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12/17/2010
NCCo exec Clark faces heat over board member; Delay in reappointment seen as retaliation - News Journal

NCCo exec Clark faces heat over board member

Delay in reappointment seen as retaliation

By ADAM TAYLOR
The News Journal

Two members of New Castle County Council say County Executive Paul Clark has blocked the reappointment of a member of the Planning Board because he’s voted against plans presented by developers represented by Clark’s wife, attorney Pam Scott.

The council members say Clark isn’t moving to reappoint Mark Weinberg to the board and is violating the executive order he issued Nov. 19 that instructed county employees to exclude him from all land-use cases handled by the law firm Saul Ewing, where his wife works

Clark would not be interviewed for this story, but denied the allegations through a spokesman, saying he is simply waiting for his transition team to make recommendations on who should sit on all of the county’s boards and commissions.

Clark was county council president until last month, when he succeeded Chris Coons, who was elected to the U.S. Senate. Concerns about potential conflicts between Clark’s government position and Scott’s status as a go-to land-use attorney have existed for years, but are magnified now that Clark is county executive.

His executive order was designed to prevent such conflicts.

Councilwoman Lisa Diller, however, said the safeguard has been breached less than 30 days after it was enacted.

Weinberg was one of four Planning Board members who voted against a plan earlier this year to redevelop the Potts Welding site near Newark from an industrial facility to commercial-retail space. The property owners were represented by Saul Ewing. The council rejected the developer's proposal based in part on the lack of a recommendation from the Planning Board.

"I think there is a link between Mr. Weinberg's role in the failure of the Potts Welding rezoning and Mr. Clark's refusal to move forward on Mr. Weinberg's reappointment to the planning board," Diller said. "I think Mr. Clark would be doing the honorable thing by moving forward with this appointment so that, at least in the minds of some council members, he would not be reacting against Mr. Weinberg for the loss of that rezoning, a case that was represented by his wife's law firm."

Councilman Bob Weiner noted that Clark's executive order was designed to create a "firewall" between Clark and Saul Ewing.

"Blocking the Weinberg reappointment indicates that Paul Clark's self-declared firewall is already in shambles," Weiner said.

Longtime member

Weinberg, 59, a chemical engineer at the DuPont Co., has served on the Planning Board, which makes recommendations on land-use issues to council, since 1995. The board meets monthly and members are paid $100 per meeting, county spokesman C.R. McLeod said.

Weinberg's term expired in July, but it's not unusual for board members to remain in their positions after their terms end, McLeod said. Planning board members are nominated by the county executive, then must be approved by a majority vote of County Council.

Weinberg said he's never met Clark, so he doesn't want to speculate on whether the holdup is retribution for opposing the Potts Welding rezoning proposal or because he has posed tough questions to other developers who were represented by Scott.

"I do know that Mr. Clark and I have come to some very different conclusions over some land-use applications over the years," he said. "I have actively questioned many of the projects Pam Scott has been involved with -- and probably have been more vocal than many of the other people on the board."

Weinberg said he deals with proposals that come before the board with an open mind.

"These are hard decisions," he said. "But I think I've served in an ethical and unbiased manner and would like to continue."

Planning Board member Victor Singer said Weinberg has been an asset to the board.

"He's conscientious, he does his homework, he's thoughtful and is attentive to the law," Singer said. "He's knowledgeable, studious and thoughtful."

Time of transition

Council members Diller and Weiner say Weinberg's reappointment shouldn't be in the same class as the hundreds of other board and commission posts being reviewed by Clark's transition team.

They contend that Coons approved Weinberg's reappointment while he was still county executive. It was after the election but before he was sworn in as senator, they said.

Weinberg was interviewed for another term for 45 minutes by three of Coons' top aides before the Nov. 2 election. The interviewers were Rick Gregory, Coons' chief administrative officer, who is no longer with the county; county spokeswoman Angie Basiouny; and Nicole Majewski, who was Coons' chief of staff and is now Clark's acting chief administrative officer.

