For most of its existence, Sussex County has been largely rural. In recent years however, the county has been undergoing a fundamental change.
While many portions of Sussex continue to retain their rustic character, other sections have been transformed into suburban landscapes. Many portions of eastern Sussex have all the characteristics of urban areas, with high density dwellings, multi-lane highways and gridlock.
In short, our county has changed a great deal in a relatively short period of time. Consider that between 1990 and 2000, the population of Sussex jumped by more than 38 percent. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, the number of people living in the county grew by an additional 7.3 percent between 2000 and 2003.
Yet while our county has changed, our government has remained static for more than 30 years. It continues to be a five-member council with each councilman elected from a geographically delineated district. Itís apparent that as it is currently structured, our county council does not accurately reflect the new Sussex reality.
This observation should in no way be considered a criticism of past or current council members. It is simply an indisputable fact. I believe county government needs to change, an opinion thatís shared by some of my General Assembly colleagues as well as many Sussex County residents.
Reforming Sussex County Council to more accurately represent the will of the people who live here is a topic I've spoken out about since I first ran for public office in 1999 and it is an issue on which I have remained consistent.
I first publicly proposed the option of adding two at-large seats to the council six years ago. At-large council members would have several benefits. They would not be beholden to the residents of a particular district, but would rather represent all county residents equally. The broader perspective of these members would enrich council debate and the differing viewpoints of at-large members would also act as a check on council actions.
However, wanting change and making it happen are two different things. Any change in Sussex government will require the approval of both General Assembly chambers and the governor.
While a proposal to add two at-large seats to county council would likely clear the State House, it would almost certainly hit a wall in the Senate. Last year, Sen. Gary Simpson proposed this in Senate Bill 117. Unfortunately, the bill died in committee.
Although I believe it is extremely unlikely this option would pass, I will gladly co-sponsor any House or Senate bill proposing it. If it accomplishes nothing else, the introduction of such a bill would place this issue before lawmakers and continue the debate at the state level.
I will also sponsor a bill containing a second option for reforming county council. This proposal would create two new councilmatic districts, increasing the council to seven members in all. The new districts would be incorporated into council by 2008.
I introduced a similar bill last year. It cleared the House but was bottled up in a Senate committee. In contrast to last year's legislation, this version would create the new districts earlier and would not include any provisions about how the districts should be apportioned. I believe this bill will not only stoke the debate over council reform, it also holds the promise of getting beach residents the equal representation they deserve.
There are many people who would like to see our county government changed tomorrow. I'd like that myself, but it isn't going to happen. Some county residents are frustrated by this reality and have lashed out by spreading misinformation and engaging in tactics that have pitted residents against each other.
Changing any long-established institution is not an overnight process. There are many people with an interest in maintaining the status quo and overcoming their ingrained resistance to change will require that we adopt the skills of the marathon runner over the sprinter.
I look forward to joining with everyone who supports changing our council to accurately represent the interests of all Sussex Countians. Only by acting together and working towards a common goal will we succeed in this worthy undertaking.