The Town Council of Bethany Beach is about to consider, perhaps as early as May 18, a proposal to make fully useless the referendum provisions of the Town Charter. The only possible explanation for this action is the success of last year’s first and only completed petition to force a citizens vote on a residential height increase for the older part of Bethany.
Instead of a vote by the citizens, the council opted to repeal the height increase that many of us found so distressful and damaging to our town’s community character and sense of place.
A referendum is the right of citizens to petition for a town-wide vote on ordinances that they are opposed to. Nowhere is this right more important than in towns like Bethany Beach, where only 20 percent of the eligible voters are permanent residents. Eighty percent of Bethany’s voters are not physically present in the town on a regular basis.
To request a citizens vote on obnoxious ordinances, citizens must be physically present in the town to sign a referendum petition. Those of us who successfully petitioned the height increase to a referendum last year can attest to how difficult it is to find Bethany Beach property owners at home, even in the summertime.
Of the proposed changes to the Charter, at least two of them will make it virtually impossible to implement a referendum effort. There may be more.
First, petition circulators are given only six months to gather the requisite number of signatures, about 750 eligible voters. While six months sounds reasonable for a town where most voters are permanent residents, it is a criminal provision in a town where only 20 percent of the voters are permanent residents. By my calculation, this change gives the council approximately eight months to approve ordinances that could not possibly ever be challenged by a referendum drive in Bethany Beach.
Second, the proposal develops a new method for gathering signatures and puts the council itself — the authors of the ordinance being challenged — in charge of creating and providing the specific format to be used for a referendum petition.
And what a format the proposal envisions! By my count, there are 13 specific items that must appear on the one-page-per-signature petition, including the full text of the offending ordinance. This is an absurd and completely unnecessary burden placed on town citizens who have the temerity to disagree with the dictates of the Town Council and feel so strongly about it that they want a vote. It will break the back of a referendum effort.
Remember, the only thing the referendum petition asks for is a community-wide vote on an ordinance. Many people last year signed our petitions because they shared our view that a residential height increase was an abomination, and others signed because they believed putting the height increase to a citizens vote seemed fair.
By making the petition drive virtually impossible to accomplish, even against the most outrageous ordinance one can conceive of, the council will deny its citizens the basic right to approve or disapprove of council actions.
I knew the council was really unhappy with our petition drive, but I could not imagine that it would go so far, in its unhappiness, as to enact a virtual guarantee against a petition for a town vote ever being successful again.
Give me a call or send me an e-mail if you have any comments or questions, and tell council members you know to leave the referendum right alone. I’m at 537-5243 and my e-mail is DanofBethany@aol.com.