To hear Delaware County Councilmen Kevin Madden and Brian Zidek tell it, they thought their proposal to hold a series of policy forums was a political softball, an easy bipartisan victory as summer begins. Instead, it landed like a lead balloon.

In the last month, the two Democrats — the first elected to the county’s ruling board in decades — have twice proposed holding “ethics and conflict of interest reform” hearings throughout the county to address the “pervasive pay-to-play culture in the county,” as Zidek put it. Both times, most recently Wednesday, the proposal was voted down by the three Republicans on the County Council.

And the discussion became uncharacteristically heated for a council that has largely worked well together in the last 18 months. Republicans called the proposal an unfair indictment against the county itself and a blatant attempt to boost Democratic candidates ahead of November’s general election.

“This is not partisan. It’s only partisan if you make it so,” Zidek said in an interview. "Taxpayers in Delaware County pay a corruption tax. [Taxes] are too high, and the waste of money is the offshoot of the way this machine does business, with insiders, patronage, and no-bid contracts.

“We’ve said it to [Republicans] both publicly and privately, and when they say, ‘You’re attacking us,' we say, ‘We’re not attacking you, we’re attacking the way business is done here,’” he added. “And we stress that we’re not blaming them.”

The proposal called for the county’s executive director to “schedule a hearing or series of hearings to discuss updating and expanding the county code of ethics and conflict of interest provisions," according to the amendment read by Zidek at the council’s May 29 meeting.

Chief among the council members’ concerns are campaign contributions by entities that have been awarded contracts with the county, and the political makeup of county workers: 93 percent are registered Republicans, according to Madden, and the only Democrats in administrative positions are the five elected into office in November 2017.

Council President John McBlain, in voting against the proposal, called those concerns unfounded.

“This was dropped on us with speeches about the ‘dreaded Republican machine,’ and then breaking into hosannas about wanting to have a discussion,” McBlain said. “It’s a political stunt. You don’t have to look hard at the election calendar to see that’s the case.”

The current Delaware County Council (from left): Michael Culp, Brian Zidek, John McBlain, Colleen Morrone, and Kevin Madden.
Courtesy Delaware County
The current Delaware County Council (from left): Michael Culp, Brian Zidek, John McBlain, Colleen Morrone, and Kevin Madden.

The three Republicans on council — McBlain, Colleen Morrone, and Michael Culp — will soon vacate their seats. McBlain and Morrone are bumping up against term limits, and Culp has said he’s not seeking reelection.

Still, McBlain said he’s “more than happy” to talk about the ordinances that make up the political foundation of the county, and promised to introduce legislation that discusses Delaware County’s home-rule charter, nearly 50 years old.

“I’m not going to be bullied into a corner to hold Washington, D.C.-style hearings where partisan witnesses are presented,” he said. “If we want to really talk about modernizing or changing our form of government, let’s do it instead of nibbling around the edges.”

His position was echoed by Culp, who called for delaying hearings until the council receives “specific rules and regulations" about who will be invited and what will be discussed. Otherwise, he said at Wednesday’s meeting, he believes they’ll "turn into a political circus, like things tend to do when Mr. Madden and Mr. Zidek are involved.”

As the debate rages, November’s general-election ballot is already loaded with three endorsed council candidates from each party. Coincidentally, the Republican slate recently issued its own “Transparency and Progress Plan." That version, however, focuses more on accessibility to County Council and prison board meetings.

The latest voter-registration statistics from the state show Democrats lead Republicans in Delaware County by nearly 29,000. Twenty years ago, the GOP dominated by a 2-1 ratio. Madden says that doesn’t mesh with the party-affiliation stats he read at the May 29 meeting.

“To be clear, I don’t care, and Brian doesn’t care, what someone’s registration is,” he said. “The point is, what those numbers say is that it does matter to someone, someone that’s making hiring decisions. And that’s the problem.”

The two Democrats say they plan on holding the reform hearings this summer regardless, and plan on inviting both members of the public and policy experts to weigh in.

“This is what government is supposed to do: hold hearings on important topics for us all to get informed and in turn pass more informed legislation,” Madden said. “At a time when there’s been a real heightened cynicism locally and nationally about how government works, I think it’s important and timely that we examine it at every level.”