The annual town council election in Bethany Beach is looming, but the current council members are already looking ahead to future elections and how they can best convey to potential council candidates the measure of responsibility they will have if elected.
At a council workshop on Aug. 12, the council considered two informational papers prepared by Mayor Tony McClenny and Councilman Lew Killmer, respectively, with an eye toward letting potential council candidates know what they can expect from the job if their bids are successful.
McClenny had already written a letter of his own to the challengers among the six candidates for three council seats in the 2013 election, set for Sept. 6.
“For someone who is new, who had never been involved in committees, who had never come to meetings, I don’t think they’re aware of what is involved in being on town council,” he explained.
McClenny recalled his own history of service to the town, first serving on a town committee at the urging of a friend who was on the council. Having then decided he was interested in running for town council, McClenny said he’d then asked his friend how much of a commitment he was looking at, in terms of time.
“He told me 15 hours a month. I laugh now,” McClenny said, noting that his friend would read related material all day long day before a council meeting.
McClenny has already endeavored to make the election process easier for newcomer candidates, having for years offered all candidates space on his personal website. “I send a letter to them, telling them it’s available, and then I’ll spend a couple of hours with them, preparing the information and putting it online.”
But, beyond that, McClenny said, “There were things I thought of that they ought to know about the time requirements for a town council member, or at least the opportunities to be involved with fellow town council members.” He said he’d sent that information on to this year’s slate of candidates.
Killmer said McClenny had included a point or two he wished he’d added to his shorter information sheet for the prospective council members, but the common effort led to the discussion of possibly creating a document for future would-be council members that could be handed to anyone who came in and said they wanted to sign up to run as candidate in that year’s council election, advising them on what they might expect as a council member.
McClenny said he’d wanted to hold that discussion prior to the Sept. 6 election, so that outgoing Councilwoman Carol Olmstead could offer her input, after 10 years on the council and a turn as mayor.
Olmstead suggested that they put such an informational sheet on the back of or attached to the candidate filing form, and Killmer and McClenny said they supported that idea, as it would ensure the candidates would receive it and would make it part of the sign-up process for the candidates.
Olmstead said such information could help citizens make up their mind as to whether or not they actually want to file to run for the council.
Killmer said the 2013 election was a good example of an election in which potential candidates might want additional information on the responsibilities involved, since some of the candidates haven’t served on town committees or are otherwise relatively new to the town government.
Councilwoman Margaret Young said she would urge successful candidates to attend all of the council meetings, as well as Planning Commission and Board of Adjustment meetings. “You learn a lot,” she said.
Olmstead said she would also encourage them to attend meetings of the Town’s committees.
“We realize it’s not required in the charter or the code, but we would encourage them to attend those meetings,” McClenny said of his advice.
The town charter states that council members can be dismissed if they have three unexcused absences in a row from council meetings, Killmer noted, but the number of meetings they might attend is expansive.
Olmstead said she also felt successful candidates should quickly familiarize themselves with the council document that offers orientation information, such as the responsibilities of various town departments.
“Don’t you think they should as candidates?” McClenny inquired, with Olmstead replying that candidates should also.
“They would know what they were getting into,” Councilman Jerry Dorfman said of the proposed informational document.
McClenny said he’d also recommend council candidates become familiar with the town charter and with the section of code regarding the town council, which council members said could be put in a folder of candidate information to go along with the application and the brief set of information they’d like to add to the back.
“I just don’t think some people have a clue as to what the requirements are,” McClenny said.
“Some candidates are here for only a single issue,” Killmer noted. “From my perspective, their point of running is getting a platform for expressing their concerns at this moment.”
Killmer said he knew the demands of serving on the council would be difficult for someone who has a full-time job outside of the state.
“It was difficult for you, wasn’t it, Joe?” he asked Councilman Joe Healy, who only recently moved full-time to Bethany and was working full-time in Maryland when he first became involved in town government.
“It was difficult,” Healy acknowledged. “You have to be committed to it.”
Some council members said they were concerned that discussion of the difficulties of serving on the council under such circumstances might give the appearance of prejudice against candidates with those circumstances, but Killmer said that wasn’t his point — rather, that the challenges involved were something of which candidates should be aware.
Killmer said having a full-time job had been an issue for him when he served on a commission in Pennsylvania. “They may believe that we work on that kind of time scale,” he said, referencing meetings held during traditional work hours, rather than on evenings and weekends, when full-time workers would be more likely to be free.
Olmstead said they should include in the information given to candidates the schedule for meetings and workshops, so they can “get a clearer idea of what the expectations are. It would give you a better idea of how this is going to affect your own personal time schedule,” she said.
McClenny said he liked the portion of Killmer’s document that referenced council members needing to be able to set aside as much as 10 hours a week for council-related issues.
“If you pick a busy week, it is many more hours than 10,” noted Town Manager Cliff Graviet.
“Or it could be less,” Killmer said, noting that he had tried to pick an average figure for how many hours a week a council member might need to devote to the job.
“Some people might think they could just show up for a council meeting and then find out what is going to be discussed,” said Young. “Giving them an average number of hours tells them they’re expected to put in some time during the week, and not just the third Friday of the month.”
McClenny said he also wanted to include a reminder to new council members that they need to work through the established chain of command for the town government, working through the town manager and not directly with town employees.
Dorfman said he thought that reminder was “much needed,” while Vice-Mayor Jack Gordon agreed that it was good but questioned whether it was truly needed.
“I needed it,” McClenny acknowledged.
But Killmer said he felt that was an issue to be addressed after someone was elected to the council. Gordon said it should perhaps be added to the council protocol manual if it’s not already in it.
That sparked discussion of the council orientation presentation and whether it should be included in candidate information. But Graviet said he felt the narrated presentation lost something when condensed only to a document and might need to be reworked for such use.
“It can take you years to really understand the workings of the Town without that,” Olmstead noted. The council then reached a consensus that prospective candidates didn’t really need the orientation document prior to being elected.
At least one candidate in the 2013 election will still be getting that orientation, with Olmstead’s seat up for grabs and challengers Joseph C. Bellistri, Charles “Chuck” Peterson, Jane North and Robert Steiner also vying with incumbents Dorfman and Healy for their seats. Voting is scheduled to take place at town hall between noon and 6 p.m. on Saturday, Sept. 6, with absentee ballots already available. The top three vote-getters will be elected to two-year terms.
The Coastal Point will host a Candidates’ Night event on Friday, Aug. 23, at 7 p.m. at town hall, at which candidates will be asked a series of questions. The event will be broadcast live over the Internet via the Town of Bethany Beach website. Letters to the editor regarding the election must be received by the Coastal Point by 4 p.m. on Monday, Aug. 26, in order to be published.