Municipal hall resembled law school in Fenwick Island Thursday morning, Aug. 11, as the town council listened to town attorney Tempe Steen untangle the town’s law books.
After the council reconfirmed its officers — Peter Frederick as mayor, Vicki Carmean as secretary and Audrey Serio as treasurer — for another year, the annual organizational meeting gave way to a refresher course, with the board brushing up on codes and governing procedures.
“If you’re going to read two things, read the Town Charter and read the Zoning Code,” Steen advised. “Think about the challenges elsewhere and don’t think they can’t happen here.”
The first string of inquiries fired in Steen’s direction dealt with police protocol and accountability.
“Chain of command is something you establish,” Steen said. “So ultimately, that responsibility falls on council.”
Discrepancies between the police’s code of conduct and a separate set of guidelines for other municipal employees proved to be particularly interesting to the legislators. Since differences previously had stirred up confusion in town hall, Frederick said he was working to synthesize the two distinct rulebooks. He hoped the end product — which will address everything from drug policies to benefits packages — would be ready by September, when it would be presented at a public hearing for final approval.
The discussion next turned from etiquette to ethics. Steen described instances in which council members might consider excusing themselves from debates and votes. Reasons for recusal fell into two main categories: having a financial interest or a personal interest — “one that intends to impair independent judgment,” Steen said — in a given issue.
“If you think it is a conflict (of interests), you can assume it probably is,” Steen said. “The Public Integrity Commission (the state monitor of ethical infractions in government) probably will.”
The counselor also elucidated the ambiguities of the Freedom Of Information Act (FOIA) — namely the definition of an official meeting. While council members are allowed to discuss town business behind closed doors, Steen said, serial discussions and three-or-more-party conclaves could be considered antithetical to transparent government. Sending individual e-mails, furthermore, is acceptable, but pressing “Reply to All’ could send up red flags.
The organizational meeting ended on a light note, with Fenwick Island’s council members thanking Steen for her presentation and then singing to Town Administrator Helen Torres in celebration of Torres’ birthday.
The council will reconvene at 3:30 p.m. on Friday, Aug. 26 for its monthly meeting, where the board will reorganize committee assignments.