Until now, the Town of South Bethany might have had the longest lawmaking process among all its neighbors: three months to officially pass an ordinance. The town council has always required three readings (official presentations) of a proposed ordinance, at three separate meetings, before the final vote was tallied. Unless they had an urgent reason to enact laws faster, the council sometimes needed a full season to write or amend the code.
In July, the town council voted on a new guideline. They will pass ordinances in two regular monthly meetings, instead of three meetings (which sometimes included the monthly council workshops). There will now be two separate readings before the town council votes on final approval.
Although it’s tough to avoid doing so altogether, Mayor Tim Saxton said he has tried to avoid holding any votes during Thursday workshop meetings, preferring to keep those to the regular Friday-night council meetings.
Between the three readings and the actual research beforehand, “It really takes four months to get something passed,” Saxton said. “I was trying to help us be a little more effective in getting things done.”
“The objective is to move voting on ordinances to town council meetings and away from workshops,” according to Town Manager Maureen Hartman. “In the past, the workshop was not used as a vehicle to approve readings unless necessary.”
The Charter & Code Committee sent some input. Liaison Derek Abbott reported that chair John Fields was comfortable with the change.
“He did not really feel the change impacts the ability of the committee to do its work or the public to have an opportunity to hear what’s said, so we supported that,” Abbott said.
Many surrounding towns already have only one or two readings before enacting a law.
The change is officially part the town council revamping its Rules of Procedure into the “Procedural Guidelines for Town Council,” at the advice of the town solicitor. The decision was unopposed, with Councilwoman Carol Stevenson absent. No changes were proposed before voting.
Traditionally, the South Bethany Town Council reviews and renews the Rules of Procedure annually at their June organizational meeting. This month’s vote was based on changes first discussed in June.
Public comment procedures will be largely unaltered — a public comments period will be the last regular agenda item at regular council meetings and at workshops. People could also be allowed to comment throughout the regular meeting on particular topics, at the council’s discretion.
The new guidelines also remove the standard public notification via newspaper for new and approved ordinances. That information is already included on meeting agendas, which are posted at town hall (as required by state law) and posted online.
“The Town’s publication practices meet or exceed all requirements of FOIA,” Hartman said. “We would still have the option to use newspapers for public notification of an ordinance, if that was deemed necessary for some reason.”
Details about committee reports were removed from the document as well, but the Town still has a separate document for Committee Guidelines.
“Committee reports will remain on the agenda. Committee chairs have the option to report verbally only at the town council meeting or to submit a written report and have further comment at the town council meeting,” Hartman said.
Any municipality has the right to charge fines, fees and taxes. The Town has also been moving specific dollar amounts out of the town code (which, again, needs several months to amend) to the town fee schedule (which can be changed with one vote). The fee schedule is typically reviewed and voted upon annually, around budget time.
The town council also officially voted to post audio recordings of town council meetings online. That will likely begin in a month or so, as town staff work out the logistics of which website to use and how long audio should remain posted.
Council Member Sue Callaway noted that posting the audio online would eliminate the current time and expense of FOIA requests for audio.
Town Solicitor Stephani Ballard agreed, but she reminded the council that, “Legally, the official record of the meeting is the [written] minutes. Really, the posting of the audio is a courtesy.”
The South Bethany Town Council’s next workshop meeting will be July 25 at 3 p.m. The next regular meeting will be Aug. 9, at 6 p.m.
By Laura Walter