South Bethany makes changes to workshops

First, the South Bethany Town Council got a new look. Now its workshop meetings are seeing a little bit of change, too. At the council’s first workshop since the May elections, new Mayor Jay Headman introduced two new segments to the workshop agenda – both for public comment.

The change is a significant one, since the council’s workshops have traditionally been a time for council members to discuss issues amongst themselves, with citizens barred from speaking unless specifically invited to do so by the council. And that cone of silence has been the subject of complaints in the past from some citizens who wished the forum was more open to their input.

Those complaints were apparently heard by the new mayor, who permitted public comment at both the beginning and end of the council’s July 1 workshop.

Another change slipping in with the new faces on the council is the softening of the clear line the council has held between its workshop sessions and special council meetings – two meetings generally held in conjunction, with the council’s special meeting adjourned for the workshop and then reconvened after the workshop concluded, in order to hold any needed council votes.

Councilman Bob Cestone said he had researched the history of South Bethany’s tradition of sandwiching the workshop session between segments of special council meetings but hadn’t found anything about its origins.

Councilman Robert Youngs, though, said he speculated the practice traced back to a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requirement that any meeting of a town council that is not a regular meeting, and at which a vote is to be taken, must be a special council meeting. With the issues arising and sometimes being settled at the workshops, it is likely the practice evolved for that reason.

However, Headman said on July 1 that he felt the council could dispense with the practice of holding its votes on issues discussed until the end of their workshop meetings, under that clear statement of having resumed the special council meeting.

“Why do we need a separate discussion and special meeting for us to vote? The workshop is open to the public,” Headman emphasized.

Having voted on several issues during last Friday’s meeting, the council’s transition to a combined workshop and special meeting seemed to be well under way.

“We did a little bit of that today,” Fields acknowledged. “You may see the change in future agendas.”

Also on July 1:

• The council voted 6-1, with Cestone abstaining, to sign a memorandum-of-understanding (MOU) with neighboring towns to join in joint negotiations on renewing the cable franchise of Mediacom in those towns, in an effort to give the towns greater negotiating power. South Bethany was the last of the towns to sign the agreement. Cestone said he was concerned about how the work of the joint representative and the associated costs would be delineated, particularly with differences in the possible aims and priorities of each town.

• The council agreed on consensus to accept a new appraisal of the value of town property leased to Artesian for its water system, done under a 10-year re-appraisal requirement on the 33-year lease. The town recently notified Artesian that it was overdue for the re-appraisal – by 20 months. The council, while not fully satisfied with the offer of $20 per square foot, agreed that it was unlikely they would receive a substantially higher appraisal from another appraiser agreed upon by both parties but paid for by the town. On the condition that the increased lease payments – up from $18.65 per square foot – be retroactive by those 20 months, the council agreed to accept the offer from Artesian. That’s an increase of about $1,300 per year for the town’s lease revenue.

• The council plans to vote on adopting an updated All Hazard Mitigation Plan developed by Sussex County officials on July 9. Towns must have such a plan in order to get reimbursed for their expenses during declared disasters – such as the February blizzards, for which the town recently received $3,300 in compensation. The plan is also an important factor in the town qualifying for reduced flood insurance rates for property owners. (Those not receiving such a discount should check with their insurance agent. Most will receive a 10 percent discount, while some areas of the town receive a 5 percent discount.) The council is also on target to adopt an updated emergency plan, which delineates officials’ responsibilities during an emergency.

• Ahead of an expected July 9 vote, the council reviewed the recommended purchase of a new lawn mower, to replace a 13-year-old model. The town has spent $1,152 already this year to repair the mower and to contract for mowing while it was unavailable – more than the mower itself is worth. The town would purchase a new mower for about $12,000 under a state contract.

• The council agreed to retain the existing level of detail in its meeting minutes. The council took note of citizen complaints in the 1990s about the sparser minutes that were once the town’s only record of its meetings, as well as concerns that a full transcript would be too much information. As it stands, the minute-taker for meetings produces a “Reader’s Digest version” of the meeting, summarizing both comments and actions taken, rather than a full transcript or only the actions.