A lack of public participation could push the Millville Town Council to allow non-residents to vote and hold public office.
Citizens are being invited to comment on Resolution 16-02, a town charter amendment including nine changes, ranging from housekeeping items to allowing non-resident property-holders to participate in Town affairs.
The public hearing on the amendment has been set for Tuesday, Dec. 22, at 7 p.m., before the town council workshop meeting.
“Because of our situation here, with so many people not being full-time residents … this would probably help with getting people on boards and council,” said Town Manager Debbie Botchie.
If the charter amendment is approved by the council and the State, at least four of the five council members would still have to be residents, but one could be a “freeholder” (property owner).
Besides allowing freeholders to participate, the overall requirements would become a little more stringent for voters and candidates.
Voters could be either a “permanent, full-time resident of the Town for at least six months prior to the date of the election” or a “freeholder in the Town … for a period of 90 consecutive days immediately preceding the date of the election.”
Whether town council candidates qualify as a full-time resident or as a freeholder, they would have to be so for at least six months prior to the election. They’d also need to be 21 or older. (Currently, candidates must be 18 or older and a resident for at least 90 days.)
As things stand today, any council member who moves outside town limits immediately vacates their seat.
The amendment would allow council members to finish their term as a “resident” if they moved away but remained freeholders in the town (and vice-versa for freeholders who move into town). Anyone who relinquished all of those qualifications would immediately vacate their seat.
A freeholder is “any natural person who holds title of record either in their own name or as trustee, to a fee simple estate or a life estate, in and to real property located within the town boundaries.” A resident is “any person who has been a permanent, full-time resident of the town for at least six months prior to the date of the election.”
Individuals listed on the deed would each get a vote. Property-owning trusts would get one vote.
Town Hall talks
According to Delaware Code, once voting rights are given to landowners, they cannot be revoked. Traditionally, the local towns that permit non-resident property owners to vote and hold office are beach towns, where property owners are less likely to be residents than in inland towns.
The measure is intended help to expand the pool of eligible participants in Town affairs.
“It becomes harder and harder to find people to [serve],” said Mayor Gerald “Gerry” Hocker Jr. “I think other towns have done the same thing. We’re not the first town to take this route. When you ask people to volunteer their time — and it could take a great amount of their time — people don’t have the flexibility to do that.”
It seems that every time a vacant seat is filled, another becomes vacant, Hocker said. Often, there is only one nominee.
The town council recently lost a member, Harry Kent, who passed away on Dec. 11. He had been appointed to the council in May of 2012.
When the Planning & Zoning Commission hasn’t been able to assemble a quorum to meet, public hearings have been canceled, at the last-minute. In October, the council finally replaced the citizen P&Z Commission with a smaller committee of Town officials.
“We try our best to get people involved,” Hocker said, but public participation is rare.
Town council meetings rarely last more than 60 minutes, and it is rare for more than three citizens to attend to listen or participate.
“Quite frankly, we’ve had very few elections. When I got elected in 2002, we had an election, and I recall having one since then,” Hocker said.
“I am proposing this to the council,” said Botchie. “I have talked to them one-on-one about it. What will come out in full discussion, I don’t know.”
Botchie noted that local beach towns already have similar rules on the books.
“They have so many people who aren’t residents but want to be involved,” Botchie said. “I believe if you are a property owner, you have a right to vote. And our charter does not show that.”
Botchie said she did not know how many freeholders could become eligible voters. The town council may ask for that information, but she said Dec. 8 that she hadn’t researched the property tax files as of that time.
But many developments have added new houses and property owners to the town. Botchie said she has already heard ideas and enthusiasm from non-residents who will someday live in the town full-time. Those people may already be willing to serve if given the chance.
Other charter changes
The text of Resolution 16-02 and the charter amendment itself can be read at town hall during regular business hours.
If approved, the amendment would also make funding for emergency services more flexible. The town council could donate up to 6 percent annually of its real-property taxes to any combination of fire, ambulance or emergency medical services. For instance, the Millville Volunteer Fire Company could use the money to better fit its needs.
The charter currently allows the same 6 percent to be granted but mandates only up to 3 percent for each for fire companies and the ambulance/emergency medical service.
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. Those are always up-to-date, so Millville wouldn’t require a whole charter change during future annexations. Other towns have done that, too, Botchie said.
The amendment also does the following: updates and elaborates on the council’s process for passing certain acts; adds a process for determining forfeiture of office; removes a provision on oaths that may be inconsistent with the Delaware Constitution; updates the council’s meeting process; and creates a timeline to enact the council’s new composition.
Tuesday night is the only vote
The town council’s only vote on the proposed charter amendment is scheduled for Dec. 22.
If and when they pass the resolution to move forward, Millville must get State approval. State Sen. Gerald Hocker Sr. and State Rep. Ron Gray would be asked to sponsor the charter amendment in the Delaware General Assembly.
It would be in place as soon as the governor signs it, Botchie said.
The public is being invited to comment on the proposed changes. Because it isn’t a zoning change, the Town wasn’t required to advertise the public hearing beyond the regular agenda posting.
The hearing was originally scheduled for a Dec. 8 meeting, but two of the five council members would have been absent. The vote was deemed too important to have with a quorum of three council members.
The Dec. 22 workshop agenda also includes a MVFC presentation on a new “Community Discount Ambulance Service Program”; revisions to the 2016-fiscal-year budget; and a possible vote on the winning bids to construct the new Town municipal building.