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5/16/2015
Attacks become norm in New Castle County government; Drama in New Castle County government - News Journal

"From a perspective of civility, the relationship is at one of its low ebbs," said Councilman Bob Weiner, a two-decade council veteran who fashions himself as an ally of both factions.

An attorney, Weiner regularly takes an informal lunch with council members before each Tuesday council meeting. He also is a longtime friend of Gordon, dating to their days on the Council of Civic Organizations of Brandywine Hundred.

Weiner said sometimes tension is a good thing between various factions of government, but he said the current climate and frequent infighting isn't productive.

"The executive and legislative branches of government would be better served by focusing on good government policy and avoiding the personal attacks, although vigilance on the part of both branches of government is necessary for the effective operation of government," he said.

County Councilman Bob Weiner speaks during a County Council meeting on Tuesday night. (Photo: KYLE GRANTHAM/THE NEWS JOURNAL)

Attacks become norm in New Castle County government; Drama in New Castle County government

 Xerxes WIlson, The News Journal 7:54 p.m. EDT May 15, 2015

The dysfunction is worthy of a soap opera, with a colorful cast and a plot full of twists and turns, whisper campaigns, allegations of dirty tricks and email snooping. Unlike disputes in Congress or the state Legislature, this clash is squarely intraparty - all of the players are Democrats, and most are longtime figures in Delaware political circles. Here are the players:

• Tom Gordon, county executive

The former county police chief and possible gubernatorial candidate says he's being targeted by a few council members who don't like him personally. He claims a lingering resentment over his 2012 victory over then-County Executive Paul Clark.

"They have nothing to do but attack. I have tried for two-and-a-half years to be their friend. I'm not doing it anymore," he said.

• David Grimaldi, chief administrative officer

A supporting role in this soap opera is Gordon's second-in-command, David Grimaldi, a former Wall Street financial adviser who sought to discredit an audit of county investments, and his deputy Samuel Guy, a lawyer and former Wilmington City Council member.

In a March interview regarding the whisper campaign against auditor Bob Wasserbach, Grimaldi said the auditor can't be objective, given all his political ties.

"He is not allowed per state code to be political," he said.

• Bob Wasserbach, auditor

On the other side of the drama is county Auditor Robert Wasserbach, who authored an audit of a controversial county investment and whose emails with his friend, a Dover lobbyist, prompted some on council to call for an outside investigation.

Wasserbach is joined by Gordon foes Councilman George Smiley and Councilwoman Janet Kilpatrick, who say the county executive office wants to stamp out efforts to make government more transparent and is overstepping bounds to influence Council decisions and take away their power.

• George Smiley, Councilman, District 7

The three-term councilman has been the most vocal critic of Gordon.

The issue peaked on April 22, when county Director of Communications Antonio Prado issued a blistering press release the day before the audit was set to be made public. The three-page statement questioned Wasserbach's professionalism and knowledge of finance, calling the audit "a year-long misinformation campaign."

The release singles out Wasserbach, Smiley and Kilpatrick

• Janet Kilpatrick, Councilwoman, District 3

The two-term councilwoman from Hockessin has criticized Gordon, saying he has over-stepped his power in reading county employees' emails.

Kilpatrick, who alleges Gordon inspected her email during her re-election campaign last year, has proposed legislation to purchase a new email system that prevents the practice. Preliminary estimates show a new system could cost about $60,000 annually.

Story Highlights

• An ongoing dispute is raging between four or five New Castle County officials

• Bickering over reoccurring issues of transparency and trust is common

• Allegations include email snooping and politically motivated attacks

• Executive Tom Gordon is accused of undermining separation of powers

 

New Castle County government now is a soap opera plot full of twists and turns, whisper campaigns, allegations of dirty tricks and email snooping.

Consider the last council meeting of April: The 13 members approved a proclamation, made a committee appointment and authorized accepting grants. But the hearing focused on the minutiae of legislation Councilman George Smiley introduced to increase pay for certain County Council support staff.

The council passed the plan, but Executive Tom Gordon rejected it, saying that giving 10 employees a raise would lead to the other 2,000 county workers wanting the same. That sparked a larger debate about whether Gordon could tell the council what to do – and whether the council could override his veto.

