It's all in business in Fenwick Island

It was a topsy-turvy day for those used to the normal flow of an agenda for the Fenwick Island Town Council. Mayor Peter Frederick turned the usual order of things on its head, starting off a new council initiative that emphasizes the performance of the town’s business in view of the public.
That meant moving council action items to the fore of the agenda, with informational aspects of the meeting, such as committee reports, and other business moved to the end.

Frederick also noted extra strictures to what council can act upon at a given council meeting — namely only items that have been marked for action prior to the agenda deadline of Wednesday.

With those changes in place, the meeting kicked off with discussion and votes on two sets of proposed amendments to town code.

Put in place were changes limiting apartments in the town’s commercial district to only one per commercial building, as well as related tax and operational strictures. And council members rejected proposed allowances for boat docks and lifts on some of the town’s narrower canals.

Then it was on to a repeat first reading of proposed changes to the town’s signage ordinances, with some additional changes added since a previous reading.

The changes include an allowance for the flying of unlimited numbers of U.S. flags on national holidays and the ability for council to approve the display of banners for special occasions (such as the banner celebrating Fenwick Island Crab House’s win for best crabcake in Delaware).

Council members also approved extending the time period prior to an election during which election signs can be displayed — from the prior limit of 10 days to as much as 30 days prior to the election. They also, during the course of discussion, decided to require removal of such signs within 48 hours after the election, reduced from as many as five days.

The signage ordinance proposal will allow public input on the issue prior to a second reading and possible vote on the amended ordinance.

Council members then approved the rosters for town committees as submitted by the committee chairmen.

Taking up an issue addressed at the council’s most recent workshop-without-agenda, council members weighed a possible donation toward relief efforts for victims of Hurricane Katrina. The issue was spurred by a proposal for the Sussex County Association of Towns (SCAT) to raise funds from its member towns and use them to benefit a “sister city” in the devastated Gulf Coast region.

With donations of $5,000 coming from Seaford and Bridgeville, and another $5,000 from SCAT’s own treasury, other local towns have weighed whether and how much to give. The main note of resistance to the idea has come in the form of questioning whether councils can or should give taxpayer money to a cause without their direct approval.

In Bethany Beach, the answer to that question was positive, with another $5,000 pledged from that town toward the SCAT program. In South Bethany, the amount was $2,000, plus a donation of old computer equipment toward the beneficiary town.

Fenwick Island council members also wrestled with the issue, focusing more on how the monies would be distributed and whether the town could maintain some sort of control or assurance that they would be used in an acceptable manner.

Council Member Martha Keller said she had spoken with a Salvation Army representative about setting up an account with a Salvation Army office in the Gulf region that could be used to directly pay bills submitted by the adopted town, with oversight by the charitable organization.

Council Member Chris Clark endorsed the SCAT plan, emphasizing that a gift was a gift and should be given with trust that it would be used in the right way by the recipient.

Responsibility to the taxpayer was top on Council Member Vicki Carmean’s mind, with agreement with Bethany Beach Mayor Jack Walsh’s statement to his own council that the circumstance that had brought up the issue was a very unusual one. Carmean encouraged the council to proceed with caution.

As in Bethany Beach, the fact that the exact recipient of the SCAT donations has yet to be determined weighed in the decision-making process.

Frederick said the group planned to contact a town through a national town managers’ association and determine its exact needs — but the urgency of obtaining pledges to participate from local towns was based in seeking some sort of general operating budget that would allow SCAT to get an idea what could be provided to the town. It had sent a letter to town officials around the county, seeking those pledges of participation by Oct. 3.

The mayor suggested Fenwick Island donate $2,000 toward the SCAT effort, knowing that it wouldn’t be transferred to the recipient town until some idea of what it would be used for was given.

Council Member Harry Haon also endorsed allowing SCAT to determine the best use of the donated funds, with a notation that the town wanted to be kept informed as to SCAT’s decision on that matter. He further said he felt $2,500 was a more appropriate amount for the town to donate.

Later comments from those in attendance endorsed an even more elaborate amount, noting the town could only hope to receive similar generosity were it similarly affected in the future. Clark noted that he felt the council had acted conservatively, unsure of the reception the donation would receive from taxpayers.

The council approved the notion on a 6-0 vote, with Council Member Audry Serio absent.

The recent battle of some town officials and residents, alongside residents of nearby developments, to prevent the erection of a billboard near the edge of town raised the issue of how the town can prevent such moves in the future with a minimum of last-minute rush to formally oppose it at each individual hearing.

Frederick and Carmean, who had helped spearhead the recent effort, endorsed the town drafting a letter of opposition to be kept on file for just such a circumstance. That would allow the town to oppose the concept without necessitating a council meeting be held to draft an individualized response.

Carmean said she feared such applications could go through county approval processes unless they were opposed. Keller noted the importance of indicating such a request was out of character with the community when opposing it before county boards.

Council members approved drafting the letter of opposition on a 6-0 vote.

Marking another of the changes under the council’s “business first” endeavor, department and committee reports were presented in written form with brief commentary — if any — given by appropriate staff members. It was a move particularly geared toward shortening the length of council meetings and eliminating repetition of information already presented in written form.

