‘Sad day’ for Dover councilman as colleagues admonish him for speaking out on city issues

DOVER — Dover City Councilman Brian Lewis called it “a sad day” after saying he was recently chastised by Legislative, Finance and Administration committee member Daniel Shevock for expressing his views on city issues through public forums.

Mr. Shevock said that some issues that Mr. Lewis wrote about in letters to the editors of local newspapers, including the Delaware State News, and speaking to reporters should have been made in the chamber – not to the media – at the Council Committee of the Whole Meeting on Oct. 11.

Mr. Lewis takes exception to Mr. Shevock’s suggestion, saying he always tries to be as transparent as possible and always tries to reach out to his constituents whether it’s through newspapers or social media.

“Not speaking for all my fellow councilmen, but I believe it is prudent that as a locally elected official my constituents should be aware of what is happening in the city of Dover, what the issues are, and why I am in favor or opposed to a particular issue,” said Mr. Lewis, who is a representative of the Second District.

He added, “It’s become a sad day in this nation, state and city when someone tries to suppress another’s liberties of exercising their right to free speech, especially an elected representative of the people.”

Brian Lewis

Brian Lewis

Mr. Shevock could not be reached for comment on Friday.

Councilman Lewis offered a proposal at the regular City Council meeting on Oct. 10 that he believes will improve the recruitment and selection process for city boards and committees.

After the meeting, Mr. Lewis said, “This will make sure we don’t just appoint anybody and that we just appoint qualified people. I think it’s important that the people of the community get involved.

“I implore members of the community to go out there and apply because it’s important to get involved and see what goes on and be a part of the city process.”

According to the minutes from the Council Committee of the Whole meeting on Oct. 11 – the following night – Mr. Shevock requested that Mr. Lewis explain his statement to the newspaper, and expressed his belief that it should have been made in the chamber, rather than to the media. He noted that Mr. Lewis had done this several times in the past.

Mr. Shevock asked Mr. Lewis who he thought wasn’t qualified to be on a city committee. He said that Mr. Lewis’ statement “was a smack to anyone who is serving on the committees” and “there may be a mass exodus from the committees” as a result.

Responding, Mr. Lewis said that he had not indicated that current board members were not qualified. He said that he believes the boards should not be politicized and that there was a need for a better recruitment process and to put qualified people on the boards.

Mr. Shevock didn’t feel that was what Mr. Lewis had said and indicated that he took offense to it. He advised that when Mr. Lewis “publishes this in the paper, people read it.”

The dispute led Mr. Lewis to contact the American Civil Liberties Union to get a legal opinion and total clarity of his constitutional rights.

“For the record this is the second time within this year that I had to contact the ACLU to request a legal opinion as far as expressing my personal opinions both verbally, on Facebook and in writing with regard to informing my constituents of city matters and being transparent,” Mr. Lewis said.

Richard H. Morse, legal director for the ACLU, responded with an email to Mr. Lewis dated Oct. 12, saying, “You have a constitutional right to speak out when you disagree with city council decisions and write letters to the newspapers.

“The First Amendment applies to that, just like it applies to other speech. In fact, you might say it’s stronger since writing a Letter to the Editor implicates the rights of both free speech and freedom of the press.”

Mr. Morse’s email to Mr. Lewis concluded by saying, “Again, the First Amendment gives you the same right to speak out or write letters to the newspapers that everyone else has.

“Other people may denounce you for what you say or write and you are, of course, subject to the libel laws and such, but I am aware of no reason why your position on Dover City Council would deprive you of that right.”

Councilman David Anderson defended Councilman Lewis’s remarks.

“Part of the job of a member of council is to communicate with the public about his or her decisions,” he said.

Mr. Anderson strongly believes that if council’s discussion is limited to council chambers, they are not doing their jobs, because most of the public does not attend the meetings.

He added that “this is why members hold town hall meetings, write letters to the editor, and speak with the press when they ask questions.”

Mr. Anderson said those kinds of things are fundamentally council’s job. Otherwise, they cannot gain any input back from the public.

Mr. Lewis said he is always looking for different platforms to keep his constituents informed.

“Martin Luther King, Jr. once said, ‘Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter,’” he said.

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