The atmosphere surrounding South Bethany Town Council is considerably more harmonious than it once was, according to Council Member Richard Ronan.
Filing for reelection to what would be his fifth consecutive term, he said council was much less receptive to opposing viewpoints back in the mid-1990s.
That’s why he got involved in the first place, Ronan pointed out. “There really was a lot of ill feeling,” he said. “Council wasn’t as open to suggestion or criticism.
“I wasn’t happy, and I wasn’t the only one,” he said.
Ronan recalled a general impression of inefficiency, and worse, favoritism. “A lot of people felt, if you were one of the ‘in’ people, you could get what you wanted without too much trouble — but if they didn’t like you, you had to dot every I and cross every T,” he said.
“The climate is completely different now — much less adversarial,” he said. People were much more likely to get a say now, according to Ronan, and council actions were more transparent. He declined to take personal credit for affecting any changes, rather commending Council Members Bonnie Lambertson and Marge Gassinger’s influence in the push for a more accessible town government.
Over the years, Ronan said he’d come to recognize a measure of power in the council seat. “I realized, when you’re on the council, you can bring things up,” he said. “People can come to you, if they feel they don’t have a voice, and you can get their issue on the agenda.”
While Ronan said he had to agree a resident’s issue carried merit, he stated a belief that bringing it into the public view gave it weight, and made it an issue council couldn’t back away from.
Sometimes, though, there’s more to it — case in point, the debated home size-, bathroom- and kitchen-limiting ordinance. After the redevelopment of a couple homes into very large rental properties — “I don’t think it would be unkind to call them hotels,” he said — residents started to ask Ronan to do something.
“That’s something nobody wants to touch with a 10-foot pole,” he said — affection for the quaint, small-town character tends to fly out the window when government starts tinkering with what people can and can’t do on their properties.
“I told them I’d try to get a fair ordinance to limit, not stifle, building — but I said, if the townspeople are going to hang me out on a limb and throw rocks at me, I won’t introduce it,” Ronan said.
He said he’d considered the first drafts too restrictive, too harsh. He was ready to throw up his hands and withdraw the thing — which certainly would have forestalled a complicated political situation down the road.
However, Ronan held out and said they’d eventually worked their way to a final draft that was fair and reasonable.
Quite a few residents asked for a referendum on the ordinance, but Ronan said he hadn’t wanted to give it a vote of no confidence — he felt council had done a good job of addressing the initial complaints.
Nearly 250 residents petitioned for referendum anyway, and it went to ballot. In the end, the ordinance stayed on the books by a 512 to 467 vote.
“So the point is — it’s complicated,” he said. He voted against sending the ordinance to referendum, which could be considered limiting the residents’ say in a matter.
However, he also gave voice to a concern he knew would raise hackles, and stayed with the issue through to the final vote.
“If I can’t do what I think is right, I don’t want to be on council,” Ronan said.
Originally from Somers, N.Y., Ronan grew up in lower West Chester. He attended Manhattan College for physics and math, and went to work for Sperry Gyroscope while still a student.
He met his wife-to-be, Josephine (Joe), at age 15 — she occasionally pulled babysitting duty for his sister-in-law — and they married 1960.
Ronan continued to work at Sperry, and he had plans to finish up at New York University, but a heart condition laid him up in 1961, at age 26.
Working and taking 12 credits in a burst toward graduation, he began to weaken – his fingers and lips started turning blue.
Eventually, he was diagnosed as having an atrial septal defect (a hole between the two upper chambers) and needed open heart surgery. They’d only recently perfected the procedure — two years earlier, he said, and they wouldn’t have touched it.
He survived the major trauma of the surgery, and his energy started to return. The only condition of his rehabilitation had been a prohibition against climbing stairs. “Let me tell you, you’ve never realized how many stairs there are in this world,” he said.
Ronan eventually made a full recovery. He continued to work for Sperry, as an assistant engineer, moving over to AT&T in 1970 as an electrical engineer, and completed his physics/math degree in 1978.
Looking back, Ronan said it hadn’t been a quantum leap from physics/math to engineering, and much of what he’d needed to know he would have had to learn from on-the-job experience anyway. However, he strongly suggested college students who’d made it through three years, like he had, forge through to the finish.
“I knew the job, but I didn’t have the degree,” Ronan said, and indicated many employers might give preference to a degree holder in basket-weaving, over a person, however skilled, without one.
He worked for AT&T for 20 years (his wife was a teacher during this period), and retired in 1990. She retired three years later.
They had a pair of rental places at the beach by then, and the Ronans sold their Westchester home to move to Delaware. They came to South Bethany fulltime in 1994.
Ronan joined town council in 1997. “I feel I’ve gained a lot of experience, and done a lot of things for the town,” he said. “I think I’ve been productive, and I’d like to continue working to keep South Bethany as nice as it is, maybe even improve things a little.”