Dan Kramer: Longtime governmental watchdog passes away

GREENWOOD – Public commentary at Sussex County Council meetings just won’t be the same.

Rural Greenwood resident Daniel J. Kramer, a self-proclaimed governmental watchdog who for years sparred with Sussex County Council, Woodbridge School District and other governing entities, passed away Monday following a brief illness, according to his wife Martha Kramer.

Mr. Kramer had been hospitalized since early August.

In his trademark dark blue work shirt and pants, Mr. Kramer, usually seated at a table in the rear of council chambers, regularly attended county council sessions Tuesday mornings at the County Administration Building on The Circle in Georgetown.

Frequently he challenged council and county government on agenda, procedural, personnel and executive session issues, sometimes resorting to Freedom of Information Act complaints filed with Delaware Attorney General’s Office.

“It was what he thought. I guess he thought he had a calling,” said Sussex County Council President Michael Vincent. “At the end of the day I think the man thought all governments need to have somebody just keep an eye on what they are doing, so you feel like you just can’t go and do everything you want, how you want it, when you want it, because somebody is going to keep an eye on you.”

“He wanted you know it was him. I certainly don’t want to fault the man. It was what Dan Kramer thought Dan Kramer should do,” said Mr. Vincent. “And Lord knows he would – justified or not in some cases – certainly call you to task.”

Greenwood resident Dan Kramer is pictured speaking at a public hearing in county council chambers at the Sussex County Administration Building. Mr. Kramer, a longtime governmental watchdog, passed away Monday.

Woodbridge School District was also under Mr. Kramer’s watch, notably during Dr. Kevin Carson’s tenure as superintendent up through 2011, and then for several more years.

“He was a unique individual. He was well-versed in FOIA,” said Dr. Carson, currently Sussex Tech School District’s Acting Superintendent. “As difficult as he could be, he also made you a better administrator. Obviously, we didn’t agree terribly often about how we should proceed forward. He certainly had his point of view regarding taxes and schools. We usually had our point of view and they usually weren’t the same thing.”

“He made me better at my job. He did,” said current Woodbridge Superintendent Heath Chasanov. “Especially procedures, he was really big on making sure that as a school district and a board that we followed procedures. So, I knew if I was setting up a process and that Dan was going to be there, I had to really research it. If he thought he was right, he would call you on it. And he knew the law. He wasn’t right all the time, but he was right a lot.”

Mr. Chasanov recalls his first interaction as superintendent with Mr. Kramer was when Mr. Kramer challenged his hiring by the Woodbridge school board in August 2012 over a posting irregularity.

“My first dealing with Dan was he questioned the way the board hired me. So, the very first meeting he questioned the way that the vote took place, or the procedural process that I was hired under. And, the board re-voted. So, because of Dan, they voted on me twice,” Mr. Chasanov said. “He was either right or we just decided it wasn’t worth fighting. But he was probably right. And we went ahead and re-posted and voted again the next month.”

Mr. Vincent recalled that Mr. Kramer mounted a similar challenge when the county council hired Todd Lawson as County Administrator. “He thought we didn’t do something the right way. So, we actually redid it. We redid what he was thought wrong,” said Mr. Vincent.

While he didn’t officially win every FOIA complaint, Mr. Kramer relished his FOIA complaints as “victories.” He often said by doing this “they will know that I am out there … watching.”

“The good news is for the council, every time he brought something up, he wasn’t always correct,” Mr. Vincent said. “But he would certainly call you to task if he thought you weren’t following the rules right by the letter of the law. Let’s just say we knew he was in the building and we looked forward to his comments, even though sometimes we might not have cared for them.”

While at the podium in public commentary at council sessions, Mr. Kramer would sometimes refer to members of Sussex County Council as “turkeys.”

That didn’t sit well with council.

But Mr. Vincent says deep down “I don’t know that he had any ill will towards anybody. I really don’t think he did it to be mean. In his mind he thought what he was doing was the right thing, that somebody should be watching what the government is doing. And there is nothing wrong with somebody watching you and checking on what you are doing. We are all human beings and we all can make a mistake.”

Mr. Chasanov said Mr. Kramer’s challenges sometimes resulted “in either a change in the way we were doing something, or an Attorney General’s Office recommendation that, ‘It is not necessarily wrong, but you can do it better.’”

“It got to the point where I would call Dan, and say, ‘Look, here is what I’m going to do. You tell me where I am wrong.’ And he would come in at times. I’d have him come in the office,” said Mr. Chasanov. “When you know somebody is looking at what you’re doing you want to make sure you are doing it right. There were times where he would leave the office, he would change the way I would be doing something. And there were other times we’d agree to disagree, and it would go through the process.”

“He made me better at my job. Again, it wasn’t always pleasant. As a new superintendent he just kept me on my toes. I think that’s good,” Mr. Chasanov said. “I do miss not seeing him out there. Deep down Dan was a good person. He had a strong belief that government was for the people and that if there were rules, they needed to be followed.”

“Again, I think what is important is condolences to Martha and the rest of the family, but also to say that he kept you on your toes,” said Dr. Carson. “He certainly was a worthy adversary in a lot of ways. Definitely, a character; he is one of those unforgettable figures. He really was.”

“Bless his soul, I think he had it in his heart that he was doing the right thing for the people,” said Mr. Vincent. “You can’t fault somebody for that. He was doing what Dan Kramer thought Dan Kramer should do. He did a good job for the public in making sure in his mind that county council was doing what they should be doing. Lord knows we’re all going to miss him. It will be kind of lonely there at that back chair. “