Delaware's loveliest neighborhood

Councilmember James Spadola on Midtown Brandywine and Wilmington at large

by | Oct 31, 2023 | Public Relations Committee

Midtown Brandywine News recently sat down with Wilmington Councilmember At-Large James Spadola. Elected to the Wilmington City Council in 2020 with a record-breaking margin, James began his journey in public service post-9/11, enlisting in the US Army Reserves and later receiving the Combat Action Badge for his service in Iraq. A dedicated advocate against childhood illiteracy, he serves as the Executive Director for Read Aloud Delaware. Before this, he was notable for his community outreach initiatives with the Newark Police Department, including the acclaimed #HugACop video. Apart from his political and social endeavors, Spadola is a talented guitarist and holds both a B.A. in Political Science and an MBA. Recognized with awards such as the Outstanding Young Wilmingtonian and “40 Under 40,” Spadola, in his downtime, enjoys life with his wife Leeanne, 20 month-old son, and their unique rescue dog, Hoss.

On parking in Wilmington and Midtown Brandywine

Midtown Brandywine News: “Thank you for agreeing to talk with Midtown Brandywine News, James. You’ve been advocating for what you call ‘a systemic approach to parking reform’ for some time. In fact, I think the issue of parking has been one of your key platforms since you were elected to council.”

James Spadola: “Yes, it wasn’t something that I initially envisioned, but numerous people reached out to me about parking issues, especially given my campaigning throughout the entire city. I received complaints from residents about parking tickets that seemed unfair. So rather than dealing with these issues on a case-by-case basis — or playing Whack-A-Mole, as I call it — we realized the need for a more systemic approach. The administration, along with several of my colleagues on council, has been working on parking reforms. It’s an ongoing process. It’s often two steps forward, one step back, but we’re making progress.”

Midtown Brandywine News: “How do you feel about the most recent slate of parking reforms introduced by the mayor’s office?”

James Spadola: “You’re referring to the appeal process now being handled by the JP court; I see it as an overwhelmingly positive change. The only downside might be the new appeal process. In the past, the administration would do a courtesy review upon request, but that might no longer be the case. The previous system had the city act as the judge, jury, and executioner for parking tickets. There were no checks and balances. Having a court review parking tickets will provide a necessary oversight and improve the process. I had been working on legislation advocating for this, so I’m glad the mayor’s office took the initiative.”

Midtown Brandywine News: “If you could implement every parking reform that you feel is necessary and achievable, what would the ideal parking situation look like in Wilmington?”

James Spadola: “Your question highlights the need for a nuanced approach, taking the specifics of each neighborhood into account. Parking in Midtown Brandywine is different than parking in the Highlands or the east side. There’s a saying that all politics is local politics, and all local politics is parking politics. I never had a particular interest in parking until I joined the council. There’s a professor, Donald Shoup, who has dedicated his career to parking. While I don’t agree with all his ideas, some have influenced my approach. For instance, I believe in supply and demand parking. In many cities, you expect to pay for parking, but in Wilmington, we often give away potential revenue by not charging during peak times. The current system has inconsistencies, and we need to examine whether certain areas should be free or not. We also need to balance the interests of residents with businesses. Reassessing current regulations, considering paid parking during weekends and evenings, and addressing specific neighborhood issues like in Midtown Brandywine, are all parts of the broader picture. The mayor is open to exploring these ideas, and I believe we need to continuously reevaluate our approach.”

Midtown Brandywine News: “Some residents in Midtown Brandywine feel there’s an injustice with local employees, whether from bars, restaurants, or the hospital, using street parking rather than using free parking provided by their employers. What’s your take?”

James Spadola: “To address this, nighttime and weekend parking enforcement might be the solution. You can’t prohibit someone from parking on a public street. However, if there’s a two-hour parking limit, as is the case in all of Midtown Brandywine, it should also be enforced during weekends. This could alleviate the parking issues specific to Midtown. Of course, with every solution, there might be challenges, such as residents having guests over. But with a good guest permitting system, those challenges can be managed. It’s all about making progress and addressing new issues as they arise.”

