Students get civics lesson at County Government Day

High school juniors in Boys State and Girls State are briefed on the proceedings for County Government Day, held Thursday at the County Administration Building in Georgetown. (Delaware State News/Glenn Rolfe)

GEORGETOWN — Sussex County Emergency Operations Director Joe Thomas kind of felt like a ham and cheese sandwich bound for the frying pan.

He was grilled.

“You guys are wearing me out!” Mr. Thomas said with a chuckle after he was bombarded with question after question during his presentation on Sussex County’s 2019 County Government Day.

Mr. Thomas’ proposal — a pitch for a new mobile command unit purchase — was the last of six mock agenda scenarios addressed by several dozen high school juniors serving as Sussex County Council members and other county dais officials.

Students tackled the agenda that included:

•county support and either for loan or grant for a sports complex;

•the county’s Delaware State Police contract;

•a proposed street lighting district;

•a solar farm;

•anti-idle/climate control systems for the EMS fleet; and

•mobile command unit purchase.

Sussex Tech junior Mason Rolph, left, asks a question as Riley Murray of Indian River High School tunes in during the mock Sussex County Council session at County Government Day. (Delaware State News/Glenn Rolfe)

“Before today I really didn’t have that much experience as far as county council sessions,” said Stephen Venables of Milford, an online home-schooler with Veritas Academy. “I’ve done previous mock trial sessions, but more of legislature — representatives and senators. I never really had an experience with the council before and I wanted to see more of what they did. I really got a better picture of what our council does for us and how important that is.”

Sussex County’s event is a precursor to Delaware Girls State through the American Legion Auxiliary and Delaware’s Boys State, through the American Legion Department of Delaware, both to be held in Dover in June.

Overriding consensus of county officials is that this year’s County Government Day featured pertinent questions that were spot-on and relevant to real-life scenarios that have played out before the real county council and staff.

Michael Vincent, Sussex County Council president, offers a warm welcome to Boys and Girls State student participants in the County Government Day Thursday. (Delaware State News/Glenn Rolfe)

One takeaway from County Government Day for Indian River High School junior Riley Murray was that county council members “are under a lot of pressure. Because the decisions that we made today were very big and millions of dollars were going into them.”

Sussex County Administrator Todd Lawson, a 1992 Boys State participant as a student at Sussex Central High School, and county council president Michael Vincent prefaced the session with informative in-sight on how county government functions.

Stephen Venable, in the role of the Sussex County Finance Director, questions a presenter during a mock agenda issue on County Government Day. (Delaware State News/Glenn Rolfe)

Council’s two most important issues typically are the annual county budget and land use.

“They are making decisions for people that want to do something on their land and need permission to do it,” said Mr. Lawson. “That impacts everyone from the individual that wants to seek to something on their property, whether it is build a house, build a chicken house, put a hot dog stand up, a medical facility, a Royal Farms or a Wawa. Any of those things that are developed in the county, if they are in the county’s area, they need permission to do so by this body. It is a big responsibility. It not only affects the person that is asking to put the Wawa up, it affects the property owner next to them … behind them. Sometimes it gets pretty interesting.”

On the budget, Mr. Lawson said “there is no greater responsibility than spending someone else’s money. In Sussex County, we take that very seriously. Good news is we have not raised taxes in over 28 years. That is a really nice trend. If you look around the country, there are very few municipalities that can say that they haven’t raised taxes in that long.”

Mr. Vincent is in his 11th year serving on council.

“Most of the time it is enjoyable to sit up here. Sometimes it is not,” Mr. Vincent said. “The biggest thing we do is land use. Somebody will want to do something with or on their property and sometimes their neighbors don’t like that idea. We hear both sides of and make a decision: ‘Yes you can,’ or ‘No you can’t.’ You have to be thick-skinned to be in politics.”

“Sometimes this room is full of people and we get done with a decision, and 90 percent walk out of here and they are not happy because it didn’t go their way,” said Mr. Vincent. “You’ve got to be respectful of both sides. Everybody has property rights.”

Riley found that somewhat surprising.

“I think it’s a little crazy that he (Mr. Vincent) said that 90 percent of the people that show up might disagree with their decisions,” said Riley. “You would think more would be in favor of what they are doing,”

Riley, whose career hope is to work in a museum or be a high school history teacher, encourages students to consider the Girls State program.

“Yes, I definitely would. My brother was a member of Boys State and we always compete,” she said. “So, if I didn’t go then I would be the lesser child!”

Chip Guy, communications director for county government, moderated the mock sessions.

Mr. Vincent urged all student participants to be involved in the community and give back.

“Hopefully, all of you as you move on in life will be involved in something in your community. It might not be government. It could be the local Lions Club or local fire department. Whatever it is, do what you feel a passion for,” said Mr. Vincent. “At the end of the day when it is all said and done, we are all going to be judged on one thing: What did you give back?”

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