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The Hidden Cost of Expanding County Council

by Louise Rolleri;

The rule the public learned thirty years ago from Woodward and Bernstein’s expose of the Watergate break-in applies today in New Castle County: “Follow the money.”

Those who supported the recent passage of HB 53, calling for NCCounty Council to remain at the current 7 members, have put the focus on the costs to taxpayers (claiming upwards of $1 million the first year). Those who urged the Governor to veto the bill and who support the expansion to 13, counter this by saying those costs are inflated and will likely not even be half that amount. As one State Rep who voted against the bill has pointed out, state legislators don’t have individual aides in Dover and budgeting to double the support staff for County Council to give every councilperson (a part-time job) a full-time aide is extravagant and unrealistically inflates the cost estimates. Expanding Council but “doubling up” to share aides would leave support staff with the same constituent workload.

The group opposing Council’s expansion is a large and rare collection of politicians from both parties – some of whom normally can’t sit in the same room without hissing at one another: Democrats Tom Gordon, Chris Coons and Karen Venezky support the bill. Even former NCCouncilman Rich Abbott is on record agreeing with fellow Republicans Bob Weiner, Bill Tansey (who ousted Abbott in 2002 in a contentious election) and Tansey’s mentor, State Rep. Roger Roy. They all say the same thing: Don’t expand County Council- it’s not worth the cost to taxpayers. What all these politicians are failing to point out to us, though, is the cost of getting those six new council members elected. It’s a cost that will be passed on to every politician who now holds elective office and anyone who hopes to get elected or reelected in the future.

These six new council seats will likely attract twelve candidates at minimum (one from each party), not counting primary fights, which could swell the number of new candidates to 18 or more. Every one of these new candidates will be beating on the doors of the same list of folks who routinely write campaign contribution checks over $100 – the land use lawyers, the engineers, the developers, the PACs, the unions. That pool of potential donors hasn’t grown in recent years and the economic and stock market downturn since 2000 has likely stressed even the most generous past contributors. Bottom line, the addition of six county council races could easily siphon off $350,000 or more from the campaign contributions available to those who currently face state and county elections in the September primaries and the November general election. Add to the equation that it’s a Presidential election year when voter turnouts are guaranteed higher and the need for every cent to reach and persuade voters becomes even more acute. This pool of local campaign contributors can’t ignore six new County Council races thrown into the mix. Growing houses remains one of the biggest money making industries in Delaware - and New Castle County Council remains a place where critical land development laws and approvals are controlled.

Looking further out, when re-election time rolls around again in 2006 for the current group of six council members, they’ll have districts with half the number of voters compared to now and, potentially, half the campaign expenses. But cutting the potential costs of a council election campaign is a double-edged sword – making it that much easier for a challenger to raise money and turn an incumbent’s easy win into an expensive fight in an overall atmosphere of diminished availability of campaign contributions.

While some election races can cost a candidate less than $20,000, the contentious ones can easily total over $100,000. Mike Ramone, who ran unsuccessfully for the 8th District State Senate seat in 2002 (a district roughly the same size as one of the new, smaller council districts – 40,000 people), raised over $47,000. His opponent, incumbent Dave Sokola, needed to raise $55,000 to beat him. Even candidates who run unopposed term after term appear to need to keep raising money. State Representative Roger Roy raised over $28,000 in contributions during his most recent election year, 2002, for a district of 19,000 people. Current countywide offices (for County Executive and County Council President) are up for election this November, represent over 500,000 people, and are even more expensive races – in the range of $200,000 or more for a CE candidate and easily $75,000 for a CCP candidate.

I invite you to visit the website of the Commissioner of Elections ( where campaign finance records are scanned and can be downloaded, beginning with most records since 1997. Earlier and missing records are available for viewing and photocopying at Commission headquarters in Dover. You can also contact the Commission at (302) 739-4277. Candidates are required to file details of all campaign funds, including personal loans, and provide names and exact amounts of all contributors over $100. $600 is the limit for any campaign from any individual. (Of course, alleged irregularities like $5,000 “black top jobs” and service contributions of phone banks manned by county workers don’t show up on these mandatory state filings.)

While the raw numbers on the cover page of each filing will give you some indication of how expensive it is to get elected to public office, the sections listing the contributors provides added insight into the process. It can be difficult to get a complete picture of where campaign finance money is coming from because personal checks, not corporate ones, are the norm. It takes a degree of familiarity with NCC to recognize the names of attorneys, engineers, developers (and, frequently, their spouses writing separate checks) who work for or own entities that routinely have business before the state and county. Knowing where people work is helpful in another respect – some candidates have lists of county employees donating to their campaigns that look like United Way workplace pledge rolls. Keep in mind, too, that it may not only be significant whom you see listed, but whom you DON’T SEE – prominent NCC names you’d surely expect supported a candidate, but who either didn’t or gave less than $100.

In any event, the creation of six new councilmanic seats will siphon off a critical amount of discretionary campaign money this year and in future years that has routinely been apportioned among the existing elective office seekers. This, to me, is the real reason for the widespread agreement by many current politicians in NCC that those new seats should not be created. As a resident and taxpayer of NCC, you may or may not agree that your County Council should expand by six new seats. But I certainly hope you recognize that YOUR personal support – not just your vote, but your commitment of time and money – is needed by any candidate you want to see in any elective office. Even the smallest election district (20,000 for a State Representative district) is too large for a candidate to personally knock on every door, meet every voter. Candidates are forced to use direct mail, and even those notorious roadway signs are one of the few proven, effective tools to reach voters. All these efforts cost money and a visit to the Commission of Elections website will tell you just who’s been paying for it all so far.

by Louise Rolleri

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