reported that the county would be saving 17.87 percent on its bills from Delmarva Power as a result of a rebid for a state contract that was to expire June 30. That amounts to $248,000 in annual savings to the county government, thanks to the joint bidding involving state, county and school district contracts.

• Baker announced that the county’s annual prayer breakfast will be held on Tuesday, May 11, at 7 a.m. at Delmarva Christian High School in Georgetown. Ticket and sponsorship information is available by calling (302) 855-7743.

• Baker reported that the county would be saving $12,000 per year by switching to bi-weekly payment for employees. County paramedics are already paid bi-weekly.

• The council voted unanimously to prepare a request for proposals (RFP) for the vacant county-owned residence at 21603 Park Avenue in Georgetown, also known as “the Pepper property.” The property is the third of three properties previously offered for lease to non-profit organizations serving the county. No bids for its use were received.

County staffer Gina Jennings said the committee that awarded the leases for the other two properties had decided to recommend that the third building be offered for sale and removal from the site, rather than lease, as they believed no organizations are interested in a lease.

Jennings noted that the expected repairs for the property exceed $20,000 and that there are only three years of use available at the current location, due to the sooner need to remove the building for expansion of the runways at the county airport, under which the properties were purchased in the first place. She said the FAA also requires the county receive fair and equitable rent on airport property, complicating the leasing of the building to non-profits.

The winning bidder for the building will have a year to remove the house. The RFP will be open for bidding for 30 days.

Phillips also noted that the council had received a letter from state Sen. George Bunting, thanking the council for authorizing the use of the vacant homes for future Habitat for Humanity home owners and Americorps volunteers. He said he hoped the council would encourage use of any vacant state properties for non-profit organizations.

• The council voted unanimously to approve a change of conditions for the Bayside community near Fenwick Island. The change will allow a revised commercial entrance and permit commercial use of a 1.28-acre parcel on the north side of Route 54.

The change permits a single right-in, right-out commercial entrance on Route 54 and requires additional pedestrian and vehicular connections within Bayside. The existing sales facility is to be removed from the south side of Route 54.

Planning Director Lawrence Lank said the recommendations of the Planning & Zoning Commission dealt with concerns about the possibility of drivers making left turns at the right-in, right-out entrance by planning for a median crossover that will be extended so drivers shouldn’t be able to cross to the left.

• The council approved a $900 donation to the Southern Delaware Choral Society’s program at DelTech.

• Deaver requested the council add to its upcoming agenda the issue of continuing to allow new houses to be built in communities that were not built with drainage plans in place and still do not have drainage plans. “I think it’s time for the council to step up,” she said.

• Deaver also asked the council to consider whether it can use a $200,000 rebate from the Delaware State Police to fully fund the municipal police grants the county previously slashed in budget cuts. The rebate was owed to the county due to a shortage of available troopers for duty in Sussex.