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Democrats crowd-source agenda in transition to power in Delaware County

Since last month’s historic election in Delaware County, Democrats have been working to try to smooth their transition to power and to start shaping a new direction for the county.

From left, current Delaware County Councilman Brian Zidek, newly elected Councilwomen Monica Taylor, Elaine Schaefer, and Christine Reuther, and current Councilman Kevin Madden celebrate during the Delaware County Democratic Committee's election watch party on Nov. 5.
From left, current Delaware County Councilman Brian Zidek, newly elected Councilwomen Monica Taylor, Elaine Schaefer, and Christine Reuther, and current Councilman Kevin Madden celebrate during the Delaware County Democratic Committee's election watch party on Nov. 5.Read moreTIM TAI / Staff Photographer

Planning for the transfer of power is common practice in private business, state government, and at the White House, but for generations, there was no need for it in the Republican stronghold that was Delaware County.

But come January, Democrats will take over the County Council for the first time. And since last month’s election, they’ve been working to try to smooth their transition to power and to start shaping their vision for the county, in part by inviting county employees and the public to contribute.

“To be able to create what government should look like with a blank canvas, I feel so lucky to be in the position we’re in," said council member Kevin Madden, one of two Democrats who took office in 2018.

In broad strokes, the Democrats say they want to make county government more transparent, accessible, and efficient now that they have control after more than 150 years of GOP rule.

Tom McGarrigle, chair of the county’s Republican Party, said he’s waiting to see what comes of it all.

“We’ll certainly keep an eye on what they do and how they run county government," he said. “This is certainly a new beginning. Or ending, depending on where you stand.”

The incoming Democratic council — members Madden and Brian Zidek, as well as the newly elected Monica Taylor, Christine Reuther, and Elaine Schaefer — will oversee an annual budget of more than $350 million, and they have said funding priorities will change.

For example, the council members-elect have said the county spends too much on solicitors — a budgeted expense this year of $1.47 million. According to 2019 budgets, Bucks County pays $1.12 million for those services and Chester County pays less than $420,000. And Delaware County will spend more than 1½ times as much on public relations as it will on public works this year. Schaefer said that’s a problem.

Among the new Delaware County Council’s priorities will be overhauling hiring practices by posting positions online instead of relying on word of mouth or personal connections to fill job openings in the county, which has more than 3,100 employees. The council also is commissioning a study of how employees are compensated to figure out how to attract and retain the best candidates, Zidek said.

In the spring, council members are expecting the results of an analysis of potential costs and benefits of starting a county health department, he said. Democrats have argued for years that the county should have a health department like Bucks, Chester, Montgomery, and Philadelphia Counties.

The new council also supports investing more money to preserve open space and expand trails.

» READ MORE: Democrats make history by winning control of Delaware County

In mid-November, the incoming Democrats formed a dozen “working groups” to gather ideas and perspectives.

“We wanted that to be the first experience, the first impression of what this new council is going to look like,” Madden said.

For tips and advice, Democrats have reached out to the Democratic commissioners of Montgomery County, who hold two of the three seats on the board.

After Democrats gained the majority there in 2012, they focused on making county operations transparent, service delivery to residents more efficient, and the county’s fiscal health more sound, said Lee Soltysiak, the county’s chief operating officer.

He said the commissioners came in thinking: “How would we do this if we were starting over?”

"Having that mind-set really helped get the ideas flowing,” he said.

The county used to own a nursing home and manage a solid-waste system. The commissioners decided to get out of those businesses. They also consolidated several county departments.

“You need to bring a lot of people along for the ride,” Soltysiak said. "It’s a large organization and you have to think through the layers of impact there may be in delivering all these services.”

» READ MORE: The Philadelphia suburbs turned blue in a big way. What do Democrats plan to do with their new power?

About 850 people applied to join the the incoming Delaware County Council’s 12 working groups on the 2020 census, criminal justice, economic and workforce development, elections, ethics and transparency, finance, government administration, government facilities, human services, natural resources, public health, and public safety. More than 200 people made it onto the groups.

The county GOP chair said the effort seemed unwieldy.

"Having worked in government for a long time, I think they have too many members to get consensus and come up with ideas,” McGarrigle said. “But it’s a new approach and I certainly give them credit for reaching out to residents who want to help.”

Republican John McBlaine, council chairman, declined to comment about the end of his tenure and the council’s transition. At a council meeting last month, however, he acknowledged his dwindling time while arguing that the county shouldn’t cut the number of financial audits it commissions.

“That’s just my opinion. My opinion is good for another few weeks, if that,” he quipped.

Republican Council member Michael Culp said he sought to balance services with resources and recommended the new council do the same.

“I wish them well and hope they keep the taxpayer in mind," he said in a statement.

» READ MORE: Delco Council votes to overhaul prison oversight board

Marianne Grace, the county’s executive director since 2001 and an employee since 1990, is on the incoming council’s government administration working group.

“I think it’s great," she said. "They’re asking a lot of people, ‘What do you think?’”

As director of communications for the City of Chester, Aigner Cleveland has overseen the live streaming of city council meetings on Facebook. As a new member of the ethics and transparency working group, she wants the county council to do the same. (It now posts video of meetings afterward.)

Cleveland said she joined the transition team because she wanted “to be part of the solution, creating something that will shape Delaware County and ultimately affect me and my family.”

Asher Kemp, a member of the human services working group, a social worker, and president of the board of the Folsom-based nonprofit Senior Community Services, said he’s excited by the new approach.

“We have a lot of economic challenges within Delaware County and a lot of human services needs,” said Kemp, former president of the Yeadon Borough Council. "We really need to start rolling up our sleeves and figure out how to be innovative and creative.”