Delaware Live | by Charlie Megginson
Two lawmakers on opposite sides of the political spectrum have found common ground in their desire to increase transparency and accountability in state government.
A bill filed by Rep. John Kowalko, D-Newark South, and Rep. Mike Smith, R-Pike Creek, would establish an independent and nonpartisan inspector general office in Delaware.
The proposed office would investigate state agencies to identify and root out waste, fraud, abuse, mismanagement, corruption and other conduct contrary to the public interest.
The inspector general would serve a term of five years and be eligible for reappointment for no more than 2 additional terms, for a 15-year maximum period of service, according to the proposal.
Kowalko and Smith previously drafted separate bills to create the office but ultimately decided to combine their efforts.
“I’ve always felt that government oversight and good-government bills are going to be a bipartisan issue,” said Kowalko, who is not seeking re-election. “A good legislator, whatever party they’re in, is going to understand that the more openness and more oversight on our actions there is, the more confidence the people are going to have in us, which makes it easier for us to do our work.”
Smith said he looked at Kowalko’s bill and compared it to his own and determined they’d be better suited as one.
“You can never make the perfect policy,” Smith said, “but I thought I could bring more value to him by going on his bill rather than trying to compete over similar efforts when we both have the same common goal.”
While the corruption indictment of State Auditor Kathleen McGuiness wasn’t Kowalko’s reason for filing the bill, he said it does highlight the need to have an independent office to investigate complaints of waste, fraud, and abuse.
The office would offer confidentiality and protection for those who step forward to lodge a complaint or accusation, he said, pointing to allegations of witness intimidation in the McGuiness case.
The bill, which Kowalko said he’s been working on for nearly two years, would create an office with distinctly different duties to those of the auditor, Kowalko said. Many have asked him why the state should have both.
“This is mismanagement, fraud and even failure of an agency to do well,” he said. “ The auditor’s office is pretty much limited to money – whether money’s in the wrong place, whether an agency has maybe misplaced money or put it in the wrong category. That’s a pretty finite, narrow definition of responsibility.”
Under House Bill 405, a nonpartisan selection panel would provide three nominees to the governor for consideration. The governor would select a nominee and then submit the candidate for confirmation by the Senate.
Asked how the selection panel would be able to be nonpartisan and apolitical, Smith said “That’s really the hardest answer of all.”
“I think that’s one of those things where you look at folks that have not been involved in politics,” he said. “Community leaders who have not given money to or been involved in campaigns and have not had jobs in our state government.”
By upholding those standards, Smith said, lawmakers will be able to remove “the most implicit bias” and make the selection committee as independent as possible.
“Is any which way going to be perfect? Absolutely not,” he said. “But there are people out there who are not motivated politically, and we just have to make sure those are the people that we include in this role.”
Smith and Kowalko worked with the Delaware Coalition for Open Government, a group whose stated mission is to promote and defend the people’s right to transparency and accountability in government.
“We’re hoping it will get a fair hearing before the House Administration Committee,” said John Flaherty, who sits on the group’s board of directors. “And we’re hoping that the three Democrats on the committee will see fit to allow the full House to discuss and weigh in on this issue, even if they don’t support the concept.”
Flaherty recalled a similar bill passed with 35 yes votes in the House in 2007 but “when it went over to the Senate it got put in somebody’s desk drawer by the Senate Democrats,” never receiving a vote.
He said the bill faced stiff opposition from Senate Democrats back then because Gov. Ruth Ann Minner was a Democrat and some felt the bill was targeted at her.
“Now we have another Democrat in power and Democrats may feel that this bill targets the governor,” Flaherty said. “That’s not the case, so we’re hoping that they’ll look beyond their partisan interests and look out for the public interest by allowing a fair hearing of this bill.”
If passed and signed into law, the selection panel would be required to begin work immediately. The Office of the Inspector General would be expected to be operational by March 1, 2023.
A fiscal note, which details how much the bill is expected to cost taxpayers, has not yet been completed. Kowalko said he plans to meet with the Office of the Controller General Tuesday to present figures that will help the office formulate a cost estimate.
“Good government and transparency are at the heart of the public’s interest,” Smith said. “I think anytime you have one-party rule and you have some bloated government agencies and the public wants to have a better view and a better interaction with government, it’s a good opportunity to have an independent agency – as independent as you can – where they have a front door to be able to get some of their questions answered.”
HB 405 has been assigned to the House Administration Committee, which meets Wednesday. The bill is not on the committee’s agenda as of Tuesday morning, though it could be placed on the agenda before the committee meets.
“If there’s a fair hearing, I’m convinced that it’s going to pass the House,” Flaherty said.