"Now we are told by the administration that they will make decisions on council staff," said Smiley, a retired Teamsters official and co-chairman of the county Finance Committee who lives near New Castle. "When do each of us come together as a council and as a legislative body to send a message that we will not be bought, we will not be intimidated and we will operate independently?"

North Wilmington resident Dennis Bilinski attended the meeting and was surprised by the tone of officials.

"I think it is outrageous because everybody is just cutting each others' throats out there," he said. "I expect more professionalism. ... There are real problems they should be talking about.

New Castle County Councilman George Smiley, one of the more outspoken critics of the Tom Gordon administration, explains his rift with the New Castle County Executive. 5/14/15

The squabble highlights a growing acrimony among power brokers in county government, where four or five officials have spent months bickering over reoccurring issues of transparency and trust. The climate has spawned a tit-for-tat attitude among the key players, producing lengthy heated exchanges at public meetings, mocking emails and, in one case, a press release alleging improper conduct.

Together, the feuds have presented serious distractions for officials charged with governing some 550,000 residents.

Although Gordon's opponents acknowledge that the day-to-day business of government is operating fairly smoothly, since December virtually no substantial legislative initiatives have been passed.

This dysfunctional drama has a colorful cast.

On one side is Gordon, a former county police chief and possible gubernatorial candidate who says he's being targeted by a few council members who don't like him personally. He says there is lingering resentment over his 2012 victory over then-County Executive Paul Clark.

"They have nothing to do but attack. I have tried for 2½ years to be their friend. I'm not doing it anymore," he said.

New Castle County Executive Tom Gordon says there is lingering resentment among some in county government about his 2012 victory over then-County Executive Paul Clark.

In supporting roles are Gordon's second-in-command, David Grimaldi, a former Wall Street financial adviser who sought to discredit an audit of county investments, and his deputy, Samuel Guy, a lawyer and former Wilmington City Council member.

On the other side is county Auditor Robert Wasserbach, who authored an audit of a controversial county investment and whose emails with his friend, a Dover lobbyist, prompted some on the council to call for an outside investigation.

Wasserbach is joined by Gordon foes Smiley and Councilwoman Janet Kilpatrick, who say the county executive office wants to stamp out efforts to make government more transparent and is overstepping bounds to influence council decisions and take away its power.

In the wings are the 11 other council members, who are being forced to pick sides in this escalating political battle.

"From a perspective of civility, the relationship is at one of its low ebbs," said Councilman Bob Weiner, a two-decade council veteran who fashions himself as an ally of both factions

An attorney, Weiner regularly takes an informal lunch with council members before each Tuesday council meeting. He also is a longtime friend of Gordon, dating to their days on the Council of Civic Organizations of Brandywine Hundred.

Weiner said sometimes tension is a good thing between various factions of government, but he said the current climate and frequent infighting isn't productive.

"The executive and legislative branches of government would be better served by focusing on good government policy and avoiding the personal attacks, although vigilance on the part of both branches of government is necessary for the effective operation of government," he said.

Guy said it's just a matter of Gordon being pushed into a corner.

"You are starting to see what happens," he said, "when someone gets tired of being bullied."

Audit sparked mud-slinging, whisper campaign

The clash over pay increases is hardly Gordon's first. He waged numerous political battles during his first term as county executive, from 1997 to 2004, after working for more than two decades in the New Castle County Police Department.

His first executive stint also was marred by criminal allegations. Prosecutors filed racketeering, mail fraud and wire fraud charges against Gordon and then-Chief Administrative Officer Sherry Freebery, alleging the two convinced county employees to take part in campaign activities.

Both took plea deals. Felony charges against Gordon were dropped, and he pleaded guilty to misdemeanor counts of failing to keep accurate payroll records for two county employees. He received probation and a $300 fine.

Gordon, of Hockessin, bounced back to win the 2012 election after a bruising campaign that involved charges that Clark's wife, a land-use attorney, benefited from her husband's role. The events have made him especially sensitive to insinuations of improper behavior.

In his third term – a first in New Castle County history – Gordon has been praised for avoiding tax increases and for helping lead an anti-heroin public service campaign. He also has guided efforts to create a new port facility near New Castle and pushed for eliminating management positions and cutting the number of departments in half to save money.

