Public infighting returns to Wilmington City Council

Charlie MegginsonGovernment, Headlines

a sign in front of a house

Photo/City of Wilmington

Wilmington City Council members must hand over all email, phone and text records from Jan. 2021 to March 2022 in response to a Freedom of Information Act request filed by one of their own. 

Councilwoman Shané Darby, D-District 2, submitted the FOIA request because she says a group of seven city council members have been holding private meetings during which they discuss city business.

Darby believes those meetings violate state transparency laws designed to prevent public business from being conducted behind closed doors. 

Some say Darby’s request is absurd. Demanding such an expansive amount of information while publicly shaming city council is counterproductive, wastes taxpayer dollars and government resources, and does nothing to serve the people of Wilmington.

Only two of those seven council members responded to a request for comment.

“When we look like fools, when certain people act up and do things that are inappropriate, and it’s allowed to go on, it affects all of us,” said Councilwoman Maria Cabrera, D-At Large. “It doesn’t matter what my individual reputation is, I’m still part of that body and I don’t want us to be a laughingstock.”

Others say there may well have been a FOIA violation, but Darby went about resolving it the wrong way.

“Certainly, this is something the council should be able to work out amongst themselves,” said John Flaherty, a board member with the Delaware Coalition for Open Government. 

Darby isn’t the only one complaining. 

Councilwoman Linda Gray, D-District 1, also said the seven members convene privately, in violation of FOIA regulations, so that they can discuss ways to advance Mayor Mike Purzycki’s agenda. 

Gray said she calls them “the mayor’s seven” because “if you look at the history, they usually vote in a block of seven to support legislation the mayor has put forward.”

John Rago, Purzycki’s deputy chief of staff, told Delaware LIVE News “this is a Council matter, so we’ll stay out of their internal disputes.”

The members Darby and Gray accuse of being in the secret group include:

  • Zanthia Oliver, D-District 3
  • Bregetta Fields, D-District 5
  • Chris Johnson, D-District 7
  • Nathan Field, D-District 8
  • Maria Cabrera, D-At Large
  • Loretta Walsh, D-At Large
  • James Spadola, R, At Large

“Zanthia Oliver is their leak,” Darby said. “She’ll go to their meetings and come back and tell the rest of the council that they had a private meeting at Loretta Walsh’s house or Chris Johnson’s office, or they’ll go to Tonic.”

Tonic Seafood and Steak is an upscale restaurant in downtown Wilmington. 

“I just know that they’re having meetings and I’m trying to see if they potentially use their phones or emails to set any of them up, or if they violate FOIA in a text message or an email thread,” Darby said. 

Delaware’s FOIA law says a “meeting” is defined as “the formal or informal gathering of a quorum of the members of any public body for the purpose of discussing or taking action on public business.”

A quorum of the 13-member city council would be seven members. Darby believes that if those members are discussing public business during their meetings, they’d be in violation of the law. 

Councilman Chris Johnson, D-District 7, said the “secret meetings” simply haven’t happened.

“Any meetings with all 7 occurred prior to the inauguration in January 2021 before new members were sworn in,” Johnson said. “Post-January 2021, such meetings have not occurred.”

Asked what she hopes to accomplish by filing the request, Darby said, “I just want to make it public. You can’t fire a council person – you can’t do that. I would definitely file an ethics complaint, though.”

Darby said she’s not concerned that requesting the communications of her colleagues could make it more difficult to work with them in the future.

“I’m already not their favorite person,” Darby said. “I know that I have good intentions, and I’m trying to do what I think is right.”

During Thursday’s council meeting, Gray accused the seven members of holding “ex-parte meetings.” 

“It seems like there are ex-parte meetings at Councilwoman [Loretta] Walsh’s house and Councilwoman [Chris] Johnson’s office. This has been going on for months,” she said. 

She was interrupted by Councilwoman Zanthia Oliver, D-District 3, who said: “Out of order, wow. So childish, that is so childish.”

Gray responded, “These meetings have been going on for months. They are unethical, they are a violation of FOIA, and if we want to discuss proof, then I can just go to the ethics board, but I was hoping that people have enough value and honesty that these will stop.”

After some back and forth, Council President Trippi Congo said, “I’m not here to censor anyone, but moving forward I hope we can handle our internal matters internally, and not involve the public. We want to be respected as individuals, and we want to be respected as a body.”

Congo’s desire to handle matters internally represents a 180-degree flip from his move in January to hold a vote of no confidence in the police chief, Robert Tracy. Congo publicly shared the details of a police department internal dispute on social media, a move the mayor and the police union described as irresponsible and abhorrent

Cabrera said Congo, as the council president, should work harder to maintain order during council meetings and quell internal strife before it boils over in public view.

“He’s got to do better, too,” she said, “to be the leader on council and not allow these conversations that have been made public.”

Cabrera said she has no problem complying with the records request because she has nothing to hide. She does feel, however, that it’s a waste of city resources and taxpayer dollars. 

“I think it is a huge waste of money,” she said. “She did it because she thought it would scare people by saying that they’re doing something bad. Nobody’s doing anything wrong here.”

Flaherty said the proper procedure would have been for Darby to file a complaint with the attorney general’s office. 

In requesting more than a year’s worth of emails, phone calls and texts, Darby has made an “expansive request for documents, some of which may be public and some of which may not be public.”

That request will take a significant amount of time and resources on the part of city employees, Flaherty said. That’s time that could be spent serving the people of Wilmington rather than facilitating petty council disputes. 

Councilwoman Yolanda McCoy, D-District 6, excused herself from Thursday’s council meeting shortly after Gray lobbed the accusations at the other members.

“We did a lot of arguing back and forth on both camera and in newspapers during our last term,” McCoy said. “This term, we really wanted to make sure we gave the residents of the city of Wilmington more confidence that we’re able to handle our own internal issues without it leaking. Unfortunately, that is not turning out to be the case.”

McCoy said if Darby is able to uncover something illegal that happened, “more power to her.”

Cabrera said Wilmington’s council members need to start treating each other with more respect.

“Maybe because we’ve been watching it in Washington for so long we think it’s the norm,” Cabrera said. “This is not the norm. This is not how leaders speak to each other.” 

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