Letter to the Editor: Seaford failing to respond to complaints regarding meeting

On July 28, another complaint alleging Freedom of Information Act violations by the city of Seaford was filed with the Delaware Department of Justice. A different complaint was filed July 11.

The most recent complaint states the city failed to follow parts of the March 13 state of emergency order (SOE) issued by Gov. John Carney when holding three meetings (April 14, May 12 and May 26) during the COVID-19 pandemic.

More specifically, Paragraph 5 of the SOE allowed for public meetings of Seaford’s mayor and City Council via electronic means, normally prohibited for elected public bodies under non-COVID circumstances. Paragraph 5 states: “As of Friday, March 13, 2020, at 8 a.m. EST, all public meetings of executive branch public bodies governed by 29 Del. C. §§10001 et. seq. (including boards, commissions, task forces and any other similar public body) may be conducted electronically, either by means of telephone conference call or videoconference call. The technology used must permit members of the public body to hear the comments of and speak to all those participating, and members of the public to hear the comments of and speak to such members of the public body contemporaneously. Public participants must also be permitted to electronically access presentation materials and submit questions or comments. During any public meeting conducted by electronic means, each member of the public body will identify him- or herself before speaking, so that members of the public are able to hear the comments of the members of the public body. Notice requirements of public meetings will continue as required by law and will include the electronic information necessary for participation. Meetings already noticed shall be updated as soon as practicable with the information necessary for members and the public to participate electronically.”

However, this special provision came with requirements: Meetings “may be conducted electronically, (and) the technology used must permit members of the public body (mayor and City Council) to hear the comments of and speak to all those participating, and members of the public to hear the comments of and speak to such members of the public body (mayor and City Council) contemporaneously.”

The city of Seaford cherry-picked the SOE order and conducted closed meetings to protect themselves and the public from COVID-19 but ignored the requirement to provide contemporaneous interaction between the mayor and City Council and the public. The city has demonstrated technical ability to provide such interaction but did not use it to comply with the SOE order.

Since the July 28 filing, the city has failed to respond to the DOJ with its position/counterarguments. Normally, a strict time limit of six business days would be allowed for response to the DOJ. However, under the fourth modification of the SOE, the city may, but is not required to, postpone any response until the SOE is ended. The city seems bent upon using such a postponement to avoid responsibility for its actions and/or lack of action for as long as possible.

As confirmation of this strategy, the July 11 complaint filed with the DOJ about secret meetings of Seaford’s board of elections has also gone unanswered by the city of Seaford for more than a month.

With a recent extension of the SOE, it would appear that decisions by the DOJ in these matters will be delayed until at least mid-September if the city of Seaford continues to withhold its response(s) without justification.

While such a legal tactic may seem appropriate to the city of Seaford, it flies in the face of the old aphorism, “Justice delayed is justice denied,” certainly with the idea of effecting timely changes to remedy the uncovered problems in mind.

Dan Cannon