When a Wilmington City Council member was elected last month to the state House of Representatives, the council vacancy triggered an unusual method of replacing him.
Instead of holding a special election to fill the final two years of the now-vacant seat, residents were allowed to apply for the job. The effort backfired, however, and the process outlined in the city’s charter and code has led to further acrimony in an already divided council.
The latest episode of divisiveness centers on who will replace Nnamdi Chukwuocha of the 1st Councilmanic District in the city’s northern section, and how that should occur.
Chukwuocha defeated state Rep. Charles Potter in the September Democratic primary and was unopposed in the November 6 General Election. He took office immediately and had to resign from Council. Under a process the city has used a few times in the past, a five-member committee comprised of council members chosen by the council president was created.
Their charge was to accept applications, interview candidates and propose a replacement to the full 13-member body to consider. After interviewing 12 candidates, the committee raised eyebrows by choosing Chukwuocha’s twin brother — social worker Albert Mills — to replace him.
Chukwuocha and Mills are well-known in Wilmington circles as the Twin Poets. They were named Delaware’s poets laureate in 2015.
But the council rejected Mills in a meeting filled with vitriol.
Zanthia Oliver, who was on the panel that chose Mills, was angered by the vote. She was particularly incensed, she said, because eight of the 12 current City Council members are black but they rejected Mills, who also is black.
“Put his resume up to most of the ones on City Council and they would not get a job before him,’’ Oliver said during the meeting. “I’m appalled and disappointed. I think it’s disrespectful. I think it’s childish. And this is a hate crime.”
Councilman Sam Guy, who was not on the committee that picked Mills, voted against putting him on council. He said the council members who were on the panel back the agenda of Mayor Mike Purzycki and the Buccini Pollin Group development firm, which has done numerous residential and commercial projects in Wilmington.
“It’s a power move,” Guy told members. “What we’ve got going on tonight is whether people in Wilmington are going to be free or subjected to the people who are trying to buy the city. This is what this seat is about.”
Councilman Bob Williams explained to WHYY this week that council is already split 7-6 on controversial bills like the budget. Many foes thought Mills was chosen as a clinching vote for the Purzycki camp.
“To me this seemed as if the deck was stacked. This is like the House switching from Republican to Democrat. It depends on who’s in that seat, where most of our real controversial votes are going to go,” Williams said.
Hanifa Shabazz, who chaired the panel that selected Mills, was out of the country this week and unavailable for comment.
Councilman Bud Freel, who also was on the panel, said Mills was simply the best choice. In the aftermath of the vote, however, Freel and others are trying to get the state legislature to approve a special election.
“If we can’t do that for this specific seat I think we should change the language for the future,’’ Freel said.
But other council members have another idea. They have called a special meeting for January 3 and will put up a new candidate for members to consider. That candidate is Subira Ibrahim, chairman of the district’s Neighborhood Planning Committee.
Guy, who supports Ibrahim, said the matter will be decided, as outlined by the city charter, “when seven people agree on one person’s name.”
Either way, the upcoming meeting will likely produce its own share of fireworks, members predicted.
Said Freel: “It’s pretty bad right now.”