Coons would not comment because he is no longer the county executive, his spokeswoman, Alexandra Barniea, said.

But Diller said a Nov. 5 e-mail from Gregory to Christina Bloemendaal, Councilman John Cartier's legislative aide, shows that Coons wanted Weinberg reappointed. The e-mail, a copy of which was obtained by The News Journal, was a reply to Bloemendaal's question about the status of Weinberg's reappointment.

"After interviewing Mark we submitted to [then County Council President Paul] Clark our favorable recommendation," Gregory wrote.

Gregory could not be reached.

Majewski said in a statement that Coons was in favor of reappointing Weinberg. But Coons never formally offered Weinberg another term in writing and never submitted a resolution to County Council, she said.

Those facts, to County Attorney Gregg Wilson, make Weinberg's status a nonissue.

"I don't even know what we're talking about," Wilson said. "There is no resolution about this before the council and there was no discussion in public about this issue by the council."

McLeod, the county spokesman, said Coons' inaction makes Weinberg's reappointment a decision for Clark to make -- and he's in no hurry to do so.

"County Executive Clark is awaiting the recommendations of his transition teams before making any decisions regarding any appointments to boards and commissions," McLeod said.

Diller's disappointment

Diller and Weiner say Weinberg's reappointment should trigger a council vote because Majewski confirmed that Coons favored it. They say Clark and Wilson are playing games with Weinberg's appointment, relying on technicalities rather than doing the right thing and going with Coons' recommendation that Weinberg serve another term.

That has Weiner worried about the near future.

"I fear that there will soon be a number of political cronies appointed to our boards and commissions, which are supposed to be independent and act as checks and balances," Weiner said.

McLeod said there are checks and balances because the council gets to approve or reject Clark's recommended appointees.

"Each member of council is free to vote for or against any nominee put before them by the county executive," McLeod said. "If there are any concerns about cronyism, they can vote against that person."

Diller tried Tuesday to privately lobby her fellow council members to vote to reappoint Weinberg, but didn't bring the matter up in public because she couldn't get the required seven votes to pass the resolution. She was so angered by the lack of support from her colleagues that she resigned her position as co-chairwoman of council's Boards and Commissions Committee.

"This was the opportune time for council members to step up to the plate and question this alleged 'firewall,' because it was so clear that Mr. Clark was so against this particular appointment," Diller said.

Critical comments

Diller said critical comments Clark made about Weinberg at a Feb. 23, 2010, County Council meeting also show that he doesn't want Weinberg on the Planning Board.

That was the meeting that dealt with the Potts Welding issue. Even though Clark recused himself because his wife's firm represented the developer, he didn't vacate the president's seat. For that, Clark was later admonished by the county Ethics Commission.

"I recused myself on a piece of legislation but I can't resist commenting on one of the Planning Board members' comments," Clark said during the meeting.

Clark criticized Weinberg's comments that the redevelopment proposal would offer "low-paying retail jobs." Clark is a former retail manager at Boscov's department store.

"I think it's a prejudice that's there. And whether we vote for something, change something, do whatever, that's a different story, but I think it shows a lack of insight on a planning board member to classify a whole sector of an employment area as 'low-paying jobs.' "

Councilman Penrose Hollins added that he considered Weinberg's comments "elitist" and "offensive."

"I hope that going forward that this person will understand that it's not making a lot of headway with some members of council," Hollins said.

"That pompous arrogance needs to be eradicated," Councilman Jea Street said.

McLeod, the county spokesman, said Clark's comments show he wasn't angry with Weinberg's decision on the Potts Welding redevelopment proposal. Rather, he was offended by Weinberg's remark about the retail industry.

Weinberg said he was offended by the council members' comments and said they were over the top.

"I grew up in the projects in the Bronx, so I know about low-paying jobs," he said.

Weinberg said he stands by his belief that the site would provide higher-paying jobs with an industrial zoning designation.

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