On community policing in Wilmington

Midtown Brandywine News: “Let’s delve into the topic of community policing. Midtown Brandywine News recently had a comprehensive discussion with Chief of Police Wilfredo Campos and Anthony Easterling, focusing on the Chief’s community engagement initiatives. Over the years, you’ve actively championed community police department engagement, which residents have valued greatly. As president of the Trolley Square Civic Association, you’ve consistently advocated for residents on issues ranging from parking and noise nuisances to petty crimes and even more serious matters. You’re on record supporting Chief Tracy, and earlier this year, you warmly congratulated Chief Campos on his new role. Can you share your insights on the work and goals of the Chief’s new Community Engagement Unit?”

James Spadola as a "Hug a Cop" Newark police officer, pictured by Inside Edition.

James Spadola as a “Hug a Cop” Newark police officer, pictured by Inside Edition.

James Spadola: “Certainly. Without diving into my biography, I’ll mention that in the last four years of my police career, I was deeply involved in community policing. I joined Newark Police in October 2008, left in 2017 for the nonprofit sector, largely influenced by my community policing experiences. Notably, in 2015, I initiated programs such as giving out ‘free hugs’ on Main Street in Newark, the ‘Shop with a Cop’ initiative, and a trampoline park program bringing cops and kids together. My focus has always been fostering strong community-police relations. This perspective informs my council duties and how I evaluate the Wilmington Police Department and its leadership. I believe Chief Campos is on the right track with the Community Engagement Unit. While ideally, every officer would be a community policing officer, that’s not realistic. Officers have varied strengths and interests. For instance, some excel in drug arrests, while others focus on traffic violations. Then there are officers like me, more community oriented. I learned the importance of ‘winning hearts and minds’ during my time in Iraq, and I’ve applied that philosophy to policing. Not all officers are naturally inclined towards community policing, and that’s where specialized units come in. Chief Campos’ decision to promote Captain Rosario, known for his excellent conflict resolution skills, was commendable. I believe a dedicated unit can ensure consistency in addressing neighborhood issues and building trust.”

Midtown Brandywine News: “The Chief told us he’s collaborating with the ChristianaCare Health System to create a unit focused on assisting community members during mental health crises. This initiative proposes pairing police officers with mental health professionals as first responders to such emergencies. Given its nearing implementation, what are your thoughts?”

James Spadola: “I think it’s a vital step forward. There’s a divide in how police address mental health crises, with some advocating for a more social work-based approach while others emphasize potential safety concerns. This unit provides a balanced solution by combining the expertise of a mental health professional with the security of a police officer. I believe this combination can effectively bridge the gap, ensuring those in crisis receive appropriate care while maintaining safety. I’m eager to see its impact.”

“The most crucial resource for any department is its personnel. Nationally, there’s a shortage, and Wilmington is no exception. For instance, the most recent academy class had only seven recruits, which is unusually small. However, every time the police department has sought council approval for grants, they’ve received support, be it for equipment like Tasers or tactical vests. I’m in regular contact with many Wilmington officers and haven’t heard concerns about resource scarcity. A current topic of discussion is the potential lifting of the residency requirement, which could influence recruitment.”

On Wilmington and New Castle County property value assessments

Midtown Brandywine News: “Moving on to the topic of property tax, the reassessment started in February this year. In March, the mayor announced that the property tax would remain flat, but also highlighted a significant expected deficit for fiscal 2026. Can you share your views on how this reassessment has affected homeowners, especially in Midtown Brandywine?”

James Spadola: “Certainly. To clarify, New Castle County oversees the reassessment process, with the City then deciding on tax adjustments based on the County’s assessment. From what I understand, the reassessment aims to be revenue neutral. This means that roughly one third of property owners will see no change, one third will experience an increase, and one third will see a decrease. As an example, I once owned a condo that sold for under $200,000 but had an annual property tax of $5,000. I anticipate the new owner will likely see a decrease. It’s crucial that property taxes align with a property’s actual value. Over time, some areas like the Highlands have seen tremendous appreciation, while others haven’t. Midtown Brandywine might be somewhere in between. Ultimately, the outcome for individual homeowners will depend on specifics like recent home renovations. In general, there’s a 67% chance property taxes will either stay the same or decrease.”

Midtown Brandywine News: “Do you have any comments on other city or county taxation issues our readers should know about?”

James Spadola: “Certainly. The city’s fiscal situation remains challenging. The mayor has projected a deficit for 2026, in part due to changing work-from-home trends. Some office buildings are being reassessed at lower values, which impacts the city’s revenue. It’s essential for city leaders to prioritize fiscal restraint to avoid scenarios like significant layoffs. Wilmington has seen some growth, especially in the Riverfront area, but challenges remain given the limited undeveloped land. Maintaining fiscal prudence is key for our city’s future, and I hope future leaders will prioritize this approach.”

