Sussex County Council bids farewell to Burton, Wilson

GEORGETOWN — Goodbyes can sometimes be sentimental — and enlightening.

Irwin “I.G.” Burton

Sussex County Council’s Tuesday session marked the final scheduled meetings for outgoing council members Irwin “I.G.” Burton, who brought business experience from several decades in his family automobile dealership and a lengthy stint on the Planning & Zoning Commission, and Samuel Wilson Jr., a conservative whose roots are planted deep with passion for the farming community and property rights.

Mr. Wilson, 82, the District 2 representative from rural Georgetown, served 12 years on council. He did not seek a fourth term. He won his council seat in the 2008 election, accompanied that year by longtime Council President Michael Vincent of Seaford.

Samuel Wilson Jr.

“I didn’t know Sam. In 12 years, I think I’ve come to know Sam pretty well,” said Councilman Vincent. “We’re good friends. The good thing … when the conversation is over, Sam is never mad. He’s got his visions. Sam is a farmer … loves farming, loves the farming community. It has been interesting.”

Mr. Burton, who lost a tight Republican primary race won by Mark Schaeffer in September, has served four years as District 3’s representative.

“I say this in all sincerity, when you came on council, I think you came on for one reason — to make Sussex County a better place,” said Councilman Vincent to Mr. Burton. “You’ve done a great deal for Sussex County and the people of Sussex County.”

Former County Councilman George Cole, who, after 32 years, stepped down in 2018 as the longest-serving council member in Sussex County history, was on hand for the recognition tribute.

“I’ll just say this: Sam is like a father to me, and I.G. was like a brother. So you can imagine what our dinners were like,” said Mr. Cole. “Sam, there is never going to be another person like you on County Council, I don’t believe. There have been times when I sat there with Sam, and you want to talk about a hardheaded man … he had his own opinion, and you couldn’t really change it. And to get Sam Wilson to say yes or no to something was almost impossible.”

Mr. Cole said Mr. Burton brought preparation perspective to council.

“Sam and I — and I won’t mention any other names — we’d just come in and operate by the seat of our pants. We weren’t really prepared,” said Mr. Cole. “But I.G. was prepared, and he called it ‘noodling.’ He spent all week noodling on every darn issue we had. So he knew everything.”

County Administrator Todd Lawson spoke of the departing council members’ legacies. Mr. Lawson noted that Mr. Wilson was on council when he was hired in his current administrative position.

“I will forever be indebted … you (were) one of the original members of council that hired me and took a chance on a guy coming back to Sussex County,” said Mr. Lawson. “It’s been a great ride. Speaking of rides, we spent many hours in vehicles going to Dover, and I will miss those stories, of you and your time here in Sussex County. Most of the time I didn’t get to say much. You spoke of the time. I was able to learn a lot. Anyone that has followed County Council knows you are a man of conviction and you stick to your guns.

“There are not many people that come in here and actually leave with a term — staff and attorneys and consultants have come to know the ‘Wilson Rule,’ which is a rule that we took to heart because of your disdain for regulation,” Mr. Lawson added. “Any time that we were able to come forward with an ordinance, we were told to do so in a manner where the ordinance got smaller, which was emblematic of the Wilson Rule — make less regulation.”

Addressing Mr. Burton, who served eight years on the Sussex County Planning & Zoning Commission before joining council, Mr. Lawson showed appreciation.

“It was an honor to work with you for four years. We learned a lot,” he said. “And trying to decipher your text messages and your letters … one of your legacies is we all know what CWTP (call when time permits) means. I will say … you are a big thinker and a big doer. One thing that can be said, the thoughts that you were trying to implement, issues you were trying to tackle were always for the best interest of this county. Not everyone agreed with you. But you had the best interest of this county at heart. That is going to be your legacy.”

Councilman Doug Hudson of District 4 agreed.

“Sam and I.G. have been great mentors to me,” said Councilman Hudson, who took the seat held previously by Mr. Cole in 2019.

Among those who phoned in tributes was former County Councilman Rob Arlett, who left office after 2018 after serving on council four years.

“It was a true honor and joy to work with you,” said Mr. Arlett. “The county is better off because of both of you.”

District 5 Councilman John Rieley, at home in self-imposed quarantine following a COVID-19 case within his extended family, offered recollections by phone.

He recalls guessing wrong when he picked Mr. Wilson to finish last in a three-way primary, which Mr. Wilson won.“Ever since then, always, I’ve said I’ll never bet against Sam Wilson again. I am going to miss you, especially,” said Councilman Rieley. “I.G., it has been a pleasure to work with you. I respect and admire your creative process, your thoughtfulness. You always had the best interest of the county at heart.”

Longtime County Attorney Everett Moore, who resides in Mr. Wilson’s district, shared his remembrances.

“Sam, thank you very much for not only your service but your friendship. I appreciate that,” said Mr. Moore, who also acknowledged Mr. Burton, for bringing “extreme thoughtfulness to what you have looked at and worked on.”

Mr. Burton thanked his family during his last meeting.

“It has been a great run. It really has,” said Mr. Burton, who offered appreciation to his wife, Julie, for putting up with him and the sometimes demanding and hectic schedule during his four years on council.

Eul Lee, one of several Sussex Countians who phoned in commentary and accolades, said she is hoping for the day when she can spend hours with Mr. Wilson to “enlighten me about our farmers in Sussex County.”

“And Councilman Burton, thank you for service, as well. Even though I didn’t agree on everything you were for, I appreciate your commitment to making Sussex County better,” she said.

Mr. Burton said he leaves council confident that the county is in secure financial hands through the leadership and guidance of Mr. Lawson and County Finance Director Gina Jennings.

“The community doesn’t know how protective you are of their money. In government, somebody can really think differently because it is not their money. When I was in the automobile business, it was my money, it was my risk,” said Mr. Burton. “The taxpayers ought to be thankful that you have that concern. The heavy lifting that we did during these four years, it just wouldn’t have gotten done without the taskmaster of Todd Lawson and the finance direction from Gina Jennings.”

Mr. Cole shared a behind-the-scenes subplot.

“Sam would go to a conference. Sam was very frugal with the county’s money,” Mr. Cole said. “We’d come back, and we’d look at our expenses, and Sam hardly had anything. You’d say, ‘Did you ever eat anything, Sam?’ That’s because every free meal that was being provided, Sam was there. And Sam had these big pockets in his jacket. Sometimes, there would be like grease marks at the bottom of his pockets, where he had put the fried chicken. And what he was doing is he was taking it back up to his wife, Helen. Sam was at every free meal in the darn place.”

Mr. Wilson will be replaced on council by Greenwood resident Cindy Green, the current recorder of wills who emerged the winner in a three-way GOP primary that included Mr. Wilson’s son, Robert Wilson, and Lisa Hudson Briggs.

The elder Wilson, whose 12-year council tenure was punctuated by several serious health setbacks, including a stroke in October 2015, said he leaves with several subtle reminders: Agriculture remains top economic dog in Sussex County, and faith is the basis for a good life.

“I don’t think you people realize how hard farmers work. I’ve milked cows by hand … delivered a calf,” said Mr. Wilson, who still lives on the farm where he was born and raised. “And if you don’t know Jesus Christ, you missed it. I taught Sunday school for about 40 years. I stand for what I believe in.”