Along those lines, the town’s financial report was presented by fiscal consultant Gary Esposito as the person most familiar with the details of town finances, rather than the council’s treasurer.

Esposito reported the town’s departments to be in line with their budgets. He said excess funds had been moved into the town’s savings accounts and praised the foresight of Public Works Supervisor Neil Hanrahan in planning ahead for a 20 percent smaller MSA grant when making his department’s budget.

The town’s annual audit, he said, was nearly done, with no problems reported to date and an expected October completion date.

Similarly, Police Chief Colette Sutherland directly reported to council regarding public safety issues, taking over from the council’s public safety officer. She said investigation of the recent robbery of Mercantile Bank was proceeding with two primary suspects identified and work being done to determine their whereabouts.

Sutherland also commented on a $25,000 grant given by Sussex County to local police departments, with the idea to reimburse the towns for work to protect and enforce the law in the county jurisdiction outside their borders.

In the case of Fenwick Island, it was decided to spend $15,000 of the grant in making payments on a police car already in the town’s possession. Other of the funds went toward the purchase of a Segway transportation device, at the request of Sutherland and with the approval of Public Safety Officer and Council Member Theo Brans.

Carmean challenged that purchase, having opposed the idea during budgeting. She said she wished the council had been kept more informed about the grant and plans for its distribution so she could have given some input before it was spent.

Brans said he accepted responsibility for the purchase, having thought it was a way to address complaints that the chief was not visible enough around the town. Sutherland now patrols not on foot or by car but on the Segway.

Frederick also noted the vehicle’s efficiency for duties such as house checks, allowing officers to quickly get on and off the vehicle at each home without starting, stopping and moving an automobile with its higher gas usage in this time of rising gas costs. The mayor noted the police budget was already $24,000 in overrun due to those costs.

Regarding the decision on how to spend the grant, Clark said he felt the town should trust its employees to use such money as they see fit while keeping town officials informed. Council members should not micromanage, he said.

The absence of Public Information Officer Sgt. William Boyden from the meeting was noted, with positive commentary about his presentation regarding bicycle safety (and free bicycle locks) given at the previous council meeting.

Frederick said Boyden was free to make such presentations — though they are informational and more for public benefit than council’s benefit — in the future, simply by making the offer through Sutherland.

Following up on issues of public safety, Keller presented a memo she had written on the issue of lessons learned from Hurricane Katrina, focusing largely on how the town would manage if communications were damaged in such a storm.

She endorsed the town adding additional information on storm preparation into its usual insert in the town newsletter, developed as part of its flood insurance program. She also praised Frederick for considering reinstating the town’s block captain system. (Frederick emphasized that he was only considering the idea.)

Keller also requested Frederick, Sutherland and other appropriate officials meeting with officials in Bethany Beach, South Bethany and Ocean City to discuss how to handle an emergency should communications go out.

Frederick said he was willing to attend such a meeting but strongly emphasized that he believed the issue to be one of individual responsibility for evacuating in a timely and reasonable manner.

“If we’re here when the electricity goes off, we’re in trouble,” Frederick said, noting that he hoped residents and officials alike would be gone by that point in time, evacuated well in advance of such a storm.

Nonetheless, he said, the town had already arranged to have backup power for its wired telephone and computer systems, to allow them to communicate and organize even when the power goes out.

Frederick proceeded to update those in attendance on the status of major projects in the town.

The beach replenishment project was making good progress, he said, with excellent sand quality. The dunes had been constructed through Essex Street, with beach construction done through Indian Street and an anticipated November completion of pumping, despite a delayed start.

Finish construction of the dunes and dune crossovers was due to begin in early October, with stabilizing grasses due to be planted in December, as appropriate for the plants’ life cycle. Dune fences will also be in place at that time.

Frederick reminded beachgoers to pay attention to the police tape around the dune crossover areas, noting it was designed to protect the unstabilized dunes until grasses and crossovers were completed.

The first stage of the median planting project — landscaping — has been completed, with the second stage of concrete repair and construction of crosswalks for the handicapped to be completed before the end of the year.

Frederick noted a significant reduction in costs from the original estimates, from $307,000 down to $177,300. That would reduce the town’s share from an expected $26,720 to a mere $7,000, Frederick said, noting the final tab would depend on approval of the reduction to the town’s share by the Delaware Department of Transportation.

The “living fence” project to beautify the recycling and trash truck storage areas has received a $5,000 grant, with much or all of the town’s matching portion to be made up of employee time. Work on the project is set to begin Oct. 1, with planting to begin Oct. 10.

A proposal to renovate town hall has gone into the engineering stages, with representatives of Davis, Bowen and Friedel interviewing staff and taking measurements to perform a needs assessment. The contract with DBF, for $8,800, was signed recently.

Carmean confirmed that $3,500 had been set aside in the current budget for the painting of the town hall meeting room, with quotes for the work to be obtained in the near future.

Brans reported that 65 people had participated in the annual beach cleanup, with an estimated 1,000 cigarette butts removed from the beach.

He further said he considered the beach in the town’s unincorporated area to look “horrible” and said he found the town’s trash can system must work much better than the carry-in/carry-out bag system used there.

Finally, Clark led a round of applause in honor of FIPD officer Jason Bergman, recently returned from his National Guard assignment assisting victims of Hurricane Katrina.