Last week I reflected on the unfortunate missteps by both the Stoltz organization and New Castle County Government – willful and otherwise – that led to last week’s contentious and unsatisfying Council vote on the rezoning of the 92-acre tract known as Barley Mill Plaza. Now, with County Executive Paul Clark’s recusal from the matter, we have a fitting coda to this sad spectacle.
According to the News Journal, county attorney Gregg Wilson has explained that “Clark recused himself from signing the ordinance approving the plan…because of the possibility of the appearance of a conflict of interest.”
“Possibility of an appearance” of a conflict?
We are way past the point of appearances. What we have here – as any small child could tell you – is a de facto conflict. One with real consequences.
Of course it is nothing new. Less than a year ago Clark was admonished by the County Ethics Commission for “adversely affect[ing] the public confidence in his impartiality by presiding over a matter involving his wife’s business.”
It wasn’t until after Clark became County Executive – a fait accompli once Chris Coons was elected the US Senate – that he and his wife grudgingly acknowledged the absurdity of their simultaneous career paths with her decision to step down as a partner – and lead Stoltz attorney –with one of the state’s leading real estate law firms.
The problem is, this conflict has now led to an abrogation of duty – a situation in which the chief political representative in a county of 500,000 citizens is unable to fulfill his duties on arguably the single most important and controversial land-use issue to come before the county in a generation. Instead, we have him “delegating” the decision as to whether the Stoltz rezoning legislation should be vetoed or endorsed to an unelected deputy. Moreover, we have come to learn that said deputy is serving as both chief legal counsel for the county government as well as acting chief administrative officer and therefore, acting county executive in the case of the Stoltz matter.
This raises all manner of troubling questions.
First, is it really appropriate or a best practice for the county attorney to serve the dual role of chief deputy to the executive? Wouldn’t it be better for the county administration to be receiving independent legal advice from a separate office? Isn’t that yet another conflict? Like being your own client?
And although Mr. Wilson says Mr. Clark did not influence his decision on the Stoltz rezoning, might he have had any contact with Clark’s wife Pam Scott on the matter? Further, has Ms. Scott had any further discussions with any county personnel on the Stoltz issue since disavowing all involvement in the matter?
Public records presumably will answer some of these questions. Public elections – we can only hope – the others.