Election committee criticized after voting restriction proposed

Date Published: 
June 24, 2016

Just weeks after Fenwick Island’s Ad-hoc Election Committee recommended two changes to the Town’s voting requirements, the mayor moved to disband the committee. He ultimately agreed to wait till a review of the issue by the town attorney.

At the Friday, June 17, town council meeting, Council Member Bill Wiestling, who chairs the town’s Charter & Ordinance Committee, spoke at some length about the election committee’s report earlier in the month to the Charter & Ordinance Committee.

The election committee had requested that two changes to the Town’s charter be considered: allowing voting rights for spouses of those whose property is held in trust, and requiring that voters own property in town — meaning that full-time renters would no longer be able to vote in town elections.

“There were several errors, false statements, that were printed on this (report),” Wiestling said.

Among the errors, according to Wiestling, was the election committee’s assertion that “Some municipalities require a lease of five years or longer” in order for a resident to be allowed to vote. The election committee members had reportedly researched the issue as it applied to surrounding beach towns and included its findings in its report to the Charter & Ordinance Committee.

In fact, only one other local beach community — Dewey Beach — requires five years in a lease. All others, Wiestling pointed out, require less than a year’s residency.

In Fenwick Island, currently, all residents are allowed to vote. “Resident” as defined by the town code, is a natural-born citizen, 18 or older, who has lived in the town since the March 1 prior to election. Town elections in Fenwick Island are generally held in August. However, prior to 2015, the town had not had an election since changes to the voting regulations regarding trustee voting took effect in 2008, resulting in some confusion last summer over who was legitimately allowed to vote.

Wiestling also took issue with the election committee’s assertion that other towns restrict voting to property owners only.

“That is false. Every beach community from here to Lewes allows non-property-owners to vote,” he said.

“The ad-hoc election committee believes that these changes would make voter qualifications more equitable and in line with other municipalities,” Wiestling continued. “I do not see how that would make the Town of Fenwick Island more equitable.”

Mayor Eugene Langan also took issue with the committee’s work and suggested it be disbanded.

“If you can explain to me why you think it should exist, when you passed it on to the Charter & Ordinance Committee, I’ll listen to you,” Langan said. “I think the Ad-hoc Election Committee has done its job. You’ve turned it over to Charter & Ordinance.”

Council Member Julie Lee, chair of the election committee, admitted its work was flawed.

“We did not review as carefully as we should have,” Lee said. She said that, in actuality, “The only (voting) restrictions for leaseholders are for non-resident leaseholders. We erred. I accept full responsibility for that. I’m not denying that we made a mistake,” Lee said.

She objected to Langan’s announcement that he was disbanding the committee.

“What we wanted to do was have a discussion. The most important issue that has come to us was that issue of reinstating the rights of non-resident families,” she said, in reference to the trustee spouse voting recommendations.

“What you are telling me is you, as the mayor of this town, you’ve made this determination that the ad-hoc elections committee is no longer in existence?” Lee asked, to which Langan answered, “Yes.”

“I’m really disappointed in this committee that is trying to get something done that’s unconstitutional… denying people the right to vote,” Langan said.

Wiestling, who chairs the Charter & Ordinance Committee, suggested that, as a compromise, the election committee should be kept until the Charter & Ordinance Committee receives input from the town solicitor on the voting issues at hand.

Fenwick Island has scheduled its town council election for Aug. 6, if there are contested council seats.

In other business, Town Manager Merritt Burke announced at the meeting that he had met with Department of Natural Resources & Environmental Control officials regarding the state of the town’s dune crossings — particularly because recent damage has made beach accessibility difficult in some areas. He recommended that those with disabilities use the crossing at Bayard Street for the time-being.

Police Chief William Boyden asked residents to report any incidents of rowdy behavior and the like when it happens, rather than days later.

“We’ve had quite a few calls three days after an incident happened,” Boyden said, adding that, at that point, “There’s not a lot we can do.”

Boyden also asked that, as hurricane season gets under way, property owners be aware of conditions and that, in the event of an evacuation, they abide by all regulations regarding re-entry into town. He said he understands that residents want to get back into town to check on their properties, but asked that they be patient.

The council last week also approved the first reading of an ordinance prohibiting hunting within town limits.

Lee also proposed the formation of an ad-hoc committee to review town tax rates; the measure failed, with all other members voting “nay.”