Fenwick to consider allowing two votes per trust

Date Published: 
July 14, 2017

Voting reform has passed its next hurdle in Fenwick Island: the Charter & Ordinance Committee will recommend to the town council that the Town allow two votes per trust.

It all began in 2008, with a change to Fenwick Island’s town charter. Amidst other election updates, spouses of trustees lost their automatic right to vote. There was no election that year, and no one noticed or complained until 2015, when Fenwick Island had its next contested election. Suddenly, people didn’t know if they were allowed to vote or not.

After the confusion of 2015, Council Member Julie Lee led the charge for voting reform, leading the ad hoc Election Committee to draft recommendations for the Charter & Ordinance Committee.

“What we’re trying to do is reinstate votes for people who lost their votes when there was a charter change in 2007/2008. We’re not trying to give more votes to trusts,” said Lee. “We’re also trying to distinguish between people and artificial entities. Clearly LLCs, partnerships and corporations… I think we’re all in agreement that they should remain having one vote as an artificial entity. They did not have any votes at all prior to 2007/2008.”

Lee suggested they return to the language allowing votes for any “individual who holds property in trust or in deed.”

On July 7, the C&O Committee approved several proposals. They agreed that trusts should be allowed up to two votes (although they did clarify that the person voting must be a spouse or listed in the trust).

Properties held in deed would be allowed four votes (currently, there is no limit). Only a handful of properties in the town have more than two people on the deed, according to town staff.

LLCs, such as the gas station, would still get one vote.

Other rules are designed to prevent the voting eligibility from getting out of hand. Any household only gets four votes total (apart from residents, who are allowed to vote in their own right). And the “one person/one vote” mantra still holds true for all voters, so being a resident and a property owner (whether of that residence or another property) only entitles a person to vote once per election.

Bona fide residents of Fenwick Island are not impacted by the proposed changes. Whether a person owns or rents the place they live in Fenwick Island, full-time residents are guaranteed a vote.

Typically, in Fenwick Island, residential deeds are held in a person’s name or in a trust. A trust has trustees, beneficiaries and property.

“The trustee is technically the legal owner of the property … with strings attached,” Town Solicitor Mary Schreider-Fox had previously said.

The ad hoc Election Committee had recommended up to four votes per trust, but the C&O Committee compromised at two.

Fenwick Island is one of the many area beach towns where non-resident property owners can vote, unlike many inland communities. And non-resident property owners already outnumber residents on the town’s voter rolls. According to town staff, 158 residents are registered to vote, with a total of 499 registered voters.

“I personally feel no one is going to go through the legal expense to set up a trust … to get more votes in Fenwick Island,” Lee said.

“To me, you’re diluting the voting capabilities of the residents of this town,” Councilman Bill Weistling Jr. said. “I chose to make this my home.

“And any of the people you’re talking about — they have the opportunity to get as many votes as they want. Move to Fenwick Island. Declare your hometown and reside here.

“There are a lot of people that stay here three months a year, and then they’re gone. I live here full-time. I’m dedicated to this town. I’m not saying that [non-residents] are not dedicated. … I think you need to be very, very careful when you allow non-residents to vote.”

“In these small vote counts, one family can swing a vote,” agreed Councilman Bernie Merritt.

“Nobody wants to keep Fenwick limited and quiet more than I do,” Lee responded. “These are individuals whose families have been in town for decades.”

“But you also have a lot of new people coming in, buying houses,” Weistling countered. “I think we have to look to the future. I know what you’re trying to do for the past. … You can start playing a game with entities on how this is going to work.”

There are more than 100 types of trusts, Weistling said, including one that very closely resembles a traditional business.

Councilwoman Vicky Carmean said her goal was just simplicity, so everyone clearly understands the rules on election day.

Some committee members said they would have preferred even more stringent voting rules.

The C&O Committee has also approved an updated definition of “bona fide resident” to better match state law.

“There are some other possible changes to our Charter that we will be working on next, so we will probably wait until all are finalized before proceeding,” Weistling stated.

The town council could vote on the recommendation immediately or wait until all the proposed changes have been ironed out. The town solicitor will also review the proposed language.

Municipal charter changes must be approved by Delaware General Assembly, so Fenwick would need support from state Sen. Gerald Hocker Sr. and state Rep. Ron Gray to guide it through the legislature.