Phillips named Sussex County Council President

With the swearing in of a new Republican-dominated Sussex County Council on Tuesday, Jan. 6, chances were good that the presidency of the council would fall on a Republican. And, with just a hint of opposition from the council’s lone Democrat, veteran Councilman Vance Phillips (R-5th) got the unanimous nod to take over the post.

“Do you want a vote or an opinion?” inquired new Councilwoman Joan Deaver (D-3rd), implying she – a frequent critic of Phillips’ stances on growth and development – might argue against the idea. “I guess I’m going to have to vote yes,” she concluded.

That made for a 5-0 vote on Phillips’ presidency, and Phillips took the opportunity to try to set a tone for the council’s future discussion on controversial issues such as development.

“I really appreciate this honor, and I want you all to know that I respect everyone here and will respect everyone’s opinion,” Phillips said. “I hope we can conduct our meetings in a professional manner, so that everyone can have their opinions heard.”

The council’s only other veteran, George Cole (R-4th) – who has likewise voiced opposition to many of Phillips’ pro-growth votes – was nominated and received another unanimous vote to become the council’s vice president.

As council president, Phillips will preside over all council meetings in 2009, with Cole substituting as the presiding officer anytime Phillips is unable to attend.

The selection of council officers followed on the heels of Tuesday morning’s swearing-in ceremony for the council’s three new members: Deaver, District 1 Councilman Michael H. Vincent and District 2 Councilman Samuel R. Wilson Jr. Both of the latter councilmen are Republicans, taking the party to a 4-1 majority on the council. Republicans have not held a majority on the council in 20 years.

The council also fielded a number of other appointments, including members’ service as representatives on regional, state and national groups. Cole will represent Sussex County at the National Association of County Boards of Directors. Wilson will serve on the Sussex Conservation District Board of Directors, as well as the county’s Airport Committee.

Phillips, who currently serves as the council’s representative on the Sussex County Land Trust, was thwarted in his stated desire to retain that post. Cole nominated Deaver – who had likewise expressed interest in serving on the body that works with private and government entities to preserve open space – and she was granted the position on a unanimous vote.

The council on Tuesday also unanimously approved James D. Griffin’s re-appointment as county attorney. Griffin serves at the pleasure of the County Council as the elected body’s chief counsel. Vincent G. Robertson and Richard E. Berl Jr. were re-appointed as assistant county attorneys, with Robertson serving the Planning & Zoning Commission and Berl serving the Board of Adjustment.

Council considers evening meetings

With the new council also came discussion of the council’s future meeting schedule. Traditionally, the council holds daytime meetings three times per month, with a single evening meeting each month.

Cole suggested that evening meeting be moved to an earlier time, from 6 or 6:30 p.m. to 4 p.m., allowing for a brief break for dinner and helping to ensure that public hearings do not last as long into the night as they have in the past.

“I’m self-employed. I’m a one-man operation,” said Cole. “Starting all the meetings at 4 p.m. would be better for me.”

Cole further said he was concerned that the daytime meetings put the working public in a difficult position of having to go to work in the morning, leave soon after to attend a council meeting and then return to work for very little time. A 4 p.m. start, he said, would reduce that impact.

Deaver said she had polled her list of constituents, “which is building all the time,” she noted, and night meetings were preferred because of working people. “I like the idea of starting early and maybe finishing a lot earlier. We make people wait much too long and allow it to go on too long.” Deaver said she would support a 4 p.m. start for a single evening meeting or even holding all of the council’s meetings at 4 p.m.

The rest of the council was undecided on the issue. Vincent said he didn’t see a need to go to all evening meetings, while Wilson said he hadn’t thought about the issue yet.

Cole said he particularly supported the 4 p.m. start, as it would be likely to reduce staff overtime and reduce interruption of staff schedules. Phillips agreed, saying, “It would give [staff] 90 minutes on company time to be on the agenda, so we could pay as little overtime as possible.”

County administrative officials were to look at the issue as a policy change and bring it back to the council in a couple weeks.

Councilman expresses concern over appointment

Wilson took the opportunity of County Administrator David Baker’s report of the swearing in of a new appointment for the Sussex County Register of Wills to state his opposition to Gov. Ruth Ann Minner’s appointment of Gregory Fuller Sr. to the position. Fuller was recently appointed to fill the position when David L. Wilson resigned the post after his election to the state’s General Assembly.

Fuller currently works for the state’s Department of Corrections, in a full-time position, and Wilson said he was concerned about whether county job – paid for by the county – would get sufficient attention, or whether the state job (paid for by state taxes, he emphasized) would suffer as a result.

“We need to send a message to the governor and say she sent the wrong person,” Wilson said adamantly. “He has a full-time job.”

Baker noted that Fuller had told him would be taking time off from his state job to have time to serve as register of wills and that state officials understood that time off would be in the form of vacation, sick leave or leave without pay.

Griffin said his experience is that the Register of Wills office is not a full-time job but that the register is generally in the office once per week. He further said the county really had no ability to thwart Fuller’s appointment.

“This is a position created by the state constitution,” Griffin said. “We cannot undo that. As long as the function of that office remains efficient… We should focus there, instead of how many hours he spends in the office,” he added. “The state makes that appointment. We have no control over that.”

“I don’t think it’s our business to worry about it,” agreed Cole.

Griffin said he was sure Fuller would be willing to come speak with the council about how he plans to do the job, while Phillips suggested that the operation of the office under Fuller might be a matter for a written agreement. Phillips suggested that Wilson request the issue be added to a future council agenda if he wanted to follow up.

Also on Jan. 6:

• Baker said he expects the county to receive proposals on an agricultural lease for 516 tillable acres of county property at the Inland Bays regional wastewater facility, with a new lease anticipated by early March. He said the county was taking advantage of the new contract period to look at increasing the rent for the use from the previous $13 per acre. The rent collected on the property benefits the Long Neck/Oak Orchard sewer district.

• The Delaware State Police report for Sussex County for November 2008 included 3,630 complaints, 2,600 traffic arrests and 1,158 criminal arrests – all attended to by the 40 additional state police officers paid for by the county.