Bethany considers restricting non-resident votes

Some non-resident property owners in Bethany Beach could potentially lose their right to vote on town ballot issues, if certain revisions to the town’s voting regulations are made.
The issue was raised at the April 14 meeting of the Charter and Ordinance Review Committee (CORC), in response to concerns that the existing system might have some inequities.

Unlike many municipalities, Bethany Beach allows non-resident property owners to vote. The particular circumstance that was raised at the CORC meeting related to multiple owners of properties within the town. Some properties may have three or more owners, each currently allowed to cast a single vote in town elections.

Town Council and committee member Tony McClenny questioned whether it was fair that properties with many owners could potentially have a larger impact on the voting than those with only one or two owners (a standard for single person or couple owning a property). The possibility exists, he said, for a “gross inequity” if multiple ownership were used to give those properties more voting power.

On that basis, McClenny recommended the town restrict non-resident property owners’ voting to those holding a 50 percent or greater interest in their property. It was later pointed out that such a restriction would prohibit any non-resident owner of a property owned by three or more people from voting in the town at all, and McClenny revised his recommendation to restrict each property to a maximum of two voters.

McClenny also emphasized that the change would only affect non-resident property owners, as the town allows all residents to vote, regardless of whether they own property in the town or how many owners their property has. (There are currently only 15 registered voters in the town who are non-owner residents.)

He further emphasized that the basic issue of allowing non-resident property owners to vote was not on his agenda to address at the April 14 the meeting.

Statistics from the year 2000 indicate that 126 properties in the town had more than two owners listed on their deeds at that time. (Members of partnerships are allowed to vote, while corporations that own property in the town cannot.)

Mayor Jack Walsh, present at the meeting, questioned whether the issue of multiple-owner voting was a real problem, pointing to an approximate 132 additional votes that could potentially be cast by existing property owners holding less than 50 percent interest. That is out of an estimated 4,635 potential voters.

Council and committee member Lew Killmer said he also questioned a need to create a stir over the issue if it was only a potential problem and not a problem in fact.

That feeling was reinforced by an October 2004 memo from Town Solicitor Terence Jaywork that opined that people in the town don’t go out of their way to maximize their voting power. He also questioned the need to fix something that might not be broken, something with no evidence of a real problem.

(On a side issue, Jaywork had also noted recently that the current town code was not legally sufficient to prevent owners of multiple Bethany Beach properties from making multiple votes in a given election. As the town voter rolls are organized by voter name rather than property owned, there is no mechanism to functionally allow multiple votes, but neither could the town legally prevent it.)

The committee members were generally in agreement that allowing more than two votes per property seemed unfair. Don Doyle supported that point of view while noting that previous consideration of non-resident voting issues had related to the control of the town by its residents and whether prohibiting non-resident voting (and the separate issue of voting by absentee ballot) was fair to non-residents.

There, Killmer questioned the benefit to the town of allowing non-resident voting, saying that even though such voters had a personal and financial interest in the town that their interests weren’t necessarily those that are beneficial to the town itself, while residents held a greater stake in the town due to their resident status.

Committee member Kathleen Mink — the sole non-resident on the committee — disagreed with that assertion and the consensus, saying that the interests of individual property owners in Bethany Beach were as valid as those of any resident.

McClenny acknowledged that the multiple-owner voting issue was exacerbated in its impact due to the non-resident voting issue. He further noted that Jaywork had questioned how the town would determine which two property owners of a three-owner (or more) property would be eligible to vote. But he emphasized that it was unfair for a home to potentially have 11 (or any large number) of voters while its neighboring home had only one.

Committee member Jerry Dorfman commented that the issue had the potential to open “a whole bunch of Pandora’s boxes.”

Killmer agreed, noting that the change had the potential to remove some non-resident votes from the existing pool. McClenny replied that his suggestion was not trying to restrict non-resident voting but instead to focus on assuring voting equity between properties. He said he personally favored non-residents’ ability to vote but that three or more owners of a given property shouldn’t all be able to vote automatically.

The committee’s votes on the issue fell along resident/non-resident lines, with Killmer, McClenny, Doyle and Dorfman supporting the restrictions, while Mink stood opposed.

McClenny said the issue would be put forward to the town council on its May agenda, to determine whether council members favored the committee proceeding with work on the issue.

Doyle noted that he felt it was more important to address another potential voting inequity. He said voters choosing to vote for a single candidate could magnify their voting power by electing to do so versus voting for as many candidates as open positions on a ballot. By voting for that single candidate and no others, he said, a single voter or a group of voters could potentially sway an election.

Town Clerk Lisa Kail noted that the existing system — allowing voters to vote for one or more candidates, at their discretion — was recommended by the state. Doyle said he would like to air the issue, but committee members voted 3-2 against pursuing it further.

Doyle also found fault with the town’s recent adoption of universal registration, which allows property owners to vote without officially registering, simply by virtue of having their names on a property’s deed. Kail said the registration system had been intended to make it easier for people to vote, particularly non-residents.

Mink pointed to complaints that had been made about some voters having registered at the state and county level but not realizing separate registration was required for town voting.

Killmer said he opposed making it more difficult for people to register to vote, but Doyle said he felt some minimal level of interest (such as the effort to register) should be shown by potential voters before they were allowed to vote.

Also at the April 14 CORC meeting, members:

• Voted to pursue no changes in the town’s existing skateboard regulations. Chairman and Council Member Wayne Fuller noted that council members felt the potential was there for changes to be too restrictive and favored existing prohibitions (in the downtown area) be kept.

Dorfman voiced concerns about skateboarding in other areas of the town and its impact on safety, pointing out that no alternative location existed. The committee agreed the creation of an official skateboard park should be considered, perhaps as part of recreational space on the former Neff and Christian Church properties.

• Reviewed Killmer’s notes on combining the International Maintenance Code (a supplement to the International Building Code recently adopted by the town) with existing portions of the town code on maintenance issues.

The committee’s consensus was that the code was a solid framework for developing a town maintenance code, with room to incorporate town-specific sections of code that already exist, as well as to eliminate sections that were found to be overly restrictive.

It was pointed out that the IMC requires deadbolt locks on doors and suggested that such requirements could be made to go into effect at the time of granting a building permit or certificate of occupancy rather than universally. Debate over requiring deadbolts ensued, with Doyle objecting to the idea. Building Inspector John Eckrich promised to review the reasoning behind the requirement and report back to the committee.

The committee members agreed to the plan to adopt a town-specific version of the maintenance code, and the idea was to be put before the town council for its approval.

• Accepted a “white paper” from Dorfman regarding standards for address numbers on the exterior of homes, in the wake of continuing controversy over a 3 1/2-inch height versus the current 4-inch requirement, as well as concern over requirements for color contrast. Walsh recommended a half-inch tolerance above or below a given size be considered for the size requirement.