Tired of filling vacancies — 5 since 2019 — Wilmington Council wants special elections instead

Wilmington’s charter can only be amended by the General Assembly. But so far, state lawmakers haven’t shown any interest in making the change.

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At-Large Council Member Latisha Bracy is sworn in on December 1, 2022

At-Large Council Member Latisha Bracy is sworn in on December 1, 2022. She's one of several new members selected by Council to fill a vacancy in recent years. (Wilmington City Council/Twitter)

Five times in less than four years. Wilmington City Council has gone through the laborious, politicized process of filling a vacancy.

Two resigned — one for serious illness and the other because of potential conflicts with her business interests. One was elected to the state legislature. One moved outside his district. One died.

Each time, council members had to sift through applications, interview applicants, and ultimately vote on the replacement. One time the process became acrimonious, and the first nominee was voted down.

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Last week, after appointing Vincent White to replace Linda Gray, who died nearly three months ago after contracting pneumonia, Council President Trippi Congo and other members reiterated calls to have special elections to fill vacancies. Members had passed a resolution in June, urging the General Assembly to change the city charter to authorize special elections.

City Council members applaud Vincent White (right) after he was sworn in last week
City Council members applaud Vincent White (right) after he was sworn in last week. (City of Wilmington)

“It’s an extremely political process and I just think that the community should be able to vote on who they want to represent,’’ Congo said during the June meeting. “That issue should absolutely be taken out of our hands. It just sets up a whole path forward, I believe, of favoritism.”

The resolution passed 7-0 with five members absent. Council has 13 members but there was one vacancy at that time.

City Council President Trippi Congo
City Council President Trippi Congo says the danger of having members fill vacancies is political and personal ”favoritism.” (City of Wilmington)

The call to Dover came with just two weeks left in the 2022 legislative session, so no action was taken. Nor have any state lawmakers introduced such a bill since the 2023 session started in January.

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Councilwoman Zanthia Oliver, who supports the measure, said state Rep. Stephanie Bolden, who also represents Wilmington, told her the General Assembly won’t take up the matter.

Oliver said Bolden told her that “Dover is not changing the charter to pay for an election. Do your duty and just be done with it.”

Bolden told WHYY News she doesn’t recall the conversation with Oliver, had not seen the resolution from City Council, and had no further comment.

House Speaker Pete Schwhartzkopf and Senate President Pro Tem Dave Sokolo did not did not return WHYY’s requests for comment on possible legislation.

Coby Owens, one of the applicants for the post filled last week and a 2020 candidate for City Council, said he supports having the charter changed.

“It’s extremely important that the voters have an opportunity to say who they want to represent them and have their voices heard. That’s what our democracy is supposed to be built on,’’ Owens said.

Owens, vice chair of the state Democratic Party, noted that Wilmington is the state’s largest city, but that many smaller municipalities, including Dover and Newark, hold special elections to fill a vacancy.

Vacancies in the state House and Senate are also filled with special elections. To that end, former Wilmington Councilman Bud Freel won a special election in March to replace state Rep. Gerald Brady, who resigned after making anti-Asian slurs and a shoplifting arrest.

“So I definitely would hope that the General Assembly looks at our largest city,’’ Owens said, “and say that it’s only fair that the individuals get an opportunity to say who will represent them for the remainder of the term.”

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