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2/18/2011
NCC Ethics Commission says conflicts inevitable for Paul Clark; No way to avoid conflict/County Attorney still serving dual role - News Journal

Councilman Bob Weiner said that remedy is insufficient because Clark has not only retained Wilson as county attorney from the Coons administration, but also appointed him as acting chief executive officer. Clark said Thursday there are no plans for Wilson to give up either of those roles.

"The county attorney represents all of county government, but the chief administrative officer is the executive's political appointee," Weiner said. "I don't think Mr. Clark's political guy should be the sole enforcer of making sure the executive order is actually functioning as the firewall it is intended to be."

New Castle County ethics panel says conflicts inevitable for Paul Clark
No way to avoid conflict, report says

Written by ADAM TAYLOR 

Short of New Castle County Executive Paul Clark or his attorney wife Pam Scott resigning from their jobs, there is no way to prevent potential conflicts or appearances of improprieties as he runs the county while she represents powerful real estate developers in need of government approvals.

That essentially was the opinion the county ethics commission gave Thursday to Clark, who asked it for guidance on how to minimize the problem presented by his marriage to Scott, a lawyer with Saul Ewing.

Shortly after Clark succeeded Chris Coons as county executive in November, he issued an executive order designed to act as a "firewall" between him and Scott's firm. The order commands his staff to exclude him from any Saul Ewing-related matters.

The ethics commission's report referred to Clark's order -- which delegates the power Clark would normally have to county Attorney Gregg Wilson -- as "the second-best solution" to deal with the conflicts. The order was designed to separate Clark from making decisions on projects represented by Saul Ewing attorneys, or hiring the firm to represent the county. Saul Ewing, for example, serves as the county's bond counsel, or attorneys who issue municipal bonds for governments.

The ethics commission also suggested that Clark's executive order be expanded to include "the arena of policy," so Clark and Scott couldn't work together to craft policies that would benefit firms on land-use issues such as Saul Ewing. Clark immediately added the suggested language to the executive order.

"With this amendment, as long as the order is diligently followed by all county officials and employees, the order should prevent actual conflicts of interest ... " the report says. "The potential for appearances of improprieties will also be somewhat minimized."
Clark said Thursday he was pleased with the opinion, which he feels validates the effectiveness of his executive order.

"I think it will work itself out," Clark said. "We asked people for some time to work this out and it's only been a couple of months."

Scott did not respond to messages Thursday seeking comment.

None of that washed with those who think Clark cannot run the county in an ethical manner while being married to Scott.

"The message from this opinion is clear: The county executive has to resign or his wife must refrain from practicing land-use law," said Bob Valihura, an adjunct professor at Widener Law and a civic leader in Brandywine Hundred. "The 'second-best choice' is putting a Band-Aid on a gaping public problem."

Clark reiterated his stance that land use is a small part of county government and that most of his time is focused on the budget. The ethics commission agreed with Clark to a point.

"To some extent, this smaller area of county responsibility in which she conducts business seems to overshadow more numerous other activities conducted by the county," the report says.

The commission's report also said that Saul Ewing shouldn't be given any county contracts by using the "professional services" exemption to normal processes that require requests for proposal and public bidding requirements.

It will be Wilson's job to make sure that doesn't happen, the report says. "The burden of avoiding such appearances now falls to the county attorney."

Councilman Bob Weiner said that remedy is insufficient because Clark has not only retained Wilson as county attorney from the Coons administration, but also appointed him as acting chief executive officer. Clark said Thursday there are no plans for Wilson to give up either of those roles.

"The county attorney represents all of county government, but the chief administrative officer is the executive's political appointee," Weiner said. "I don't think Mr. Clark's political guy should be the sole enforcer of making sure the executive order is actually functioning as the firewall it is intended to be."

Council President Tom Kovach agreed.

"I think the commission's ruling is as clear as mud," Kovach said. "When Gregg Wilson says something related to Saul Ewing is OK, will he be saying that as county attorney or the county executive's chief administrative officer?"

Scott is representing Stoltz Real Estate Partners, which has controversial plans pending before the county to redevelop the Barley Mill Plaza office complex and add buildings to its Greenville Center shopping complex. The plans are opposed by a citizens group called Citizens for Responsible Growth.

John Danzeisen, a board member of the citizens group, agreed that Clark or Scott resigning would be the best option for the county government.

"Short of that, I think we're going to have to live with the fact that the potential for conflicts exist," he said. "But I think they know the public is watching every decision they make very closely, so if they are diligent, I think the public can be reasonably comfortable that decisions aren't being made for the wrong reasons."

Clark noted that he excluded himself from any discussions on two issues with Saul Ewing connections and let the two resulting ordinances go into law without his signature. One issue called for the installation of street lights in the Village of Bayberry, according to county records. The other was the rezoning of Milton and Hattie Kutz Home.

Land-use attorney Rich Abbott said the ethics commission overstepped its bounds by suggesting Clark or Scott resign.

"The potential for conflict takes place with every county employee in every minute of every working day," he said. "They should have stuck with saying that the executive order will work as long as it's overseen responsibly."

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