Cape Gazette
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Politics

A code of ethics has become an issue in District 5 race

By Don Flood | Jun 24, 2014

Tom McGlone, who is running for mayor of Rehoboth, said that his goal - besides winning, of course - is to help educate the public about issues.

He contacted me recently after my column on Rehoboth parking, in which I had offered my experiences in Dover and on the mean - well, not so mean - streets of Rehoboth as a meter man.

His point, he said, was that if the city is considering a $17 million city hall project, it should also consider the parking issue. It’s hard to argue with that.

It’s also hard to argue with the value of elections in bringing issues to the forefront.

That’s happening now in Sussex County Council District 5, where Democrat Brad Connor, mayor of Dagsboro, has made a code of ethics for county officials one of his leading issues, right after jobs.

Connor is running against fellow Democrat Robert Wheatley of Laurel in the Sept. 9 primary. The incumbent is Republican Vance Phillips, also of Laurel, who has had problems with his own party. In April, Sussex Republican Committee Chairman John Rieley urged Phillips not to run because of allegations of sexual impropriety brought up in a civil suit. (State police investigated the allegations, but declined to press criminal charges.) As of Monday morning, however, no Republican had filed to run against Phillips.

Most Cape Gazette readers would not vote in this race. District 5 lies at the bottom of the state, stretching from the Maryland line all the way to the beaches at Fenwick. In addition to Laurel and Dagsboro, it takes in Millsboro, Delmar and Selbyville.

But the election matters to the Cape Region, because it could potentially add an ally for Joan Deaver of District 3, currently the only Democrat on the five-member council. (District 3 includes Lewes and Milton and extends up to Slaughter Beach.) It also matters because a code of ethics could have an impact on how county government operates for all Sussex residents.

Connor said he was surprised when he found out Sussex County didn’t have its own code of ethics, unlike Kent and New Castle counties. Many towns, including Lewes and Millsboro, have also developed their own codes.

The idea behind the code of ethics is simple. As the state code of ethics says in its introduction, “In our democratic form of government, the conduct of officers and employees of the state must hold the respect and confidence of the people. They must, therefore, avoid conduct which is in violation of their public trust or which creates a justifiable impression among the public that such trust is being violated.”

Connor finds that “respect and confidence of the people” lacking at all levels of government. He thinks a Sussex code of ethics would help build trust in county government.

“If you’re in government,” Connor said, “you should be accountable.”

Sussex County is subject to the state code of ethics, but it hasn’t emphasized the law.

Wheatley, chairman of the Sussex Planning & Zoning Commission, said he hasn’t been offered education or training about the law since being appointed in 1995.

“I’m not sure it occurred to them [the county],” he said. But now that the issue has been brought up, he said, “I think it makes a lot of sense.”

Phillips has also jumped on board. At a recent candidate forum, he said by email, “I offered to explore the issue at our next council meeting. I’m going to press council for a review of the state code, which we operate under, and if it is insufficient, I will ask that we decide to scrap it or amend it.”

So there’s progress. A long-dormant issue is being discussed by all three District 5 candidates.

There is disagreement about which course to follow. Connor favors Sussex coming up with its own code of ethics, which could be stricter than the state’s. The New Castle County code, for example, requires officials to file an annual statement of financial interests.

The statement directs them to list real estate holdings, sources of income, gifts exceeding $200 in value, etc.

Wheatley prefers following the state code. He said this would save Sussex County the time and expense of developing and administering its own code. The state already has the mechanisms in place, he said.

“Let’s use what we’re already paying for,” he said.

Jim Ford, who recently stepped down as mayor of Lewes, said he thinks the town is well served having its own code. “I felt that the person [accused of misconduct] would get a better, fairer hearing at a local level,” he said.

But he’s not saying he necessarily favors the county developing its own ethics code. “As you go up the ladder of government,” he said, “it gets more and more complicated.” According to Ford, there would be a lot to consider before going that route.

The good news, though, is it appears that the county might, at long last, start taking a code of ethics more seriously. How far that goes will depend on which candidate wins.

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