Asked about his persona, Gordon said he's being unfairly portrayed.

"They will tell you I am the devil," Gordon said. "That is not the case.

Critics counter that Gordon – who still wears a gun in an ankle holster – is behaving as a police chief, making sure the council falls in line. Kilpatrick, a second-term council member from Hockessin, said Gordon doesn't respect how separate branches of government are meant to work.

"First of all, he is not our boss to begin with. It is not his responsibility to police us," she said. "Whether people want to believe it and act on it, we have separate branches of government."

'We are at war'

Personal attacks also are at the heart of the biggest drama to unfold in county government in recent months: the audit of county investments.

County Council, which oversees the auditor, assigned Wasserbach, of New Castle, to investigate how $92 million in tax reserves was transferred to a different investment manager, UBS, after Gordon took office in 2012.

The controversial change was made on the suggestion of Grimaldi, but the transfer didn't go out to bid. Grimaldi said the move took the money out of unsafe junk bonds, saved taxpayer money and didn't require council approval.

Executive office officials said the audit was spurred by Gordon's foes to insinuate his administration was up to no good.

"The auditor was hired to [mess] with Tom Gordon," said Guy, the deputy chief administrative officer. "They brought him in and said, 'Start to find stuff to take Gordon out.' "

Grimaldi said a similar transfer by Clark was done without going to bid, but didn't trigger an audit.

But what really made the audit unethical, Grimaldi said, were Wasserbach's political motivations. Grimaldi said Wasserbach timed when he made public comments updating the audit process to coincide with the primary of Kilpatrick, then campaigning on an anti-Gordon platform.

Grimaldi also pointed to Wasserbach's business relationship with lobbyist Rhett Ruggerio, of the Dover firm Ruggerio Willson & Associates. Wasserbach and Ruggerio co-own four Delaware rental properties. Grimaldi said the relationship is unethical because Ruggerio lobbied County Council on land-use issues.

The county solicitor last month moved to have all of Wasserbach's emails to Ruggerio made public, prompting the county Executive Committee to ask the state Attorney General's Office to investigate whether the auditor broke any rules.

Grimaldi also cited Wasserbach's 2012 audit of the Kent County Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, which Grimaldi said was self-serving. Wasserbach was a board member of the Faithful Friends Animal Society, a no-kill shelter. The KCSPCA did not have a no-kill policy.

In a March interview regarding the whisper campaign against Wasserbach, Grimaldi said the auditor can't be objective, given all his political ties.

"He is not allowed per state code to be political," he said.

The issue peaked on April 22, when county Director of Communications Antonio Prado issued a blistering press release the day before the audit was set to be made public. The three-page statement questioned Wasserbach's professionalism and knowledge of finance, calling the audit "a year-long misinformation campaign."

The release focuses on Wasserbach, Smiley and Kilpatrick, saying they have attacked the administration because of "their loss of unwarranted favoritism that they demand from the Executive Office of New Castle County." It also quotes Gordon as saying, "I've never seen an internal auditor make public comments about an audit he hadn't even begun, much less complete."

The press release also contained a copy of the audit, with comments from the executive office inserted, a day before it was scheduled to be officially released by Wasserbach.

In response, Smiley said Gordon was "off his friggin' rocker" for sending out the release.

In the end, the official audit was mostly tame, calling for the council to have a bigger role in overseeing investments and for the creation of an advisory board. The council will have to approve any changes. Guy said the audit is an attempt to "handcuff" Gordon's ability to carry out executive functions.

Wasserbach, who previously was Wilmington's auditor, denies any of his suggestions were politically motivated or that he collaborated with council members.

"It is kind of like an elementary school fight," Wasserbach said. "The audit is just recommendations. When management disagrees, it is usually done in a civilized fashion."

The day after the audit was released, Smiley sent a one-sentence email to Gordon referring to the end of his current term.

"Enjoy the next year and a half," Smiley said.

Gordon told The News Journal at the time, "We are at war."

Email searches under scrutiny

In his case, Wasserbach said officials in the executive office took advantage of the county email structure. The system is set up in such a way as to allow executive staff to view all correspondence on the county government server.

