Sunday, July 8, 2012

Chicago Politics Meet Their Match in Delaware

We all have times when the events of the day remind us of another time and place in our life.   This week reminded me of my time spent in Chicago. Anyone who's familiar with Chicago knows that it has it's own flair when it comes to politics.  There have been an interesting cast of characters in Chicago politics throughout it's history.  It's neighbor, the town of Cicero, has an even more colorful and corrupt history.  It's known as Al Capone's town.  Whenever I used to drive down Cicero Avenue and enter the township limits, I would wonder what life must have been back in the 20's when Capone owned the town. Cicero Avenue is now a heavily commercial area with the typical retail box stores, but you can still see many of the 1920 era brick bungalows on the side streets that provide you with a glimpse into that time period. Machine guns no longer dictate the winner of an election as it did in Capone's time, but Cicero still has mob connections to this day, and one has to wonder if they'll ever escape that distinction.

Having grown up in Delaware, I've always been aware that there is a distinct small town type of politics here.  While the population of our state has doubled during my lifetime, the backroom politics and power plays that are more typical of municipal and county governments, continue to permeate our state level as well.  I guess I shouldn't be surprised since our state population is only 1/3 the size of Chicago, but you would think that we would find a way to increase the level of accountability and professionalism in our government as our population grows.

Capone Would Have Loved Delaware & the State FOIA

Why am I riding down memory lane?  While looking at the recent Attorney General opinions, I spotted yet another Attorney General opinion concerning the Kent County SPCA.  There are only 8 opinions posted year to date by the AG office, so clearly it's of interest that there is now a second opinion for KCSPCA.  In a previous post on 3/8/12, when I had found out about the first opinion was being requested by the senator who has connections to one of our "no-kill" shelters Faithful Friends, I discussed the fact that such an opinion would open up the many organization receiving grant-in-aid from the state to FOIA, including the "no-kill" organization the senator and governors office has ties to.  Well, lo and behold, it did just that.  Grant-in-aids was discussed as one of the criteria in the first opinion dated 3/27/12.  Afterward, a group called Citizens to Save Safe Haven. who is a group of concerned citizens in Sussex County, also contacted this same senator to discuss a similar FOIA request concerning Safe Haven, a "no-kill" shelter in Sussex County that also has ties to the Faithful Friends.  To no surprise the citizens group was not afforded the same assistance by the senator to gain access to Safe Havens board meetings.

On 5/27/12, a supplemental second opinion was issued by the Attorney General office.

"The March 27 Opinion concluded the KCSPCA met the criteria for a "public body" as the KCSPCA was a body established and specifically empowered by the General Assembly.  The opinion suggests that the KCSPCA's certificate of incorporation and status as a no-for-profit organization receiving grant-in aid are relevant to the "public body" analysis.  Upon further review, we find that the corporate status of KCSPCA is not germane to our initial determination that the KCSPCA is a "public body."  This Opinion clarifies that for the purposes of the FOIA Open Meeting requirement, the KCSPCA is a "public body" under 29 Del. C. § 10002(c) because the KCSPCA was establish and empowered with statutory regulatory powers by the General Assembly." -  Office of the Attorney General of the State of Delaware - No. 12-IIB08
While the supplemental opinion doesn't say that the grant-in aid analysis was incorrect, it appears to merely state that KCSPCA was subject to FOIA open meetings by the regulatory argument, so the grant-in aid analysis was not needed.

What the heck?  If both of the initial arguments applied, then why push the grant-in-aid one under the carpet?      Attorney General opinions are issued to provide guidance under our laws, so it seems ludicrous to provide a supplemental opinion unless there is an error in the original analysis provided, and if that was the case then the error should be listed.  That wasn't the case here, so I have to question the independence of the AG office.  While I have no idea whether the AG office just woke up one day and decided to revisit the original opinion, or whether they were asked to revisit it on behalf of a certain legislator, but it does seem questionable in light of the fact that the citizens group was looking to the original opinion to gain access to Safe Haven.

If FOIA isn't applied in a fair and equitable manner, it appears to become yet another tool to harass certain organizations like KCSPCA into bending and eventually breaking unless they bow to legislators "no-kill" agenda, and this supplemental opinion appears to protect other organizations that legislators have a special interest in.  Sadly it seems that FOIA in Delaware is not about transparent government, it's about transparency at the whim of our legislature.  And make no mistake, if it can be used in this manner for the "no-kill" agenda, I have no doubt that it can be used in even more nefarious scenarios involving state contracts with vendors for millions of taxpayer dollars.

This is what brought to mind Chicago and Cicero.  With some of the antics taking place in our state, Capone would have had a field day here.  He's probably rolling over in his grave wondering whether he could have "owned" a state, instead of just a city. While the Chicago political machine may be more famous, the "Delaware Way" is clearly in the same category, and a formidable challenger at that.