Dover Council vote on city structure ‘caused a lot of confusion’

DOVER — Mercurial March saw Dover City Council finally voting — after more than a year of blowing hot, then cold on the notion — to make the mayor the city’s chief executive.

Two weeks later, however, council backpedaled, voting Monday to rescind the March 9 decision.

Some on council are concerned about the message being sent to the community.

“Everyone said we want to run our government like a business,” said Councilman Timothy Slavin, “and I would submit, unfortunately, that if we were a business we would be fired.”

On March 9 council voted to have all departments, except the city clerk’s office and the finance department, report to the city manager who, in turn, would then report to the mayor.

However, council rescinded that vote at its next meeting, on Monday.

Instead, it approved a motion that has all departments, excluding the city clerk’s office and the finance department, reporting to the city manager. The city manager will report to council, who appoints the manager.

However, the mayor’s position would remain full time.

During Monday night’s meeting Mr. Slavin made a motion for the issue to be tabled until after the municipal election on April 21. The motion failed 5-3.

“Our action two weeks ago caused a lot of confusion on the part of voters and now we’re two weeks closer to the election,” Mr. Slavin said during Monday night’s meeting.

“As candid as I can be, we caused a certain degree of embarrassment to the city with our actions. We didn’t get it right the first time, now we want to undo it. Now we want to change the course 180 degrees and say that’s what we really meant.”

Dover City Council President David Bonar

Dover City Council President David Bonar

At Monday’s meeting council also canceled its March 9 decision to make the mayor the chief executive of the city. That action was requested by Council President David Bonar, who called the decision made on March 9 an unintentional change.

“In reading how this motion was presented at the last meeting, what we did was move any authority that this body has over the city government and placed it in the hands in one individual and took the power of council away,” Mr. Bonar said. “I think amending the wording takes care of that.”

“The change was necessary because a city manager is hired based on his or her qualifications, coming from their training, education and experience, to run a city government, Mr. Bonar said.

“An elected mayor would not necessarily have those credentials. “We’re getting so complex that we need people with specialized knowledge and training to hold that office.”

Mayoral reaction

While the mayor has the power to veto council’s decision, council can override a veto with a two-thirds majority vote.

Mayor Robin Christiansen announced Friday he will not use his veto power. However, he hopes council members will reconsider their actions and open a broad public discussion about changes needed for the city’s structure.

“I want to make clear to the residents that I feel the issue is not directed to me personally,” Mayor Christiansen said Friday. “A veto by me will be interpreted as a power move, and that’s not my intention or purpose with the most sacred legislative tool that’s available to the chief executive of the city and that is the veto.

“It’s the responsibilities of the mayor and council to work as a team for the common good of our citizens …”

Charter concerns

Longtime civil rights leader Cecil Wilson, who resigned from the Dover Human Relations Commission Tuesday citing actions by city council over the past few months, agreed with Mr. Slavin.

Cecil Wilson

Cecil Wilson

“I think it needs to be tabled as well,” Mr. Wilson said. “Residents are going to sleep with one form of government in place and then waking up to find out that it has changed again.

It seems like they’re rushing the process.”

Mayor Christiansen said changes to the charter must be made before anything will take effect.

The standard process for proposed changes first must be approved in council’s Legislative, Finance and Administration Committee.

The committee moves the proposal to the full council, which also must review, debate and approve the changes.

From there, under the state law, changes in any municipal charter must be approved by Delaware’s General Assembly, which may require additional changes.

Also any changes in the city’s government may require changes to the city’s consent decree, which resulted from a 1985 lawsuit.

“I think that’s an actual point for discussion,” Mayor Christiansen said. “There are certain parts in the consent decree as to where if any changes were to be made it’s important to have Mr. Wilson or the NAACP to decide if they want to sit down and talk to us about it.

“A lot of changes made to city government will revolve around that consent decree.”
Mr. Wilson was the lead plaintiff of the NAACP vs. City of Dover lawsuit by the NAACP Central Delaware Branch 2028.

The Central Delaware branch of the National Association for Advancement of Colored People and Mr. Wilson brought plaintiff action against the city of Dover, then-Mayor Crawford J. Carroll and Dover elected commissioners for a violation of the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

The NAACP sued the city in 1985, charging that at-large election of council members and dual registration requirements were discriminatory and violated the Voting Rights Act of 1964.

The NAACP demanded that elections be by district and that the council redesign districts so that at least one would contain a 65 percent minority population.

After the lawsuit was settled, the regular municipal election in April 1989 selected candidates from four new districts, along with an at-large pick. The council president would come from the elected membership, serving as vice mayor with the right to vote at all times.

Also beginning in May 1989 after a charter change, the city operated in a nine-member council format with a mayor serving as ex-officio member of all council committees but having no vote.

Going forward

Mr. Wilson said he’s willing to work with anyone regarding him being a proponent of the 1988 agreement.

“I didn’t want there to be a conflict of interest,” Mr. Wilson said. “That’s why I wanted to resign, as well because I wanted to be able to speak about the situation freely.

“I’m willing to work with the city and discuss anything regarding the consent decree.”

There’s no timetable as to when any changes will be made, but Mr. Bonar hopes this time around council will be more deliberate and precise when the items are discussed.

“It’s a process that we’re going to work on as a team,” Mr. Bonar said. “When it comes to the city government we hope to make sure the actions made by council are smooth, everything is clear and everyone is on board with the changes being made when that time comes.”

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