"I have no doubt that Mr. Grimaldi has looked at every single one of my emails," Wasserbach said. "He is on a search and destroy mission against me."

The email snooping allegation dates back years. Previous executives have signed pledges to not look at council emails; Gordon's administration has not agreed to the conditions.

Kilpatrick, who alleges Gordon inspected her email during her re-election campaign last year, has proposed legislation to purchase a new email system that prevents the practice. Preliminary estimates show a new system could cost about $60,000 annually.

A separate piece of legislation Kilpatrick introduced recently would fire executive staff found to be examining council correspondence and ban them from seeking public office for five years. Kilpatrick used Wasserbach as an example of how Gordon's authority goes too far.

"If you are being audited and you can go into [the auditor's] email and get the information he is gathering, that is a problem," Kilpatrick said. "How is the auditor supposed to do his job if he believes someone is looking at his emails?"

Gordon doesn't deny that he and executive staff inspect county staff emails, but he said the practice is limited only to searching for specific topics, not through individual mailboxes. He said having access to previous emails gives him a better knowledge of what was happening before he took office.

"I never go onto the computer and type in 'Janet' and look at her stuff," Gordon said. "I don't have time to sit here and say, 'Let me read their email.' "

He said the practice exists because Clark didn't keep proper records – and some records were destroyed.

Kilpatrick said the searches are another example of Gordon undermining separation of powers. She pointed to situations where the council and executive branch are in direct conflict, like when Gordon switched support of the executive's office to be against the rezoning for Barley Mill Plaza when he took office. Clark previously supported the plan, which called for a controversial commercial and office project at Del. 141 and Del. 48.

Gordon's change put him at odds with the council's support of the plan. A judge ultimately invalidated the rezoning.

Kilpatrick said constituents have expressed concern about who is reading emails they send to council members.

“People are afraid to report things like problems with their neighbors. They are afraid that if people other than the council member has read the information, then who knows where it can go.”

"People are afraid to report things like problems with their neighbors," she said. "They are afraid that if people other than the council member has read the information, then who knows where it can go."

Gordon said state code allows his staff to access the correspondence and county workers see a disclaimer every time they log onto their computer that the information isn't private.

"I'm not going to waive my right under the code," Gordon said. "As soon as they can [get their own system], God bless them."

Gordon said his searches have revealed council members negotiating government action with department heads behind his back, purposefully keeping him in the dark. He also found dishonest dealings between council members, land developers and land use attorneys, Gordon said.

He offered examples of alleged wrongdoing by Smiley and Kilpatrick. Gordon's office denied a request by The News Journal to inspect records showing what information was searched and when, saying no such search history exists.

After being approached by The News Journal to comment about Gordon's allegations, Smiley and Kilpatrick last week filed a FOIA request seeking the correspondence.

Smiley said the technique shows how Gordon operates.

"You want to run a smear campaign on me, I am going to call him to produce the evidence," he said. "He may use some of that stuff to get people to vote how he wants, but he don't have it on freaking me and that is his problem."

A stalemate on spending

John Flaherty, president of the Delaware Coalition for Open Government, said New Castle County officials are doing citizens a disservice by waging attacks. He said they should direct complaints to the county Ethics Commission instead of taking issues personally or conducting "email wars."

"They are showing an immaturity and lack of respect for the public by having all this bickering and fighting," Flaherty said. "They need to conduct themselves with civility in accordance with open government laws."

Council President Chris Bullock acknowledged there are divisions in county government, but he said, "The incivility is not the entire council."

Bullock said that while he would like personalities to stay out of politics, there are a few on the council who speak their mind and were voted in for that purpose. He said there is a history of "conflict and confrontation" between the executive office and the council.

"Fortunately or unfortunately," he said, "it is part of government."

Gordon said the ongoing discord has distracted him and the council from tackling serious issues, like job creation. He also wants to prioritize making sure the county is safe against terrorism attacks.

Angst from Smiley, Kilpatrick and Wasserbach is rooted in their allegiance to Clark, Gordon said. Smiley also is looking for revenge because of how the current administration handled Barley Mill, he said.

