Wilmington City Council divided on how to handle councilman who violated residency requirement
Wilmington City Council members are clashing over whether a councilman ousted from his seat over violation of a residency requirement is being given due process.
During a short but fiery meeting Thursday, Wilmington City Council failed to pass legislation that would have hired a firm to do an independent investigation, at a cost of up to $10,000, into whether Earnest “Trippi” Congo II is eligible to represent the 2nd District.
Congo admitted to WDEL in late July he moved out of the district he has represented for almost 12 years, violating the city charter. He says he has since moved back and wants to serve out the rest of his term. But he says he has already lost access to Council meetings.
Congo is running to unseat Hanifa Shabazz as City Council President in the Sept. 15 primary election.
Congo claims he was unaware of the residency requirement, as he was originally gearing up to run for an at-large council seat this fall. Regardless of his future ambitions, five months remained in his current term.
“Once it was brought to my attention, I immediately took action to fix it,” said Congo in an interview Friday. “I didn’t say, I’m staying here anyway. I didn’t do that. I apologized. I admitted it, I owned it, I cancelled my lease. And now I’m back in the 2nd District.”
But Congo says he stopped receiving his salary, lost access to his City email address and has been unable to join the last few virtual City Council meetings.
Some members of Council are crying foul over how this happened, since Council has not yet voted to certify the vacancy.
“I’ve never heard, or rarely heard, of punitive action being taken against someone before it’s determined their guilt or innocence,” said Councilwoman Linda Gray at Thursday’s meeting. “My understanding is someone is innocent until proven guilty.”
City charter says if a council member stops living in their district, their office “shall immediately be forfeited and become vacant”. But it also says Council “shall be the sole judge” of members’ qualifications.
A faction of council, led by Shabazz and Councilman Charles “Bud” Freel, emphasize the first point in the charter.
“Sorry, but it is very clear that once he announced he moved out of the district, he gave up his seat,” said Freel, who sponsored the investigation ordinance. “It’s one of your main qualifications that you take an oath of office to uphold.”
But Congo’s allies, including Councilman Sam Guy, emphasize the latter point in the charter, and say Congo deserves a hearing before his seat is revoked.
Council President Hanifa Shabazz moved to introduce legislation that would have certified the 2nd District vacancy last month, but held it at Council’s first meeting back from summer break.
Congo says after that, he formally requested a hearing.
City Council spokesperson Latisha Bracy said in an email Friday the hearing is scheduled for Sept. 30.
In response to questions about whether she directed City human resources officials to cut Congo from the payroll or directed WITN, which facilitates Council meetings on Zoom, to bar Congo from signing on, Shabazz merely said all communications regarding the matter were made at the direction of counsel and the City’s law department.
“As President of City Council I cannot unilaterally remove another council member,” Shabazz said in a statement emailed by Bracy Friday. “Mr. Congo’s immediate forfeiture of his seat by moving out of his district set the chain of events in motion. As the City Charter Section 2-103 is clear, the seat is immediately vacated and his rights, duties and privileges as a council member immediately forfeited — Mr. Congo immediately became a former council member and a member of the public.”
“This is not a decision in which I have purview,” she added.
WITN Station Manager Paul Colsey declined to say whether he was told to block Congo from the meetings, directing inquiries to City Council Chief of Staff Marchelle Basnight. Basnight did not respond to a request for comment.
“I just think there should have been a conversation to say, hey, what’s going on?” said Congo Friday. “But there was no conversation. And, again, I’m not blaming that on anyone but me, because I made the mistake.”
The ordinance authorizing the investigation was defeated Thursday by a split vote of 6 to 6. Council members Shabazz, Freel, Christofer Johnson, Zanthia Oliver, Loretta Walsh and Ciro Adams supported the measure. Guy, Gray, Va’Shun Turner, Rysheema Dixon, Michelle Harlee and Yolanda McCoy opposed it.
At one point during the meeting, Guy directed his fellow council members to vote against the measure, seemingly to protest the process.
“The President [of Council] unilaterally, illegally has removed Councilman Congo from office,” said Guy. “Everybody needs to vote, ‘no’ tonight to this foolishness.”
Congo argues an investigation would be a waste of money, as he says he’s been transparent about his move. He sees the $10,000 price cap in the ordinance as an attempt to make his charter violation look like a cost to taxpayers. He says Shabazz, his opponent in the upcoming primary, is making the process political.
Correction: An earlier version of this story identified Earnest "Trippi" Congo as III. He is Earnest "Trippi" Congo II.