Sussex County Delaware
F.I. Council Calls for
Executive Session
 
Sussex Snapshots, Aug. 31, 2002

NOTE: Following is a commentary by Eric Magill, publisher of Sussex County Online, on Fenwick Island Town Council's tight-rope walk along the legal lines of the Freedom of Information Act.

Voice Your Opinion on
F.I. Police Situation

Eric Magill, Sussex County Online

By ERIC MAGILL
SC Online
Publisher

Fenwick Island Town Council has called a second executive session in 10 days without giving the public the required 7 days notice.

This time, council posted on the afternoon of Aug. 30 that it will meet at 8:30 a.m. on Tuesday, Sept. 3, 2002, to discuss what it calls the "pressing nature of personnel and potential litigation" and "to obtain a quorum".

Presumably, this executive session will deal with the issues surrounding the Fenwick Island Police Department and the status of suspended Police Chief George H. Dickerson Jr.

And conveniently, council will hold yet another meeting on this matter at a time when it is most inconvenient for townspeople who are entitled to watch council's potential vote after coming out of that executive session.

The first executive session, held on Saturday, Aug. 24, wasn't posted until Friday, Aug. 23, and was only posted on the town hall's front door rather than the message board fronting Coastal Highway, where council always posts notices of public meetings and where Fenwick residents have become conditioned to look for notices of upcoming meetings.

Tuesday's executive session has been posted in the same manner, on the front door and not on the message board.

For a council that has lost a half-dozen FOIA complaints in the past seven months including losing a FOIA complaint about improper notice of executive sessions, you have to wonder what it's thinking as it continues to walk a legal tight-rope by calling closed meetings on such short notice.

The Delaware Freedom of Information Act requires seven days notice of executive sessions except when it is necessary to call an emergency meeting for the "immediate preservation of the public peace, health or safety, or to the General Assembly."

Considering that Mayor Peg Baunchalk and other council members reported last week that "all police services will continue to be provided as normal", it hardly seems likely that potential police personnel issues would rise to that level.

In addition, town attorney Tempe Steen has failed to comply with a request on Tuesday, Aug. 27, from Sussex County Online for the minutes of the last executive session and for the voting records from that session.

The FOIA requires that the vote of each individual member be provided upon request and that the minutes from executive sessions be provided after they no longer serve a legal purpose. Given that council took action on what it discussed in that executive session, it seems unlikely that the minutes continue to serve any legal purpose.

When asked about the vote following that executive session, Steen would only say that she "thought" the vote was unanimous. Baunchalk simply said, "I don't remember."

Reached on Saturday, Aug. 31, new town council member Vicki Carmean, who was the top vote-getter in the town election two weeks ago after campaigning to open the lines of communication between the townspeople and council, said she will honor that pledge but that there are legitimate reasons for holding executive sessions.

She said she recused herself from the executive session on Saturday, Aug. 24, after about 30 minutes because it involved discussions of issues that pre-dated her election to the council.

"I'm going to go with an open mind," said Carmean of this Tuesday's executive session. "I didn't get voted in to get along with other council members. I got voted in to represent the people.

"But I still know enough about the way legal things work that executive sessions can cover personnel and litigation and that you have to remain quiet about it. I know from working in school systems that at times, people can get angry with the system and that other parties could say whatever they wanted to about the school, but we had to resolve those things through proper legal channels. This is pretty much the same thing."

While there are certainly legitimate reasons for holding executive sessions, the manner in which Fenwick Island has flaunted the FOIA is certainly questionable and perhaps another issue for the attorney general's office.

In addition to the scheduling of two executive sessions without proper notice, the town's budget committee, headed by council member Richard Griffin and subject to the same FOIA regulations as council, only allowed townspeople to comment after the budget had been drafted and prepared for a vote.

During a "public" workshop in June, budget committee members refused to allow the public to speak or ask questions of committee members.

The FOIA states that while the public comment period can be limited to a specific time on the agenda, "Open to the public also means that members of the public attending the meeting should have an opportunity to participate actively, subject to reasonable time and controls".

It further states that "[A public body] should make diligent efforts to answer valid, bona fide, good faith questions by its citizens. Otherwise, the statutory mandate contained in 29 Del. C, Sections 10001 and 10004a, is not being met by the [public body]."

Nevertheless, Fenwick council voted in a 10 percent tax increase after giving the public no input in the process of creating that budget.

The whole mess has made Fenwick council the butt of radio talk show jokes, including a game of "Where is Peg Baunchalk?", played on WGMD this week because of the mayor's refusal to return phone messages left on her answering machine.

Such arrogance is inappropriate for town council, not to mention the Sussex County Council seat Baunchalk aspires to this November.

The saddest part, though, is that this hissing contest between the chief and a couple of council members has left the people of Fenwick Island without a police chief, with only half of a force, and without even so much as a statement as to what the chief's actual status is while he sits at home and Sgt. Michael Bruette continues as Officer in Charge.

Given that Chief Dickerson was named the Delaware League of Local Government's Police Chief of the Year in 1999, council's continued abuse of the Freedom of Information Act ill-serves the needs and rights of its citizens.


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