Smiley disagrees, saying the battle dates to when he served as chair of the 16th Representative District Democratic Committee in 2004 and refused to follow Gordon's request to kill the committee's candidate-nomination process.

"If I didn't do it, he said he would guarantee me opposition" during the next campaign for council, Smiley said. "Intimidation doesn't work now, and it didn't work then."

Kilpatrick denied any favoritism to Clark, but said Clark's administration was more open to council questions.

"We knew every time they sold a dog license," Kilpatrick said. "Did we argue with them and vote things down once in a while? Yes. But when you didn't feel like something is being hidden from you, it made all the difference in the world."

Gordon acknowledges he has asked executive staff, including Grimaldi, to lobby council members on his behalf. Guy also has used the public comment portion of council meetings to confront council members about insinuations of wrongdoing.

"If I am doing too good, they say I am running for governor," Gordon said, arguing some on council are persistent naysayers. "But, I won't let them call me a criminal."

The feud presents itself in both petty and serious ways. For example, Smiley has been openly critical of spending for Sleep Under the Stars, a free festival Gordon started during his first term but was discontinued years later. Gordon launched it again when he returned to office. The program is held twice a year at two locations – Rockwood Park and the Carousel Park & Equestrian Center in Pike Creek.

Smiley called it one of the "feel-good programs" in Gordon's administration, adding that county officials weren't transparent about the costs.

“I'm tired, at every level of government, of people when it benefits them, bloviating on transparency and open government, but when you ask them for information, they don't give them to you.”

Budget hearings in recent months have been a regular opportunity for Smiley to remind everyone about his pending information requests. At one point he threatened to stall the entire $250 million county budget process until he got answers from Gordon staffers on a laundry list of government expenses.

"I'm tired, at every level of government, of people when it benefits them, bloviating on transparency and open government, but when you ask them for information, they don't give them to you," Smiley said.

The fighting also continues over Smiley's proposal to re-assess the values of each property in the county. This would cost an estimated $15 million to implement. Smiley has suggested they could tap into the reserve fund, which has about $100 million.

Gordon is adamant about preserving the fund, which he considers one of his key accomplishments. When he took office in 1997, New Castle County had a $100 million projected shortfall, which was reduced through savings and budget cuts. Taxes have not been raised under his watch.

The reassessment plan is an effort to "hang a tax increase" around his neck, Gordon said, which he won't do.

Gordon said that's also why he has rejected a plan by Smiley to increase council staff salaries.

"You don't care about assessment or salaries," Gordon said. "You are just trying to get me to do a tax increase."

The tit-for-tat could result in a stalemate on budget issues. Smiley, as co-chairman of the Finance Committee, said the administration is ducking his questions on spending. In response, he's threatened to indefinitely table measures, effectively railroading the process to approve the operating budget.

Smiley said Gordon's techniques, especially using Grimaldi to exert pressure on elected officials, is inappropriate.

"[There are] two ways this can end: One of us leaves office, or his chief administrative officer is gone," Smiley said. "I personally believe his CAO is a virus infecting this county."

Kilpatrick said relations could improve with more openness and trust.

"It started because there is no communication. Our distrust goes up, and we start questioning them. The more we question them, the more defensive they get. And when they are defensive with us, we are defensive with them," Kilpatrick said. "We all, in the end, lose."

Gordon also said he's ready to make progress on a new community center on Del. 9 and start more job-creation programs.

"I really think we could get more done if we worked together," he said.

Gordon also admits recent rhetoric toward council members could have been toned down, and said the audit press release could have been handled better.

Smiley recently got his answers about how much Sleep Under the Stars cost. At a budget hearing, Community Services General Manager Sophia Hanson provided a breakdown of costs. It showed $60,000 being spent for the Rockwood Park event.

Smiley thanked her. "For the first time in my short tenure on council, somebody went above and beyond what I asked for," he said. "I just wanted the information."

Bullock said he's also working on consensus-building. Behind the scenes he hopes "to cool down the personal flames to not derail government."

"As long as we stay out of gridlock procedurally and legislatively, we will be fine," Bullock said. "We are not a do-nothing council. We are council of 13 personalities, and sometimes it is cool. Sometimes it is combustible."

 

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