Pete Schwartzkopf Interview Part 2

by Dave on June 25, 2009

First appeared in Coastal Sussex Weekly, May 28, 2009:

COASTAL SUSSEX WEEKLY: Coming back here closer to home, you have a lot going on right here in Dewey Beach. Tell us what’s going on with that situation.

PETE SCHWARTZKOPF: There’s been a height issue here with the developer coming in and wanting 68 feet. They already have the 35-foot height limit in their ordinances. The developer wanted to do a lot of things for the town, but the town decided they didn’t want to do it. And that’s fine. That’s their decision. It’s not my decision.

They also have a group called the Citizens to Preserve Dewey that had formed in town. They were formed by a couple of lobbyists from DC who were used to working on Capitol Hill. They sent four charter bills to Dover. Rep. Hocker was the sponsor, and they ended up in my committee. Obviously, we’re sitting here at Sharky’s, and I come here quite often, so I’m aware of a lot of things that are going on in town. The first charter bill they brought me was a change in employment language. I read through it.

Charter bills notoriously get rubber-stamped. But a couple years ago, Rep. Thornburg and Sen. Cook had a big problem up in (the town of) Cheswold. Things got rubber-stamped and it created a big problem in the town. It cost them thousands of dollars in legal fees to get out of that. So I started to look at these things really hard before they get out of my committee.

I looked at this one and it was changing the employment language to say they could fire anyone at any time for any reason. I don’t have a problem with that if you grandfather in your existing employees, because those employees were hired under different employment language. Now you want to change the language. They wanted to fire two or three people, and they didn’t want to go through the process with just cause to fire them. One of them was the town manager, who happened to be the police chief before he was the town manager, and as police chief he was protected by the Law Enforcement Bill of Rights, so you had to go through the process to get rid of him. He was wooed away from the police department to be the town manager with certain guarantees.

With this new language, I knew what was going on. In talking with one of the city commissioners, they basically told me that they wanted to fire one of their employees. So I told them to use the process. They didn’t want to do that. They wanted us to change the language in their charter so that they could fire them and save money without settling with them or using the process. I wasn’t going to do that, because it started to take away the employee’s rights they had when they were hired. I told them I would give them the exact language that they wanted for any employee they hired from that date forward, but they had to grandfather in the employees that they have. Well, they weren’t interested in that. They didn’t want the bill if they couldn’t fire their employees. To me, that’s wrong. And it made me start to look at the other bills they sent me.

The second bill was the accommodation tax. It had some language that wasn’t right and we had to amend that. If they want an accommodation tax, that’s fine. They voted on it. I just wanted to make sure they did it right. Same thing with the next bill they sent up. The lawyers had to re-draft that. There were problems with three out of three at this point.

So then when the fourth bill came up where the town had passed a referendum to put the 35-foot height restriction into their charter, I questioned that. They already had it in their ordinances, but they want it in their charter. When I started to question that, they said it would be harder for a future council to change it. But I started to suspect something else. I had someone suggest that I look at the municipality laws. So I did. I like to read the law. Under Title 22, Section 321, municipalities are directed by the state to have a Board of Adjustment, and their main purpose is that they may hear appeals to zoning regulations and other things of that nature. So the state guarantees a right to everyone in this town, and every town for that matter, and that’s the right of an appeal. That doesn’t mean you’re going to get it, but you can appeal for hardship cases. By placing this in their charter, they were trying to take away that right of an appeal.

I mentioned the Citizens to Preserve Dewey. They took an active role in getting the referendum passed and getting the two commissioners elected last time. And as I like to put it, they have almost an equal seat at the table at town council meetings. And that’s wrong, but that’s the town’s business and CPD’s business. But what comes to my committee is now my business.

So when this came up, I have one of the founding members of CPD send me an email, and I asked him, “Do you think placing this in your charter would give you more protection as a town?” He basically said back to me, and I still have the email, that they want it in the charter because they want to take away the right of appeal. Well, I’m not going to let you use the Legislature to take away citizens’ right of appeal. Not to mention the fact that it’s against state law.

So CPD got into it and started calling attorneys and running up the legal bills for the town, and you know they have problems with the legal fees now. And I deal with the mayor of the town or the highest elected official in the town. When I’m in Rehoboth, I deal with Sam Cooper, and in Dewey I deal with Dell Tush. Well they weren’t satisfied with that. They wanted me to deal with certain commissioners and they wanted me to deal with CPD. I’m not doing that. I deal with the Mayor. And we were getting this thing worked out before CPD got smack in the middle of it and started sending out blast emails with misinformation and it complicated the matter.

My attorney looked at it and told me that according to how you structure law, when you structure a charter bill, you don’t place height requirements, width requirements, anything specific, in the charter. In other words, charters are loosely written and it’s defined more tightly in the ordinances, regulations and laws. Structurally, it’s improper. So I said, it’s improper, but is it illegal? He said no. Fine, we’ll give them the 35 feet in their charter, but I’m going to protect that right of an appeal for the rest of the citizens in Dewey. But even on the last day, one of the commissioners who’s aligned with CPD called in and wanted to delay it because they had been talking to an attorney for the last three hours, running their bill up, saying that there’s problems with it. I had five attorneys at Legislative Hall look at it and they said this right of appeal needs to be with it, so that’s what we did.

In my opinion, CPD and a couple of these commissioners were so focused on this one developer down here that they lost sight of the fact that they’re supposed to be protecting the rest of the people in the town as well. They threw every resident of this town under the bus trying to stop one developer. And that’s wrong. So I did what I thought was right and what the law proscribed.

CSW: You grew up down here. You spent a long time as a police officer and a troop commander. What is it about this area that you take into your job?

PS: When I was in the state police, I bounced around the county, different troops, but I was never political. It’s not a good thing to be political in the state police. When the opportunity came up to run in 2002, I always thought the way politics was done was questionable. The bottom line was I never liked the way politics was done. I thought we were supposed to send our best and brightest to represent us. We send 100 people to DC, and say there are 50 D’s and 50 R’s, and you throw a hot-button issue and it comes out 50-50. People are voting for their party and not for the area they represent. We have some hot-button issues that districts that join together geographically are on opposite sides of. The beauty of our system is we elect people from all walks of life to represent the area they come from, but you can be right next to somebody who has different beliefs. And that’s okay. That’s what this system is founded on is the right to disagree and the right to represent the people and whoever has the most votes wins the argument.

Part of what helped me make the decision to run was the entire 14th district was inside the troop territory and I was the captain of that territory. I thought I was pretty well known as the captain, working with neigborhood watches and going to the different communities. I got out knocking on doors and I quickly realized I wasn’t as well known as I thought I was. Had I known that, I might not have even tried it. Being a police officer, though, you have to learn how to talk to people. If you don’t know how to talk to people, you get your butt whipped quite a bit. So you get in the middle and try to be the peacemaker, and you have to know how to talk to people at different levels. As the elected representative for this area, I have multi-millionaires right down to people in manufactured housing, and you have to understand the issues, the problems they go through. Having lived in manufactured housing for several years, I know some of those issues and can relate to those issues. Having worked on the beach and being around all the people, I don’t want to say it was easier for me, but it wasn’t a big change from state police work to politics. The only difference now is I don’t get to arrest people, and there probably are a few who ought to be arrested. All jokes aside, it’s all about people in the first place. That’s what this job is, and that’s what state police work was. Being there for people, being responsible to people, and that’s the same thing I do now.

If you don’t talk to people, you won’t understand their issues. If you don’t understand their issues, you can’t do the right thing in my mind.

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