Lewes planners taken to task
Some of the things that make Lewes attractive as a place to live are its sense of community, the people’s pride in their town, and the citizen’s willingness and ability to participate in the governance of the city.
This shared sense of common purpose is fast eroding under the pressure of development and the apparent inability of some members of the Lewes Planning Commission to do their work as fair and impartial arbiters of the Preliminary Consent Process.
Once this shared sense of purpose is lost, Lewes will degrade into just another Atlantic coastal town, no different and no better. Some members of the planning commission appear to be advocates for the developers, and no longer even try to mask their actions with any sense of civility.
The citizens of this city have a right to be treated with respect, to be treated with civility, and to have their concerns heard by their government fairly and impartially. There is a strong public policy that favors the right of the citizens to be heard, that right of redress goes to the very foundations of our Republic.
The Lewes Planning Commission is not acting in a legislative capacity; it cannot make up rules as it goes along. The commission partly carries out the ministerial duties assigned by the City Code, and party acts in a quasi-judicial capacity holding public hearings on issues under its jurisdiction.
In executing its duties it must do so in a fair and impartial way, giving due consideration to the matters brought before it and the citizens rightful input at the public hearings.
Several weeks ago I attended a meeting of the commission concerning The Highland Heights major subdivision request. I was appalled at the behavior of several of our appointed representatives. One made faces, laughed, shook his head and generally visually disparaged the statements being made by members of the public after they had been invited by the acting chairperson to speak.
This is conduct commonly engaged in by this member. A woman rose, was recognized by the chair and began her statement. This same member identified above quite angrily announced that the person, along with others, was guilty of the crime of trespass! The people had merely stated that they had seen standing water while they were walking or driving along a city street, which outside of Lewes is still apparently legal.
Yet this outrageous behavior was not questioned or admonished by the acting chair or the city attorney present. I did note that the city attorney, when strongly challenged by a resident on a point of law, got visibly and verbally upset. The citizen was a non-lawyer and entitled to a certain amount of leeway. The acting chair noted that the meeting was getting a little hostile.
More recently I attended a public hearing on the Point Farm and I never have seen such egregious conduct on the part of public officials so clearly detrimental to the exercise of our democratic rights. The conduct exploded any notions of civility or sense of community.
The conduct on the part of the chairman of the commission and the commission member cited above were strategically implemented to instill a culture of fear and act as a prior restraint on our right to free speech. The rules and behavior were targeted to instill a chilling effect to discourage the legitimate exercise of our legal rights. I do not make these charges lightly.
The planning chair gave the developer one hour and 15 minutes to make its presentation. This was after the developer, to meet the requirements of the city, had expended hundreds of hours of city time in meetings and consultation. I do not fault the developer; they were exercising their legitimate rights and getting the value their fees bought.
When it came time for the citizens to speak the chair laid down some rules on what the public could speak about, and how long they could speak - five minutes each. He encouraged people representing groups to speak first, hoping to reduce the amount of people speaking and possible redundancy.
He became very arrogant, testy, and visually and verbally disparaged the statements being put forward by several group leaders. He tried to hold them to five minutes for each large group, and when they went over the time, constantly pinged them about the time. Most gave up before they could complete their statements.
I talked to two of the leaders, representing the two largest citizens groups in Lewes, and they both said they shortened and omitted key testimony because of the chair’s harassment. When one woman spoke on an issue that the chair had banned, he got particularly testy when she read him his own words from the city website. The behavior of the chair had its intended outcome, speech was chilled, and intended testimony omitted. The chair introduced a new PLUS report at the end, said it would be available for review, and then he left town with the only copy.
The conduct of one member was especially egregious. He was a visible cheerleader for the developer, but constantly, continually, and malevolently discouraged each of the citizens who rose to speak. He laughed at their testimony while they were giving it, shook his head, and just visually disparaged each and every individual from the public.
This conduct clearly exceeded the norm for civil behavior, and was in direct contravention of the right to be impartially heard. It had the direct impact of discouraging free speech, acting as a prior restraint on those who wanted to get up and talk but who did not want to be publically humiliated. The members and chair, the city attorney, and members of the council who were present, condoned his behavior by their failure to at least attempt to make him behave in a civil manner.
I ask that the city halt the hearings until they can remind the Planning Commission and its members of the need for civility, respect for the public, and until it takes appropriate action under Section 701, Title 22, Delaware code, to remove for cause one or more members of the commission. The restrictions on our rights to be impartially and respectfully heard cannot be abridged.
If the city attorney cannot locate the fundamental documents that give the citizens the right to be respected and seek redress, I am sure Col. Lechliter can assist him in his search.