County found in violation of FOIA in P&Z hire

Date Published: 
Aug. 11, 2017

The Sussex County Council took time at its Tuesday meeting this week to discuss a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) complaint filed by resident and council meeting regular Dan Kramer.

Kramer’s complaint, filed in November of 2016, alleged that the County violated FOA by failing to provide adequate notice that they would vote on who would take over as director of the Planning & Zoning office. At the meeting in question, the council voted to have Janelle Cornwell succeed Lawrence Lank.

Last month, the Delaware Attorney General’s Office found that the County did violate FOIA’s open-meeting requirements.

In the opinion, Deputy Attorney General Jason W. Staib wrote, “The Agenda did not include a ‘general statement’ of all ‘major issues’ that County Council expected to discuss at the October 4, 2016 meeting, as required by 29 Del. C. § 10002(a). The Agenda included no reference to an anticipated vacancy in the top position at the Planning and Zoning Office. Nor did it disclose any plan to fill that vacancy at the October 4, 2016 meeting…

“County Council’s disclosure of the possibility that it might take action on unspecified matters discussed in executive session was not sufficient to put the public on notice of expected discussions and action on an important topic in open session. Accordingly, the agenda did not satisfy the requirements of 29 Del. C. § 10002(a).”

“As in our general practice, we listed personnel under the executive items,” explained County Administrator Todd Lawson. “To rectify this issue, the Attorney General’s Office is recommending the County revisit the vote and explain in a public forum its reasons for selecting Ms. Cornwell as Mr. Lank’s successor.

“I want to reiterate this has nothing to do with the qualifications of Ms. Corwell or the position, nor her ability to fulfill that position. This is simply just an agenda correction.”

The council voted 5-0 to reaffirm their hiring of Cornwell, stating she has a strong background for the position and exceptional credentials.

Councilman Rob Arlett asked why listing the discussion and vote under “personnel” was not sufficient.

“I think where the Attorney General was going with their opinion was the County, in just listing ‘personnel,’ did not go into enough detail on our agenda, because the Attorney General deemed this decision a ‘major issue’ for the council to take… We could’ve listed consideration of Planning & Zoning director position or something of more detail…

“I’m not certain we agree with this opinion, but instead of going to argue with this decision, we decided to go ahead and reaffirm as they indicated, and in the future try to do a better job.”