It was encouraging to see that New Castle County will now require elected and senior government officials to disclose any potential personal or family conflicts with county business. This is a small, common-sense step that should help increase confidence in the governing process and even hopefully avert some real problems – particularly when it comes to the bedeviled arena of land use and development – and it is something I advocated on these pages five years ago as chair of the New Castle County Republican Committee.
The Gordon administration deserves credit for making this overdue change happen, but the fact such a prosaic proposal is still needed in 2014 is bewildering and should tell you something about the prevailing mindset of too many in our local governing class.
That is to say, that even after extensive reporting on the Barley Mill fiasco and the subsequent primary defeat of County Executive Paul Clark, very few politicians publicly disavowed the kind of ethical missteps that led to that spectacle to begin with. (As if reminders are needed, Clark’s wife, a lawyer for the Barley Mill developer, had actively pressed her client’s case with people in her husband’s employ, perhaps having some influence on a determination by county planners that traffic studies weren’t required to approve the largest real estate project in county history.)
Further down Rte. 1 in Dover, it would appear that Tom Gordon’s without-breaking-a-sweat political victories in New Castle County aren’t getting much attention. Despite former Senate President Pro Tem Tony Deluca being bounced in the same primary cycle as Clark after withering media attention around his own ethical challenges – among other factors, his “full-time” job with the state Department of Labor – legislative leaders don’t appear to be in any hurry to enact meaningful reforms.
Take the practice of legislative double-dipping.
Most high school civics students would recognize that elected legislators simultaneously serving in government positions presents a troubling challenge to a fundamental precept of our system – the separation of powers. And politicians taking government jobs after their elections would strike most reasonable people as not just an obvious conflict of interest, but also freighted with at least the appearance of an abuse of power.
Yet it has been well documented over the years that members of our General Assembly and/or their family members have regularly landed positions (and the benefits and pensions that go with them) in state government or with agencies receiving significant public funds. At one point a few years back, the News Journal estimated that fully one-third of the members of the Legislature fit this description.
A modest proposal offered by Senator Greg Lavelle, SB 50, would remedy this seemingly obvious conflict by prohibiting legislators from taking government jobs while in office (it would not prevent current government employees from serving in the legislature, although one could argue that would make sense too). Yet the bill sits in committee, awaiting a vote that most likely will never come.
Cronyism is nothing new and certainly not unique to our state, but the extent to which our government and the Legislature have become intertwined has to be a cause for concern.
After all, the public sector is now Delaware’s largest employer. That means that government itself has become a constituency, and a powerful one at that. Which raises a bottom-line question: How can an elected body carry out their constitutional responsibilities if the government they are funding and overseeing is them?
Taxpayers have every right to expect their government is staffed by professional public servants, focused full-time on serving in that capacity. At the federal level strict rules are in place to help ensure this is the case. For example, the Hatch Act prohibits certain partisan political activity among government employees and members of Congress are restricted from leaving their seat to be appointed to any civil office which has been created during their tenure.
Senator Ted Kaufman recently correctly pointed to the pressing need to recruit and retain talented, experienced and ambitious people in government. I would imagine it to be quite demotivating and demoralizing for civil servants to see legislators slotted into roles in their departments, be they qualified or not.
Senator Lavelle’s bill should get a vote. It is time to end a situation that isn’t good for public trust and is probably even worse for the public purse.