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3/8/2011
Fracture dividing NCCo council shows no signs of healing - News Journal

New Castle County faces seven-figure budget shortfalls, contentious development projects and an ongoing controversy about the new county executive's wife, who is a prominent attorney with clients in need of government approvals.

Yet for the last six weeks, members of County Council have been mired in changing the rules that govern themselves.

The toxic climate, sparked when Republican Tom Kovach was elected council president Jan. 25, has divided council and could get worse before it gets better, members say.

"It feels as though some of my [fellow] council members are being influenced by a strange planetary alignment," says Lisa Diller, who sides with Kovach. "We have so many more important things to do, so I wish everyone will get over it, but I don't know if that will happen."

Penrose Hollins, a member of the anti-Kovach camp, accuses Diller's side of causing the problem.

"What I'm witnessing these days is completely off the wall," said Hollins, a council member for 20 years. "This is by far the worst behavior of any county council I've served on. When I first got on council, people respected each other and there was dignity in the way things were done."

Kovach supporters said his opponents are trying to strip him of power because they're upset he beat Democrat Tim Sheldon in January's special election. The anti-Kovach camp contended that Kovach immediately overstepped his authority and they are trying to restore order to council.

Seeds of dissension

The seeds for this fracture were planted in September, when Christine O'Donnell upset Mike Castle in the Republican primary for U.S. Senate, thrusting County Executive Chris Coons from underdog to favorite in November, when he beat O'Donnell.

Kovach lost his state House seat in November and attributed the loss in part to a strong anti-O'Donnell turnout by Democrats in his district. County Council President Paul Clark succeeded Coons, then Kovach beat Sheldon in the special election for Clark's seat in January.

"After what's happened to the council, I don't know whether to give her credit or fault," Councilman Bob Weiner said of O'Donnell.

Hollins said Kovach quickly alienated himself from a faction of council that includes Hollins, George Smiley, Joe Reda, Jea Street and Bill Bell.

After a preliminary deal was reached between the county and Delmarva Power to spend $100,000 to pay overdue electric bills for the Police Athletic League facilities in Hockessin and Garfield Park, Kovach interceded. At one of his first meetings, Kovach suggested asking Delmarva if it would accept $50,000. Kovach even called a top Delmarva executive with the offer, a move that angered Hollins.

Kovach was not successful, and council authorized the $100,000 payment.

"He's making himself out to be the people's champion and that we're picking on poor little Kovach," Hollins says. "The truth is, he came into the door looking for a fight. He's just engaging in political grandstanding. We're not stripping him of his powers; we're trying to restore integrity to the legislative process."

Weiner, who sides with Kovach, thinks there's another motive.

"The anti-good government coalition simply can't get over the fact that the people spoke and elected Tom Kovach," Weiner said. "Until they realize that, they'll attempt to assassinate him at every opportunity and we'll continue to be bogged down."

Deed vote widens rift

On Feb. 8, many council members unknowingly voted to lift deed restrictions on a DelleDonne & Associates property in Bear. The issue was placed on a part of the agenda where items are voted on without discussion.

Upset that he voted on the issue, because he had worked with an attorney who is opposing the contract, Kovach refused to sign the legislation, which was passed unanimously, into law.

Smiley called Kovach's refusal to sign the legislation a "desk-drawer veto."

"It was apparent from the get-go that he was going to throw down the gauntlet and do whatever he wanted to do," Smiley says. "His sole purpose is to set the stage for the Republican Party and himself for 2012."

The deed restrictions remain unsigned; Hollins and Smiley called it unprecedented.

Since then, the anti-Kovach contingent has tried a series of maneuvers. Hollins made an oral motion to allow the president pro tem to sign any council measure that isn't signed by the president in five days. The change passed, but Hollins hasn't signed the deed-restrictions bill into law.

Reda introduced a rules change that would prevent Kovach from placing items on the agenda, but that hasn't come up for a vote yet.

Hollins has said he wants to chair every other executive committee meeting, which Hollins said is common practice. Kovach said there is no such rule.

Rule changes proposed

Six anti-Kovach council members did not attend last week's executive committee meeting. Three said they had other obligations, but Hollins conceded it was a boycott.

The meeting resulted in a lack of a quorum, so two rule changes couldn't be voted on. Councilman Dave Tackett, who sides with Diller, sponsored a measure that would avoid a repeat of the deed-restrictions issue.

Diller proposed a measure to require rule changes to be provided in writing a week before a vote. That was in response to Hollins' oral motion to allow the president pro tem to sign measures the president does not sign within five days.

Smiley proposed an amendment to Diller's proposal that would allow the rule changes to be changed at any committee meeting, not just the executive committee. The executive committee is the only one chaired by Kovach.

All of which could come to a head at today's executive committee meeting.

"I don't think we're going to push the issue because it will look like a muscle play," Hollins says. "I would like to move forward and see Mr. Kovach forge some relationships with the council members."

Kovach said he hopes the drama ends soon so council can focus on the budget.

"We have 13 grown-up members and we're spending way too much time trying to teach the new guy on the block lessons," Kovach says. "We need to get beyond knockdown, drag-out fights about ridiculous political maneuvering."

The executive committee meets at 4:30 p.m. today at the Louis L. Redding building in downtown Wilmington. The council's regular meeting is at 7 p.m.

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