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Weiner & other Council members are critical of Clark's decision to trim County Ethics Commission budget - News Journal

Councilman Bob Weiner said the commission's independence is so important -- and its annual budget, about $200,000 -- is so small that neither the council nor the executive should adjust the budget's line items.

Clark trims nearly $12,000 from New Castle County ethics panel's budget

May. 14, 2011    Written by ADAM TAYLOR The News Journal 

New Castle County Executive Paul Clark and the government's Ethics Commission are at odds again.

Unlike past encounters, the commission isn't investigating Clark. The issue is his decision to trim nearly $12,000 from its budget request.

Clark cut $5,500 from its request for contracts, which pays for private attorneys to conduct investigations into allegations of wrongdoing by county employees, according to commission attorney Rosemary Killian. Another $5,645 was cut from the request for training money even though the seven-member commission has three new members.

To allay concerns, acting Chief Financial Officer Ed Milowicki said Clark has promised to give the commission money from his discretionary account if it runs short.

But because of the commission's role as the watchdog of county government, that offer has been roundly criticized.

"That's the most boneheaded idea I've ever heard in my life," said John Flaherty, president of the Delaware Coalition for Open Government. "I don't think Clark is aware of how bad it appears to have a commission getting money from a contingency fund from someone they might be investigating."

Councilman Dave Tackett agrees.

"You can't give them money from the executive's account," he said. "What if they're investigating him? He's had a long history with the commission."

Acting Chief Administrative Officer Gregg Wilson said Clark would consider making money available to the Ethics Commission from somewhere other than his discretionary accounts. But the need for that is unlikely, because the commission hasn't spent all the money in its budget in the last three years. It has returned an average of nearly $82,000 in each of those years, Milowicki said.

Clark has been admonished by the commission two times and unsuccessfully sued it to try to keep one of its reports from being released. He also tried and failed to get the county to pay his legal fees from that suit.

After Clark became county executive in November, the commission ruled that either he or his wife, Pam Scott, a land-use attorney who represented power developers in the county approval process, had to resign to prevent a conflict of interest. Scott left the Saul Ewing Firm in March.

Top officials from Clark's administration said the refusal to give the commission all the money it wanted was strictly a financial decision. It was not payback for Clark's history with the commission, Wilson said.

"Absolutely not," Wilson said. "The county executive trimmed excess money from all departments to avoid a tax increase for New Castle  County residents. Nobody's trying to cut their budget."

Ethics Commission Chairman Thomas P. Collins Sr. said he thinks the commission's budget should be prepared by County Council, not the county executive. The council appoints four of the seven members and the executive appoints three.

"The commission believes that ... interference by the executive adversely affects the commission's independence and its appearance to the public," said vice chairman Gerald Turkel.

Milowicki pointed out that the county code requires Clark to submit a balanced-budget proposal to council each year, and that the spending plan includes all boards and commissions. The county code specifies that the Ethics Commission's annual budget request does not supersede the executive's power to set the budget.

County Council Policy Director Jim Boyle said he has drafted a budget amendment that would give the commission the $12,000 it wants for training and investigations.

"There is a movement on the council for such an amendment and someone is going to put their name on it," Boyle said.

Councilwoman Lisa Diller said she would be willing to do so.

"First, they have three new members who need to be trained," Diller said. "Second, I think it's better to give them the money upfront for investigations. I don't want anyone in county government to be in the position to say 'No' to the commission if it's looking for money to finish an investigation."

Christine Whitehead of Mill Creek said she hopes the council's budget amendment passes.

"It's a very bad idea for the county executive to be removing money from their budget," Whitehead said. "The commission shouldn't be beholden to the executive for their money."

Tom Dewson of Greenville feels the same way.

"Not funding an independent Ethics Commission will further erode the public's confidence in county government and cause a concern that any funding changes would prevent the commission from doing its job," Dewson said.

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