On his anti-nepotism initiative

Midtown Brandywine News: “Transitioning from fiscal prudence to ethical prudence, let’s discuss the Anti-Nepotism legislation you presented on April 20 [2023]. As I understand, this legislation aimed to prohibit the hiring of immediate family members of Wilmington City Council members. Despite its intent, it wasn’t passed by the Council. Could you outline the benefits and potential drawbacks of your proposal and explain how you plan to continue promoting ethical governance?”

James Spadola: “Certainly. Firstly, to clarify, the legislation was voted down, though I had considered tabling it. I had expected support from certain council members, but during the meeting, it seemed they changed their stance. Nevertheless, it’s a topic we can revisit with the next council.

“The primary intent of the bill was to avoid potential conflicts of interest. The nepotism bill targeted immediate family members and did not extend to more distant relations like cousins or uncles. Given that there are around ten council staff positions reporting to the 13-member council, having a relative of one member employed could pose challenges. These employees could end up working on matters contrary to another council member’s views. Unfortunately, some misinformation muddled the discussion. For instance, one council member expressed concerns about her niece’s employment opportunities, even though the legislation didn’t affect such distant relations.

“To me, prohibiting such close familial ties in council staff positions symbolizes transparency and good governance. When the public sees family members employed alongside elected officials, it can foster skepticism and distrust. Consider a nonprofit organization – if all board members were related, it might raise questions about its operations and transparency.

“On the downside, well, it’s challenging for me to pinpoint any direct cons. I saw the legislation as a straightforward step towards better governance.”

The future of Wilmington and Midtown Brandywine

Midtown Brandywine News: “You recently celebrated your 40th birthday. Fast forward to 2063, when you’ll be 80, what milestones or achievements in your career would you like to reflect on with pride?”

James Spadola: “Thinking 40 years ahead is indeed a vast horizon but let me take a broad view. It’s always about incremental progress. My daily drive is centered around pushing our city towards a brighter future – safer streets, cleaner neighborhoods, opportunities for upward mobility, and simplifying everyday challenges like parking. If by 2063, I can reminisce about how I contributed to steering the city in such a positive direction, that would be a source of deep satisfaction.”

Midtown Brandywine News: “Envisioning Midtown Brandywine in 2063, how do you see its evolution? Do you anticipate it maintaining its current footprint?”

James Spadola: “Preserving the neighborhood from any more encroachments is essential. There’s a charm to our local bars and community spots, and I feel we’ve found a harmonious balance presently. While there were initial challenges, say, during the establishment of Torbert Street, I believe the equilibrium we’ve achieved benefits everyone. My vision for Midtown Brandywine is to consolidate its borders, ensuring it remains vibrant and thriving. Above all, the city’s essence lies in its residents, and their well-being should always be paramount.”

On childhood literacy

Midtown Brandywine News: “As we conclude, can you share some insights about Read Aloud Delaware, for those in our community who might not be familiar with your nonprofit?”

James Spadola: “Certainly. Read Aloud Delaware has been active since 1984, and as we approach our 40th anniversary next year, I feel honored to have served as the executive director in recent times. Our core mission revolves around promoting early childhood literacy, creating lifelong impacts. Our volunteers are passionate about reading to children, recognizing the profound influence it has on a child’s development. This initiative remains our hallmark across the state. Additionally, since the onset of the pandemic, we’ve introduced a great parent empowerment program for new parents called “LENA Start” that we implement in both English and Spanish. In 3 years, we’ve served over 175 families with the 10-week program.  The program focuses on showing parents simple ways to talk more to their child and how important that is. It also incorporates wearable technology designed to track the parent’s progress as the language environment improves in the home. Catering to children aged 0 to 5, our focus remains on countering the literacy challenges in Delaware.”

“We’re always on the lookout for volunteers. Several of our partner sites are within walking distance of Midtown. Most of our volunteers are retirees or those with flexible work schedules, committing to an hour a week. This consistent interaction is crucial for the children. While we have volunteers from various parts of the city, it would be wonderful to see more representation from the Midtown community. More details can be found on our website!”

Midtown Brandywine News thanks James for being a strong advocate for Midtown Brandywine and for sharing his views with us.

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