Fenwick council to talk voter registration one last time

Fenwick Island Town Council will — perhaps grudgingly — give the voter registration topic one last chance.

The primary sponsor of the proposed charter amendment, Councilwoman Julie Lee, has decided to hit “pause” on the proposal. She moved this week to rescind the first reading and canceled the scheduled Aug. 25 public hearing on the amendment, which would allow the spouses of trustees to vote in town council elections — a right they lost due to changes made in 2008.

“After the first reading, my sense was there weren’t the votes for it to pass,” Lee said a day before that scheduled hearing.

The amendment would allow two votes per trust (which would once again include a trustee’s spouse). Any property owned by non-residents would be limited to a maximum of four votes by deed holder or trustee.

The rules change would not affect residents, all of whom always have a right to vote, regardless of property ownership. LLCs, such as the gas station, would still get one vote. The “one person/one vote” mantra still holds true for all voters.

Council members passed the first reading in July — some, reluctantly — and the amendment has not been changed or revisited since then.

Lee said she respected that some council members were nervous about the proposal’s impact, but she said that dealing with the current rules has already taken up too much time and money. For instance, in the past three years, the town has paid about $25,000 in legal fees to research and process citizens’ claims, deeds and power-of-attorney paperwork. That is partly because of the contention and confusion about trusts only receiving one vote.

But, last Friday, the council was divided on whether to even discuss the issue anymore. They agreed, 4-3, to host one more discussion, in September, to try to find a path forward. Otherwise, they said, they will likely drop the issue, for now.

When polled, Mayor Gene Langan and Councilmen Richard Mais and Bernie Merritt weren’t interested in meeting on the issue, believing the council has spent enough time on it and should stop forcing it.

Gardner Bunting cast a tie-breaking vote from a neutral position on the issue, since he has opposed the language as written, but has said he believes “things are accomplished with seven of us sitting face-to-face,” to talk through the issues.

That didn’t stop the public and council members from breaking into debate again later in the meeting.

A charter change is still probably coming. The council still wants to pursue new charter language, including the definition of “bona fide resident,” which has also raised questions in the past.

They also want to research the possibility of raising the Town’s borrowing limits, which are set in the charter and must therefore be approved by the state legislature.

In other Fenwick Island Town Council news:

• The council updated its smoking ban to include vapor inhalers, e-cigarettes, marijuana and similar herbs/devices.

• Beach replenishment is coming. The State is now accepting bids for beach replenishment in Fenwick, South Bethany and Bethany Beach. Depending on the winning contractor’s timeline, Fenwick’s project may occur in late October.

• The council gave Ron and Kathy Serabian permission to temporarily erect an 80-by-40-foot tent on Atlantic Street for a Sept. 8 charity event.

• “The town of Fenwick Island should not have to face the threat of oil spill.” The council passed a resolution re-affirming their opposition to seismic testing for potential oil and gas reserves in the Atlantic Ocean. They will submit this statement in response to the White House’s instructing the Department of the Interior to reconsider testing and drilling in the Atlantic, after the Obama administration had previously adopted a policy not permitting it in at least the near future.

• The council passed a resolution signaling the Town’s desire and need for more sidewalks. They hope to solicit State assistance in accomplishing that task. The pedestrian safety committee will meet again on Sept. 15 at 10 a.m.

• The 2017 fiscal year ended “with a little money left over — not a lot,” said Treasurer Gardner Bunting. Councilman Roy Williams pointed out that the Realty Transfer Tax fund was depleted by at least $37,000, but Town Manager Terry Tieman said that money was placed in another pot, not necessarily spent.

Meanwhile, the Town paid about $10,000 to URS to help write its 10-year comprehensive plan update. That is on the low end for such projects, and it would be tough to do all the research, planning and writing in-house, Tieman said.

• Canal dredging would be on the Town’s priciest wish list. The Environmental Committee estimated that a hydrographic survey is the first step toward dredging and maintaining town canals and access channels. The study could cost anywhere from $15,000 to $24,000, depending on the thoroughness. Engineering for the project could cost at least $26,000. (The actual dredging would likely be hundreds of thousands of dollars.) The data was given to the Ad-Hoc Financial Committee, which is charged with long-range planning.

• Several Fenwick Island lifeguards were part of the Sussex County team that finished fourth in the country at the 2017 USLA National Lifeguard Championships.

• People are being reminded to plan early for coastal storms. “And, historically, we get hit with something — either a nor’easter or a hurricane,” said Police Chief Bill Boyden. “If anyone has questions or needs help putting together a plan,” he said, they have information at the police station. “As happened during [Hurricane] Sandy, we had a lot of people who didn’t expect to get hit and weren’t prepared.”

• Townsfolk may now apply to serve on Town committees. Details are available by calling the town clerk at (302) 539-3011 or online at http://fenwickisland.delaware.gov/committees-boards.

The next regular Fenwick Island Town Council meeting will be Friday, Sept. 22, at 3:30 p.m.