To combat a lack of public participation, the Millville Town Council could soon allow nonresidents to vote and hold public office.
On Dec. 22, the council reviewed Resolution 16-02, a town charter amendment involving nine changes, which include allowing non-resident property-owners to vote and hold public office.
If the charter amendment is approved by the council and State of Delaware, one the five council members could be a “freeholder” (property owner or trustee within town limits).
Town Solicitor Seth Thompson explained the 15-page amendment, page by page.
“The charter is your town’s constitution,” he said. “You can’t deny residents the right to vote. It’s a question of if you want to extend the right to vote to non-residents,” he explained.
According to Delaware Code, once voting rights are given to landowners, they cannot be revoked.
“You have additional people who can vote, additional people who can serve on council. If you’re a resident, maybe your vote’s worth a little bit less. That’s kind of the policy you have to think about,” Thompson told council.
Filling the council
The measure is designed to welcome more eligible participants in town affairs, especially as people scoop up land in new developments to build their future retirement homes.
“It becomes harder and harder to find people to [serve],” Mayor Gerald “Gerry” Hocker Jr. told the Coastal Point on Dec. 10. “I think other towns have done the same thing. We’re not the first town to take this route.”
Public participation in town affairs is often sparse, on committees and in the audience at meetings. The Planning & Zoning Commission was even disbanded recently when it failed to get a quorum for regular meetings.
It seems that every time a vacant seat is filled, another becomes vacant, Hocker said. Often, there is only one nominee.
The topic becomes especially relevant, as the town council will have another spot to fill after the holidays, having just lost a member. Harry Kent passed away on Dec. 11. He had been appointed to the council in May of 2012.
“The Town of Millville lost a true asset to the town,” said Hocker of Kent, calling for a moment of silence on Dec. 22. He said Kent served “not for a passion to change the town, but for a passion to adapt.”
Early praise for amendment
Councilman Steve Maneri said he hopes this amendment will encourage truly dedicated people to participate on town boards.
“The only thing is, I would hope this person who’s going to run — he really has Millville in his heart,” Maneri said.
“Would it be prudent then, for the mayor to be a permanent resident? Someone who’s here more full time than not?” asked resident Wally Bartus, concerned that a non-resident mayor could have split allegiance.
The members of the town council, not the residents, vote among themselves to choose the mayor, pointed out Town Manager Debbie Botchie.
But the council could include a stipulation that mayors must be full-time residents, Thompson offered. The council can also vet applicants before appointing them.
Currently, Millville taxes 1,356 properties, and it has issued 72 rental licenses at present. But only 334 properties would qualify property owners to vote, as many of those properties are just empty lots without residential homes built on them yet. As of the 2010 Census, the town had less than 600 residents.
Every person gets one vote, although a single property could house multiple voting residents.
“I think it’s a good idea. These are people here that need to have a vote…” to participate in town affairs, Bartus said after the meeting.
With little advertising before the meeting on Dec. 22, the only audience members were two Millville By the Sea neighbors, as well as the Millville Volunteer Fire Company’s fire chief.
The nuts and bolts
Besides allowing freeholders to participate, under the proposed charter amendment, the overall requirements could tighten for voters and candidates.
As for voter eligibility, the council must decide whether to use the state’s voter rolls or maintain its own records (which is common, but proves a challenge for some nearby towns). Currently, people can just walk into Town Hall with some proof of residency on election day.
“Unfortunately, we don’t have a lot of practical experience with elections,” Thompson said. And with few candidates recently, town elections have become infrequent.
The draft of the amendment suggests that voters could be either a full-time resident for at least six months or a freeholder for at least 90 days before the election. (The inequity is because full-time residence is harder to prove, but Town Hall can find land-ownership records quickly, Thompson suggested.)
Individuals listed on the deed would each get a vote. Property-owning trustees would get one vote. Corporations owning a property cannot vote.
Town council candidates would have to qualify as part of one of those eligible groups for at least six months prior to the election. They’d also have to be 21 or older. (Currently, candidates must be 18 or older and a resident for at least 90 days.)
As it stands today, any council member who moves outside of town limits immediately vacates their seat. The amendment would allow council members elected as residents to finish their term if they remain freeholders in Town despite moving their full-time residence elsewhere.
Other beach towns have similar rules on the books.
“I do believe property owners have a right to vote in a town where they pay taxes,” Botchie said.
Other charter changes
The text of Resolution 16-02 and the charter amendment itself can be read at Town Hall during regular business hours.
The amendment would clarify rules regarding town council meetings, members and elections.
All ordinances could only be passed by the majority of elected members. So if the council has five elected members, but only three attend a meeting, all three of those members must vote for an ordinance in order for it to pass. Currently, the town code only requires that kind of majority for a handful of council actions.
If approved, the amendment would also make emergency services funding more flexible. Up to 6 percent of annual property taxes could be donated to any combination of fire, ambulance or emergency treatment services.
The charter currently allows the same 6 percent to be funded but specifies up to 3 percent each for the fire companies and the ambulance/emergency medical services.
The amendment would also change the way Millville’s “Territorial Limits” are described.
Rather than spell out every boundary, the charter would refer to maps on record with Sussex County’s Office of the Recorder of Deeds. As a result, Millville wouldn’t require a whole charter change during future annexations.
Technically, the town council only needs to vote once on the amendment. But they opted not to vote Tuesday night. Discussion will continue at a future meeting or workshop.
If and when they pass the resolution to move forward with the charter change, Millville must get State approval. State Sen. Gerald Hocker Sr. and State Rep. Ron Gray would be asked to sponsor the amendment in the Delaware General Assembly. It must pass both chambers by a two-thirds majority.
It’s done as soon as the governor signs it, Botchie said.
For more detailed Coastal Point coverage, read the Dec. 21 article “Hearing on non-resident voting in Millville set for Tuesday” online at www.coastalpoint.com.