Calling for more transparency, community involvement, Jones challenges Meyer for county executive

Brandon Holveck
Delaware News Journal

Correction: A previous version of this story misstated Matt Meyer's response to a lawsuit over the county's response to sexual harassment claims. Meyer said there have been no reported incidents since he's been in office. 

Four years ago, to become New Castle County executive, Matt Meyer campaigned on the pledge of ending corrupt county politics and improving transparency to better serve the everyday residents of Delaware's most populous county.

Meyer, who defeated three-term County Executive Tom Gordon, says he has delivered on his promise while creating thousands of jobs and a model COVID-19 testing program.

But his challenger in Sept. 15's Democratic primary, Maggie Jones, says the county still needs to do more to include residents in impactful decisions and to hold itself accountable when spending taxpayer dollars.

"I'll be more inclusive and listen to people and respond accordingly," Jones said.

New Castle County Executive Matt Meyer speaks at a primary election watch party at Park Plaza in Wilmington in 2016. Meyer upset three-term incumbent Tom Gordon to win his first term.

The county executive pulls the strings on a $300 million annual budget covering county police, sewer, libraries, parks, and land development services for roughly 560,000 residents. With no Republican challenger, the next county executive will be decided in the Democratic primary in which only registered Democrats are eligible to vote.

Before his 2016 win, Meyer worked in corporate law, built two small businesses and taught math. He said his administration has made a "dramatic impact on people's lives."

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He touted the jobs that have been or will be created in the county by DOT Foods, Wegman's, Sprouts Farmers Market and Amazon, among others. He also pointed to his role in accessing more than $300 million in federal funding for coronavirus testing and connecting the state with its first testing provider, and to the county's behavioral health unit, which was recently expanded.

In a second term, Meyer's top priority would be restoring public health and people's confidence in public health. He said he's prepared to rebuild the county's job market, the way he already once did.

"We are thinking and talking about what more we can do to get us out of this ... to get us out of this a little bit safer and faster than our neighboring jurisdictions," Meyer said.

Maggie Jones of Middletown is running against incumbent Matt Meyer for New Castle County executive.

In her first run for public office, Jones is being supported by several unions, including the county's police union, which spent the last year sparring with Meyer over their compensation.

Jones retired on Aug. 31 from her role as the instructional coordinator for the workforce development and community education department at Delaware Technical Community College. Over the previous two decades, she has worked in several state agencies including the Labor Department.

She grew up in the Prices Corner area but has lived in Middletown for the past five years.

Before making the decision to run earlier this year, Jones said, county employees, politicians and residents told her they weren't satisfied with Meyer's administration. 

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Many, she said, feel they don't know what is happening in county government or how to get involved. Others said the county at times has worked against the interests of local communities, according to Jones.

Jones said the county needs to do more to show the public what it's doing, beyond the open checkbook database Meyer created at the beginning of his tenure to show the county's expenditures.

She plans to implement a compliance program that would disclose to the public not only what has been spent but where money is supposed to be spent, and introduce new measures to hold public officials accountable.

County Executive Matt Meyer announces the arrival of more personal protective equipment for paramedics in New Castle County in front of boxes of supplies on Monday, April 6.

Her philosophy on the county's COVID-19 response differs greatly from Meyer's. Jones criticized the county for taking resources she feels would be better utilized by the state.

"Delaware is small," Jones said. "We need to make sure that there is an equitable division throughout the state for all funding."

Meyer has criticized Jones for changing her party affiliation several times over the past 12 years, saying it's not clear whether his opponent is "actually a Democrat."

According to voter registration data, Jones voted as a Republican in 2010. She last voted in 2016 as a Democrat, the data shows. And she declared herself an independent around the 2018 midterm elections before returning to the Democratic Party.

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Jones initially changed her affiliation because she was upset by the health care laws at the time that hurt working-class people, she said. The Republican Party's stances on social issues such as abortion caused her to return to the Democratic Party, she said. Jones declined to discuss why she changed affiliations around the midterm elections.

"If you're going to stand up and run in a Democratic Party primary, you need to illustrate that you hold those ideas, those values that we as Democrats hold to be true – values of inclusiveness, of unity, of looking out for the little guy – and you need to do it consistently," Meyer said.

Meyer has drawn criticism for his response to sexual harassment allegations levied earlier this year by six women against now-retired Lt. Col. Quinton Watson, the former No. 2 in the county. Meyer is named in a lawsuit pertaining to the situation along with Col. Vaughn Bond, the county's chief of police, and county Chief Administration Officer Vanessa Phillips.

In more than a dozen interviews, former and current New Castle County officers and employees said Quinton Watson was a known problem in the department.

The women argue in the filing that not only were they discriminated against because of their sex, but that county officials including Meyer, Bond and Phillips allowed Watson's behavior to continue and tolerated a hostile work environment. 

Meyer maintained there have not been any reported incidents of sexual harassment within the department since he took office. He said once he learned of allegations against Watson, his administration immediately did everything it could to have a formal complaint filed. 

Once Meyer and Phillips met with an individual, who he said elected not to enter the formal complaint process, he said they immediately put Watson on leave.

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The harassment and implicit bias training Meyer mandated for all employees, including police officers, when he first entered office and the outside law firm he hired to look at "discrimination and bias issues," prompted "historic issues of discrimination" to come out, he said.

Meyer said he's confident the lawsuit won't stand.

Thirty days from the primary, Meyer had out-raised Jones by almost $30,000 and had spent almost twice as much as she had.

Jones said she has participated in only one fundraising event and has not solicited donations via email or text message because of the financial difficulties the pandemic has wrought on many people.

Members of FOP Lodge 5 from the New Castle County Police Department demonstrate in an "informational line" across the street from the county's Old Fashioned Ice Cream Festival last year in response to their lack of contract and proposed changes from County Executive Matt Meyer. The group is supporting Jones in the 2020 election.

Meyer's most recent attack centers on a $202,200 contribution with ties to a New Jersey labor group in support of Jones' campaign. He said the election should be decided by those in Delaware, not an outside group that "effectively wants to buy the county executive seat."

"It's really pernicious," Meyer said.

Jones said she learned of it through Meyer's campaign emails and did not solicit the group's support.

The contribution was made by Building Stronger Communities LLC, a group that supported at least five Delaware Democratic candidates in 2018. The money was funneled through Growing Economic Opportunities, which is tied to New Jersey Laborers PAC, a political arm of the Laborers' International Union of North America.

The organization could not be reached for comment.

Listed as recipients in the campaign finance report disclosing the payment are Jones; 14th Senate District candidate Bruce Ennis; and Round World Consulting, a New Jersey-based political communications firm.

"I support everything the unions stand for," Jones said. "So that makes sense. It's just something that happened."

Contact Brandon Holveck at bholveck@delawareonline.com. Follow on Twitter @holveck_brandon.