Posted: Jan. 20, 2004


By Celia Cohen

Grapevine Political Writer

When a bill that would shrink back the size of the New Castle County Council reaches Gov. Ruth Ann Minner's desk, she says it is V.O.A. -- Vetoed On Arrival.

With legislators acknowledging an override is unlikely, the promised veto appears to clear the way for an expansion more than a decade in the making to increase the council from seven members to 13 members beginning with the 2004 election.

"If you have smaller districts, you have better representation," Minner said. "I will veto the bill when it comes to my desk."

The legislation, Senate Bill 53, is on its way to the governor after a largely party-line vote Tuesday in the Republican-led House of Representatives, which passed the measure 23-14 with two representatives abstaining and two absent. The Senate previously approved it in June in the final days of the 2003 session.

The bill emerged as the first serious partisan clash of the new legislative session, which began rather benignly last week. Minner and most of her fellow Democrats favor the council expansion, while most Republicans oppose it, although it has taken years for the battle lines to be drawn that way.

By Tuesday, however, the bill clearly had turned into something of a loyalty test, as was obvious from the observers it attracted to prowl Legislative Hall and monitor the debate.

Both New Castle County Democratic Chairman John D. Daniello and Republican Co-chairman Thomas S. Ross were there, as were a number of union leaders backing Daniello and an array of other GOP officials, including state Chairman Terry A. Strine, reinforcing Ross.

The bill has had a strange history. The General Assembly, which is responsible for passing the laws that determine New Castle County's governmental structure, has been wrestling with expanding the council since the early 1990s as an antidote to corruption uncovered by a federal investigation into the rezoning process.

The proposal began as a Republican initiative, and after years of debate over whether the council should expand, how much it should expand and when it should expand, it finally appeared to be set. There was little attention paid when state Sen. Karen E. Peterson, a first-term Democrat and past County Council president, pushed a roll-back bill through the Democratic-run chamber with the help of downstaters who tend to think upstate already has more than its share of politicians.

Because Peterson's bill appeared to be regarded as comatose, the County Council, which the Democrats currently control 5-2, approved new districts designed to create a majority of at least 8 or 10 Democrats. With that, Republicans re-examined their motives for an expanded council and concluded that recent land-use reforms diminished the need for it. Peterson's bill took on new life.

"What seemed to be reason at the time has pretty much disappeared," said state Rep. Roger P. Roy, a Republican who was an early proponent of expansion.

Meanwhile, the Democrats also re-examined the bill, and they found good government there. "It's going to open up New Castle County government to the people of New Castle County," said state Rep. Robert F. Gilligan, a Democrat who is the House minority leader.

The county's political leaders echoed their legislators.

"The House vote was very responsible. The last thing we need to do is spend more money on politicians," said Ross, the Republican co-chairman.

"They're hypocrites. Did they really think an overwhelmingly Democratic council was going to gerrymander seats so there could be more Republicans?" said Daniello, the Democratic chairman. "We're on the side of the angels, and God will provide."

At least, the governor apparently will. While Minner used good government to make her case publicly for a veto, the politics are stark. The bill was sponsored by Peterson, who is threatening to challenge Minner for governor. The House Republicans are for it. The unions are against it.

There hardly was a doubt about what Minner would do. "I will take the appropriate action on the bill when it comes to my desk," she said.