Duane Bivans seemed surprised to realize it had been almost a year and a half already since he took the helm as Harrington mayor.
The Council voted Bivans, a longtime city council member, into the position after former mayor Anthony Moyer resigned in 2020 amid a swirl of accusations of wrongdoing against him and former town manager Don Williams. Williams was fired and has since sued the town. Moyer resigned citing health reasons, according to the Delaware State News.
Bivans completed that appointed term earlier this year, and the May election was canceled when he and two Council members ran unopposed.
Originally from Wicomico County, Maryland, Bivans moved to Harrington more than two decades ago, where he lives with his wife and daughter. In addition to town leadership, he’s active in a local church.
On a recent chilly winter evening outside the police station, on a stone bench engraved with the name of the former mayor, I chatted with Bivans about his time as mayor, his goals for the city, and the challenges and opportunities facing Harrington.
On his goals for the city
A sign out in the middle of Route 13 used to call Harrington the hub of Delaware, Bivans noted. But the city’s hustle and bustle of commerce is not what it used to be.
“All of a sudden, you mention Harrington, and people go ‘state fair.’” Instead, Bivans wants people to be able to both remember the good old days and talk about how much things have changed.
“We’ve got rail system that’s been here for 100-plus years. It’s still active, it’s still viable,” he said. He also pointed to the UPS facility in Harrington as another plus for people thinking about locating a business in the area.
“Both (UPS and rail), for the most part, aren’t stuck out at sea, waiting till we figure out how I can port.”
The city would also like to get help from the state for projects like a new rail hub in the works. But, Bivans said, intending the railway pun, “Before we can get the state on board, we (as a community) have to be on board. And we’ve got a lot of reasons to be on board.”
He also said, “We want people to be able to come here to work. We want them to come here for leisure. We want them to come here to live, and the only way that you can get people to do that is they’ve got to be able to see if you are inviting enough.”
Another of Bivans’ goals, “being the mayor of the city, is to ensure that we have a good working relationship with the Council, with the community as a whole, the citizens as individuals … one of the things that we’ve tried to do is to be very engaging with the public.”
When candidates run unopposed for office, as has happened numerous times in recent elections, he said it indicates people are confident in the job officials are doing. And he’s grateful for that, but he’d also like to see more involvement.
“The long term goal is again to create dialog. Create enough interest within the city, enough buzz in the city, enough good things in the city that people will come to the (city council) meetings and get information … it is our town. It’s our city. We have to collectively and as individuals, do what we can to ensure that the city moves forward …”
“We also want to be good stewards; we want to be good listeners,” he said, pointing to the city’s policy of allowing public comment at meetings. “... I think because we’re elected officials, we do need to listen.” And not only listen, but try to help.
Bivans said he wants to help bring back a transparency to city leadership that has been lacking in recent years. “The people knew what to basically expect of the government; somewhere along the line that got kind of foggy. And we’re hoping to clear the air, so to speak.”
And along those lines,
On the city moving past the scandal that ousted the former mayor
Bivans said the city hasn’t necessarily made big changes in the wake of Moyer’s resignation and Williams’ firing. He compared the events with a troubled marriage, where the signs are there all along.
“We had an operational manual, we had a personnel manual … but a closed manual serves no purpose.”
He said city leaders are keeping a closer eye on audits and asking more questions, and the city is more proactive on getting audits done now.
“Getting back to the basics, being transparent, and running it the way that it’s supposed to run,” he said. “And I think when people begin to see that nothing looks like it’s hidden, or covered, they have appreciation for it.”
Once the weather improves, he said, he wants to walk the streets with representatives from town staff, police and Council, focus on different neighborhoods and “meet and greet the folks who are out there, find out what’s on their mind.”
On being the city's first Black mayor
When Bivans took office, Delaware Public Media reported he was the first Black mayor in the city's history.
“It’s humbling because certainly, I might be the first to sit in the seat or be at the table, but I’m certainly not the first to make those inroads to make that thing possible,” he said.
“It really took 150 years (in Harrington history) to have somebody sit in a seat that looks like me — drastically wrong,” he also said.
“I just wish that the rest of society would look at mankind as a whole. Not mankind because of what hat he or she wears, not mankind because of what uniform they put on … if I cut myself, my blood is going to be red. If you cut yourself your blood is going to be red. At the end of the day, when this life is over, we both have an opportunity as I like to say, elevator up or elevator down.”
Reporters called after his appointment as mayor, Bivans said, wanting to do a story on him being the first Black mayor, but he refused in part because he’d been a Council member of color for years, and the first African American vice mayor, and nobody had reached out to him then. “At the time I became mayor, now it’s an interesting story. I’m still the same person, you know, just have different responsibilities.”
On the city's challenges
A common topic at Council meetings has been the city’s aging infrastructure, with issues like brown water in residents’ taps, failing pipes and a looming major expense of cleaning up defunct wastewater lagoons.
Bivans pointed to issues like these as one of the city’s challenges, with a need to find money to make the needed upgrades and repairs while also trying to do projects like a new library.
The town doesn’t have the money to just flip a switch and fix everything, Bivans said. “We have to make some hard decisions.”
But these are crucial repairs, and Bivans compared it to the refrigerator in your house failing. You’ll find a way to fix it. “If it means that, you know, we gotta eat gumbo for two weeks … you’re going to do what you need to do to take care of that because you understand as a homeowner, that cost is only going to go up.”
The town is going to be seeking help from state and federal sources for some of these projects, and Bivans suggested state and federal officials shouldn’t wait for some kind of disaster or a public spotlight on a town before seeing its potential. “We want you here before that.”
The city’s recent marking of 150 years says a lot about its character, he said. “Over the last two years, we’ve had to endure the pandemic stuff that’s going on, and for this small city, didn’t really miss a beat …”
“It’s our city. We have to collectively, and as individuals, do what we can to ensure that the city moves forward,” he said.
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