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Kovach victory seen as message; Council members say Clark was issue - News Journal

The News Journal

Republican Tom Kovach's victory over Democrat Tim Sheldon was a clear message from voters that they are uneasy about potential conflicts between County Executive Paul Clark and his wife, a land-use attorney who represents developers on major projects that require government approval, council members from both parties said Friday.

Kovach beat Sheldon by nearly 16 percentage points in a special election Thursday. Kovach successfully portrayed himself as an outsider and noted that Clark and Sheldon served on the council together for six years.

"This wasn't a defeat of Tim Sheldon -- it was truly a referendum on Paul Clark," said Councilman Bob Weiner, one of three Republicans on the 13-member council. "I hope he understands that people have real difficulty believing he can create some sort of Chinese wall between himself and his wife's law firm. His employees will be making decisions about the firm instead of him, but those decisions could still benefit Clark financially and guarantee the continued employment of the county employees who make them."

Weiner, who supported Kovach, was referring to the executive order Clark issued that told county employees to exclude him from all land-use cases handled by Saul Ewing, the law firm of his wife, Pam Scott.

It was one of Clark's first moves after he was sworn into the office in November, when he automatically replaced newly elected U.S. Sen. Chris Coons because Clark was council president.

Democratic Councilman Jea Street, a Sheldon supporter, agreed with Weiner's assessment.

"It was a masterful campaign: Kovach ran against Paul, not Tim, and it worked," Street said. "That strategy combined with bad weather and he prevailed. He also made it seem as though Tim would have been part of some unholy alliance with Paul, which wasn't true. Tim has always stood on his own principles. When we fellow Democrats voted for tax increases, for example, Tim said, 'I'm not doing it and I don't care what you say.' "

A day after the election, Clark disputed those assessments, saying an election with a mere 7.4 percent voter turnout can't be a referendum on anything.

"If anything, I believe that it was an anti-establishment vote against Tim, because he's been on council for six years," Clark said. "That's an easy stance to take when you're on the outside and you don't have to make the tough votes."

Clark did say that news could be coming soon that could ease citizens' minds about potential conflicts between him and his wife. He said Scott could soon be modifying her law practice, but would not provide details or say when that might happen.

"The executive order is very sufficient right now," Clark said. "Sooner than later, we will resolve the issue. I expect that she would be making changes that will resolve the issue."

Scott could not be reached for comment.

During the campaign, Kovach suggested Scott could step down as a partner in Saul Ewing. Sheldon said if elected president, he would seek an opinion from the county ethics commission on the issue. It's unclear if he will still do so as a district councilman. Sheldon represents the 9th District and has two years left on his term.

Kovach was traveling to Colorado Friday to participate in a weekend conference as part of the Aspen-Rodel Fellowship he was recently given for working for better government in bipartisan fashion while a state lawmaker from 2008 to 2010.

From an airport in Denver, Kovach said he will increase transparency in county government by using methods ranging from overseeing the Clark administration's land deals to tweeting from County Council meetings.

"My job as county council president is to gain consensus on issues regarding responsible development and setting the agenda on things like transparency," Kovach said. "I plan to champion those issues as president. I won't stop yelling until the lack of transparency that currently exists in county government is corrected."

Weiner said Kovach's presence adds one more "vocal good-government member" to the council.

"The only way that County Council is effective as a watchdog is if individual members find the courage to stand up when there is abuse of power," he said. "Having Mr. Kovach as president will make that easier."

Democrats Street and George Smiley don't think Kovach will have any extra influence. The Democrats have a 10-3 majority on the council and the president's powers are mostly minor administrative functions.

"I don't think anything changes regardless of who's president," Smiley said. "He's one of 13 and there are independent minds on this council. Party affiliation doesn't seem to have an impact. We'll simply move forward with county business."

Street said Kovach needs to understand he's not the council's boss.

"We'll work with him, but he's just one vote," Street said. "He needs to understand that and not go off the deep end and sabotage fundamental good government."

New Castle County Republicans spent Friday basking in a rare countywide victory. The last Republican council president was Phil Cloutier, who won in 1988.

"We had a good candidate, good media coverage of the issues, a good organization, and people responded," county GOP Chairman Michael Fleming said.

Weiner said The News Journal's coverage of the controversial Stoltz proposals for the Barley Mill Plaza and Greenville Center played a role, noting that Kovach did best in Greenville and Brandywine Hundred. Saul Ewing represents Stoltz.

"This election was anti-Clark, anti-Stoltz, anti-government waste," Weiner said. "The 'enough-is-enough' vote from northern New Castle County carried the day."

Weiner conceded that having only one race on the ballot helped.

"There was no Obama at the top of the Democratic ticket and no Christine O'Donnell at the top of the Republican ticket," he said. "Definitely a nice change of pace."

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