Court rebuffs Williams’ bid for special council meeting

by Andrew Staub — The News Journal

As Wilmington’s budget battle lurched through its second week, the relationship between the administration and City Council reached such depths that Mayor Dennis P. Williams considered using police to bring lawmakers to a special Tuesday meeting so they could consider a revised spending plan.

Soon after, City Solicitor Michael Migliore unsuccessfully asked the Delaware Court of Chancery to impose a temporary restraining order against Council President Theo Gregory, Williams’ main opponent in the budget war and the official who nixed the mayor’s idea to meet Tuesday evening.

Then, to cap the bizarre day, several members of Williams’ staff gathered for the special session, only to find that just one of 13 council members showed up.

All of it made for more drama over Wilmington’s $145 million budget.

“I feel like I’m trapped inside a reality TV show,” Councilwoman Maria Cabrera said of the strange path the budget debate has taken.

In this case, though, nobody’s voting anybody off any island. Instead, council is rolling toward a Thursday vote to override the mayor’s veto of the budget council approved May 16. That would put the 2014 spending plan in place by the May 31 deadline imposed by the city charter.

Williams has feuded most with Gregory, with each fighting for control over a $250,000 allocation council placed in its budget for youth projects. The mayor has called it a slush fund and a violation of the state Constitution, while Gregory has argued council has had money for grants and projects for decades.

As Tuesday’s developments played out, Councilwoman Loretta Walsh said she believed “bad blood” between Williams and Gregory has spread among other council members and the administration. Walsh wondered whether Williams’ advisers have insisted Williams forge ahead “to show who the boss is.”

“If somebody or a group of people were banging at him with those types of comments, then he really needs to rethink whether or not he wants to be surrounded by them for the next 3 1/2 years, because a a take-no-prisoners mentality is not going to work,” Walsh said.

Cabrera was “shocked,” she said, to learn Williams – speaking during his weekly radio spot on WDEL – had floated the idea of rounding up council members with police. The mayor brought up the possibility when detailing his plan to ask the court about his authority to hold a special meeting even if Gregory had canceled it.

“Well, if the courts rule in our favor if we decide to go that route, he’ll be there because Wilmington police will start to pick the councilmen up just like they would legislators,” Williams said on air.

Cabrera doesn’t understand how the disagreement reached such a boiling point, she said.

“I just don’t know how these types of antics are going to sit well with any of the council members,” she said.

Even without the temporary restraining order, Williams’ administration insisted Tuesday’s meeting would proceed – with or without council. Williams didn’t attend, but John Matlusky, his chief of staff, characterized the mayor’s actions as a way to give council an “additional option in the budget process.”

Councilman Justen Wright, the only city legislator who came to the special meeting that ended up not being a meeting at all, was prepared to introduce a budget that restored some funding and position cuts council made while placing the $250,000 for grants in council’s budget, Matlusky said.

The mayor’s comments about police were a way to convey the necessity of passing a balanced budget, Matlusky said. He believed most council members would have attended if the court had required it.

“We can have some growing pains early on, but I think you’ve got some very passionate, well-intentioned leaders who are all trying to work toward a common goal,” Matlusky said.

So far, the fiscal tug of war has been one-sided.

First, council passed a budget with the $250,000 under its control with a strong 10 votes. Even after Williams vetoed that plan, Gregory remained firm, quickly scuttling the special session Williams called so he could introduce a compromise budget on Tuesday.

Then, when Williams asked the court to stop Gregory from interfering, Vice Chancellor John W. Noble denied a temporary restraining order, indicating the public interest is to have democracy work through its elected officials.

Gregory reiterated Tuesday that he believes he has more than the nine votes necessary to override Williams’ veto, and criticized the mayor for taking the issue to court.

“He’s trying to use the court process to negotiate the budget. That’s totally inappropriate,” Gregory said.

Wilmington lobbyist Rhett Ruggerio said he doesn’t believe Williams would ever seriously consider pushing his political limits by having police collect council members. Ruggerio said he thought it was a “tongue-in-cheek” comment.

With so many issues facing the city, Ruggerio believes Williams and Gregory will eventually have no choice but to work together for the betterment of Wilmington.

“It’s not a secret that there’s been friction,” Ruggerio said. “There’s a lot of healing that needs to take place.”