Fenwick drafts new voter laws to restore votes of trustees’ spouses

Date Published: 
Aug. 4, 2017

After two years of debating voter qualifications, Fenwick Island officials finally compromised on new guidelines that could restore votes to previous voters, without heavily diluting residents’ votes. But the town solicitor has said the latest draft still leaves Fenwick open to potential problems in town elections.

The town council approved the changes’ first reading on July 28, by a 6-1 vote (Councilman Gardner Bunting opposed).

“I do understand that this may need some further discussion, but there are issues that can be resolved,” said Councilwoman Julie Lee, who has guided this proposal from the Ad-hoc Election Committee. “We owe it to the town to try and restore the voting rights of those that lost their voting rights in 2008, when the charter was changed.”

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 intent of the changes is to allow up to 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. Those rules do not impact residents, all of whom always have a right to vote, regardless of property ownership. LLCs, such as a gas station, would still get one vote. The “one person/one vote” mantra still holds true for all voters.

Bunting said he felt the proposed change could “open a can of worms,” especially if people re-organized their paperwork to game the system. “I just see it opening up to things that are not visible right now.”

Trusts are primarily used for estate planning — in Fenwick, at least. But after reviewing the draft, Town Solicitor Mary Schrider-Fox reportedly sent the town council a list of questions and concerns about potential loopholes and issues. The Town will have to decide what path forward to take.

The problem the proposed amendment is trying to address is that the charter was previously unintentionally rewritten so that some people lost voting rights. Trusts were considered artificial entities, which meant they were limited to one vote each, though power-of-attorney. Also, the non-resident spouses of trustees lost the right to vote, as they are neither residents, nor property owners in their own right.

“I voted in favor of having the spouse be part of the vote of the trustee,” Councilman Bernie Merritt said. “That raised a lot of questions that I didn’t see prior of that. I’m voting in favor of the first reading,” but he said he wants the amendment vetted very carefully before its second reading.

There’s other charter work ahead, even after nailing down the voter rights issue. The town council may also investigate increasing the Town’s borrowing power, upward from $500,000, in case of emergency. (Fenwick is currently on par with other neighboring towns, some of which have no limit, while others also have a limit of $500,000.)

Fenwick also needs a law that a majority of Delaware state legislators will approve, as all charter changes go through them.

Lock those doors

By leaving doors unlocked, people are still making themselves an easy target for crime.

“Lock your doors, and lock your houses,” Police Chief William “Bill” Boyden said this week. “We had several events that were crimes of opportunity… people leaving things in their cars, and [thieves] just walk up and down the street,” checking for easy access.

One house was robbed with the front door wide open. Only the screen door was closed.

“We want you to feel comfortable … but times are changing,” Boyden said, urging people to lock everything up, both when they’re home and when they’re not, including cars.

Police coverage in the county is split between Delaware State Police and local municipalities. Since state troopers are stretched so thin, the Fenwick Island Police Department has increasingly assisted DSP outside of town limits, especially as housing increases on Route 54.

“It used to be soybeans, and now it’s another development,” Boyden said.

Sussex County gives $25,000 annually to each local police department, but Councilwoman Vicki Carmean said it doesn’t sound like enough to truly cover Fenwick’s cost, which she then asked Boyden to calculate in future.

There is no billing or payments from the DSP to towns for assistance. But policing is cooperative, since the DSP usually conducts investigation into more significant crimes in small police jurisdictions, such as homicide and human trafficking.

• There will be no election this year. Four council seats were up for election, but all four council members signed up to serve again and there were no challengers. The Aug. 5 election has been canceled.

The four seats will continue to be held by Mayor Gene Langan, Vice Mayor Richard Mais and Council Members Roy Williams and Julie Lee. They’ll be sworn in to new two-year terms on Aug. 15 at 10 a.m.

• As an update to the town’s public smoking ban (“smoking is prohibited on the beach”), the town council approved the first reading of an amendment to specifically ban the use of cigarettes, cigars, pipes, e-cigarettes and vaporizers for tobacco, marijuana, herbs and/or weeds.

• The council unanimously passed the second reading of an amendment that limits the size and use of beach tents and umbrellas. Umbrellas may be a maximum of 8 feet in diameter and 8 feet in height. Tents, including canopies or similar shading devices, may be up to either 8 feet in diameter or 10 by 10 feet. They must be open on at least three sides. Tents must also be spaced at least 10 feet from each other, to allow for public and emergency movement.

All are prohibited from 9 p.m. to 7 a.m. “Baby tents” will be permitted for small children.

The Fenwick Island Beach Patrol may enforce those restrictions.

• Citizens are being strongly encouraged to register for Fenwick Island emergency notifications from the Town and police department, at www.nixle.com.

• Dredging will be discussed at a public workshop with Tony Pratt of the Delaware Department of Natural Resources on Aug. 18 at 3 p.m.

• Residents are being encouraged to drill holes in the bottom of yard waste bins to allow rainwater to drain. Also, yard waste should not be placed at the curb more than 24 hours before scheduled pickup. People who may be out of town during the collection period can also request a neighbor or Public Works move their bins.

• Seven lifeguards will attend a competition in Daytona Beach, Fla. The Beach Patrol thanked local businesses and citizens who helped them raise $11,000 for the competitions at the town bonfire.

• Langan thanked Fenwick businesses that continually support the town, most recently by sponsoring the bonfire and movies on the beach.

• The White House has instructed the Department of the Interior to reconsider allowing seismic testing for oil and natural gas in the Atlantic Ocean, which had been ruled out under the Obama administration. Fenwick Island will re-submit letters of opposition. In 2016, the Town officially opposed “the proposed oil and gas exploration and development activities, including but not limited to seismic testing, off of the coast of Delaware and other coastal areas of the Mid-Atlantic region.”

• Beebe Healthcare has announced a $180 million expansion of its network, including a new emergency center with radiation and chemotherapy in Millville.

“I think the things they’ve proposed are good for our community,” said Mais, adding that he hopes Fenwick will support Beebe, at least in spirit, if not financially.

The town council’s next regular meeting is Friday, Aug. 25, at 3:30 p.m.