City council seeks exclusive power to decide annexations

By Lynn R. Parks

The Seaford City Council Tuesday night voted to give itself the power to approve or deny requests for annexation into the city. If OK'd by the state legislature, the public vote that is currently required by the city's charter whenever an annexation is considered would be eliminated. The charter change has to be approved by both houses of the General Assembly as well as by the governor. The unanimous council vote followed a contentious public hearing at which a dozen people spoke out against the proposed change. Nearly all of them were from the Hearns Pond area, an area that is outside of the city limits and where land has been proposed for annexation into the city. Twice, in September 2006 and again in April 2008, voters in Seaford rejected that annexation. Under the city's proposed charter change, a vote like that would no longer take place. The decision instead would be made by the city council. Mayor Ed Butler said Wednesday morning that the two failed annexation referendums have nothing to do with the city's decision to change the annexation procedure. It is simply a matter of cost, he said. "These annexation elections are costly and that is the only reason we are doing this," he said. According to city manager Dolores Slatcher, an annexation vote costs about $1,000. That includes advertising, renting a voting machine and review by the city solicitor. During Tuesday night's public hearing, Councilwoman Pat Jones dismissed the concerns of the Hearns Pond residents. "You don't live in the city limits," she told Linda Myers, who lives on Hearns Pond Road. "You don't pay taxes in the city. You don't have a voice here." One city resident, Jerome Love, spoke out against the plan. "I'm a citizen of this city and a taxpayer," he said. "If this thing goes through, good for you. But I will put my property up for sale and move out of this community. You aren't going to take away my right to vote." Jones was also dismissive of him. "If you move into another community, you will find that the problem is not with the city. It's with you," she told him. Nearly all of the concerns expressed during the public hearing focused on the democratic process and the fact that if the change in the city's annexation process is allowed by the General Assembly, the citizens of Seaford will have lost one of their rights to vote. "This looks like an attempt to take voting rights away from citizens," Hearns Pond resident Susan Messick told the council. "Surely that is not what is intended, but that's what it sounds like. You are saying that you know better than the town's citizens. You are changing it so that the people have no voice." "How can you really be elected to office to represent the citizens and then vote to take away their right to speak?" Myers asked. "How can you respect them if you stifle what they have to say?" Myers also asked the council how the change will help Seaford. "It won't hurt Seaford," Jones replied.

Hearns Pond resident Howard Dhondt criticized the council for not being more deliberative in its decision to change the city's charter. "The charter is the equivalent of the Constitution and the idea that you can change it without prolonged citizen involvement and with a single vote by the council is ridiculous," he said. But members of the council countered that they were elected by the citizens to make exactly these kinds of decisions. Grace Peterson, who was first elected to the council in 1993 and who retired in 2006, only to be called back to fill a vacancy, and Bill Bennett, also named to the council to fill a vacancy, said that voters had expressed trust in the council members. Both Peterson and Bennett were recently sworn into new terms after no one filed to run against them. "The citizens have empowered the city council to make decisions on their behalf," said city manager Dolores Slatcher. "And if they dislike the decisions, when election time comes somebody else can run." Hearns Pond resident Gabriel Zepecki praised the council for their hard work. "I know that you all love your community and that you do everything that you think is going to improve the community," she said. "But I happen to believe in the democratic process and that everybody should have a say. This is how a community in our country works. This is what makes us different from other societies." Zepecki also cautioned against the appearance of impropriety. If the council approves an annexation request by a developer, she warned, it will look like the city is acting on behalf of the developer. "When it looks like there is such a clear connection, it does not reflect well on the people who are working on behalf of the citizens," she added. Erroll Mattox, also of Hearns Pond, echoed her concerns. "This change benefits a special class of person," he said. "The appearance of impropriety is as great as impropriety itself." Hearns Pond resident Carol Snyder wondered what else the charter change would lead to. "All across the country, little town meetings like this are going on," she said. "This is where democracy happens. If you start taking away one vote here, one vote there, what comes next?" And Sharon Dhondt said that the loss of the public vote saddened her. "I am flabbergasted that you would deny the people who put you in office the right to vote," she said. "How are you going to face your constituents?" Councilman Rhea Shannon told the group that he has lived in Seaford for 71 years and understands very well what is good for its people. "What are you afraid of?" he asked. Susan Messick responded: "What I don't like is changing the rules in the middle of the game. The people have already told you they didn't like the annexation, and now they won't have a say." Hearns Pond resident Brenda Stover said that the right to vote is central to a democracy. "If you take this away, the life of this town will be sucked out," she cautioned. "Surely, you don't want just a bureaucracy [running the city]. You want people to be involved." Stover told Councilwoman Jones that she knows her well enough to know that she wants citizen input in the city's decisions. "This is democracy in action, a lot of give and take, but that's what you want," she said. "You don't know me," Jones replied flatly. "You don't know me at all."

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