Let them eat nothing

When more than two members of Sussex County Council gather together in the same room (except in a legal executive session), it’s the same as if they were gathered together for their weekly meeting in council chambers. That means the meeting is open to the press and public – even if they don’t want to come.

That’s a hard concept for many people to grasp. So when a special interest group or other organization schedules a meeting, luncheon or dinner with county council they can’t have council all to themselves. Accommodations have to be made for the press and public as well. That doesn’t stop some from trying either out of ignorance of the law or blatant disregard for the public’s right to know what their elected officials are up to.

The council has at least three, and probably more, of these type of functions on a regular basis with the Sussex Conservation District, the Sussex County Land Trust and the Sussex County Association of Realtors.

Over the past two years, the Realtors, or at least someone on staff, have refused to allow members of the public and press to attend the annual Sussex County Appreciation Day luncheon. This year’s event took place Tuesday, Aug. 17. Last year, I called the office and was told the luncheon was a closed event. I didn’t pursue it because I couldn’t attend anyway. But this year, I was determined to dig in my heels, read someone the Freedom of Information Act and find out exactly what was going on at this “closed” event.

I didn’t have to. Rehoboth Beach resident John Walsh asked to attend this year’s luncheon and received the same answer I did the previous year: no way. Walsh contacted county officials and a long chain of emails ensued. To make a long story short, after some intervention from Chip Guy, a former journalist who is now the county’s director of public information, and Councilwoman Joan Deaver, the luncheon went from closed to open. It appears there was a misunderstanding.

Four of us showed up as observers and were seated in the back of the room against the wall. We were told we could not partake of the buffet, even though there was enough food left to feed dozens more. Ruth Briggs King, state representative and executive vice president of the association, was kind enough to hand us all programs. The entire affair, which featured a report on county housing statistics, was over in about an hour.

I don’t totally blame the association for its action. Someone from the county should have explained to the association that county council meetings are open to the public. Perhaps they forgot.

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4 Responses to “Let them eat nothing”

  1. Jeanne Sisk Says:

    Ron thank you for the explanation of what occurred. Did they forget or didn’t know it was a quorum? Not so, they did know.
    When I asked three members to visit Sea Air Village, for a tour, the answer was, they could not attend with three of them, that was a quorum.
    Only two could come at one time.
    Did they know, Oh Yeah, they knew.
    This County has gotten away with so much for so long. If it wasn’t for my Shed mess, it would probably continue. This mess with the Shed brought attention to how this County conducts business.
    This good ole boys network is coming to an end. There really are Codes and they really are to obey them, that is why they are there.
    This County has interpreted everything and anything their way, no more, they are now being watched, by people that are educated and understand what is really gone on.
    Hopefully many in this County will look for other employment, or retire.
    Jeanne Sisk

  2. John Walsh Says:

    I think is is important that Council employees know the terms of the law, and not permit private organizations to have “gatekeeper” authority regarding County Council.

  3. Margaret McKay Says:

    I’m not sure that the Council was acting in accordance with DE’s FOIA law when it barred the general public from speaking at its latest luncheon meeting. A Chancery Court opinion suggests that when the public body allows a non-member to speak at a public meeting, it can’t prohibit comments from any other member of the public.
    Reeder v. Department of Insurance, C.A. No. 1553-N, Mem. Op. at 26-27, 2006 WL 510067 (Feb. 24, 2006) (Strine, V.C.)

  4. Sandy Spence Says:

    Ron, what about that picnic Vance Phillips is promoting? I’d venture to say there will be at least three Council members there. That sounds as if it would come under FOIA, but if the public wanted to attend, it would cost $30.

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