Olmstead re-elected by slim margin

Amid a statewide shift to new municipal absentee balloting procedures and in the wake of a 2006 election noted for the rejection of dozens of absentee ballots, absentee votes were the deciding factor in Sept. 8’s Bethany Beach Town Council Elections. With a margin of just seven votes, current Mayor Carol Olmstead was re-elected to the Bethany council, narrowly trailed in the voting by longtime resident and election challenger Margaret Bogan Young.

Indeed, Young outstripped Olmstead in the in-person, machine-tallied votes cast last Saturday, 392 to 347; but Olmstead overcame that lead with 158 absentee votes, compared to Young’s 106. The totals: 498 for Young, with 505 and the win for Olmstead, as she finished third among the four candidates for three contested council seats.

Olmstead, already a two-term council member and mayor for nearly a year, was the only one of three incumbents to run for re-election. Lew Killmer and Wayne Fuller both opted out of the 2007 election campaign, leaving a guarantee that one or more new faces would be on the council come their September meeting.

Longtime councilman returns to power

One “new” face that is not so new to the council is that of resident J. Robert “Bob” Parsons, who had previously spent 10 years on the council — seven of them also as mayor and three as vice-mayor. Parsons was defeated in his 2004 re-election bid, finishing just eight votes behind part-time resident Bob Degen, who took the last of four available seats that year.

Parsons applied to replace retiring Mayor Joseph McHugh on the council the following January, but Killmer was the candidate selected by the other council members to complete McHugh’s term.

This year, though, voters resoundingly brought Parsons back to the council, tallying 603 total votes — the highest among all four candidates — with 417 machine-cast votes and 186 absentee ballot votes.

In the intervening years, Parsons has continued a decades-long focus on beach replenishment, serving on the town’s Intergovernmental Relations Committee, whereon he focused on maintaining contact with the state’s Congressional delegation, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and town-employed lobbying firm Marlowe and Company.

In speaking to the citizens present at last Friday’s Bethany Beach Landowners Association pre-election meet-the-candidates night, Parsons said he felt the town council’s responsibility was to foster such relationships and those with other municipalities, while the town’s citizens could use their influence with other county, state and federal officials to enhance the town’s clout on a variety of issues.

“If we don’t like what they’re doing, we can work together to change the composition of the government,” Parsons said when asked about how the town could maximize its influence over such issues as county-level development decisions. He noted that all citizens are able to support the opponents of officials with whom they don’t agree.

Parsons pointed to his service on the town councils that oversaw the town’s last two beach replenishment projects, which will be dwarfed by the major beach reconstruction he worked to bring about more recently. That project is set to get construction under way within the week, after nearly two decades of waiting and hoping. Parsons said Sept. 7 that he did not favor a special fund directed toward the possibility of the town needed to pay for future replenishment.

“We should set aside our money for repairing storm damage,” he said, reminding voters that part of the so-called “50-year reconstruction” calls for a 50/50 federal/state cost share on 50 years of maintenance of the reconstructed beach, with state funding coming largely from accommodations taxes.

The council during Parsons’ previous terms also began the process of purchasing the former Christian Church and Neff properties, which were and are the largest unimproved pieces of land in the town. At the BBLA event, Parsons said, “I don’t know what we’ll do with that land, but there won’t be a condo on it. That I know.”

Parsons said he did not favor a dog park being established there, as it would likely prove to be an attraction for dog owners from outside Bethany to come to the town, whereas non-citizens were already drawn to the town’s beach.

Since leaving the council, Parsons has also chaired the town’s Board of Adjustments, ruling with two other members on special requests from property owners to be exempted from town building and zoning standards. He opposed a recent move to change the board’s membership to five members — not on the merits of the idea itself but out of concern that the change would mean the town would likely no longer be able to allow non-resident property owners to serve on the board, due to state restrictions. The council decided not to pursue the change.

Also on Sept. 7, Parsons made a promise that he’d made back in 2005 when seeking to return to the council. “You know that I will work hard for you. You know it,” he said. “And you know that I will own up to any mistakes I make and fix them.”

Something else Parsons appeared eager to try to address is the town’s parking situation. During his campaign, Parsons pointed out that the town issues nearly 5,000 residential parking permits every summer — 688 of them a third permit for a given household — but that there are only roughly 900 permit parking spaces in the town. He said he would like to change that ratio, and that perhaps decreasing the number of third permits issued would help, whether that is through a cap set at two permits per household or through higher fees for the third permits.

Parsons was carefully non-committal on the controversial proposal to ban smoking on Bethany’s beach, saying he would agree to take whatever steps were necessary to address the problem that led to the ban being suggested. Whether that would be second-hand smoke, smoke odors or litter, or what steps would combat those problems, he did not say.

Healy’s win adds CPA to council

Also elected to the council last Saturday was part-time resident Joseph T. “Joe” Healy Jr., who made his second serious try for a council seat a successful one, netting 573 total votes — 413 machine-cast and 160 from absentee ballots. He finished a strong second among the four candidates.

After applying to fill a second council vacancy in 2005, Healy campaigned hard but trailed the field in the 2006 voting. He has made a name for himself on financial issues in the intervening year, during which he has served on the town’s Budget and Finance Committee and its Audit Committee.

The semi-retired certified public accountant exercised his financial expertise in analyzing the town’s dwindling transfer tax revenues for recommendations on the 2008-fiscal-year budget. The Budget and Finance Committee recommended already-proposed 10 percent departmental spending cuts, as well as a property tax increase that doubled the town’s existing rate to 16 cents per $100 of assessed value but still kept it less than nearly every other municipality in the state.

“I’m pleased,” the Washington, D.C., native said Saturday upon hearing the results of the election. Healy has been visiting Bethany for 35 years and has owned property in the town since 1988.

During his campaign Healy was critical of the impact of local development on Bethany Beach, saying at the BBLA event last Friday that he believed Sussex County “seems to have too little infrastructure” planned for the booming growth being permitted outside town limits and commenting on how many developments in the area seem to consider themselves to be at or near the beach — Bethany’s beach, in particular.

Healy said Bethany should work with county officials on development issues, and to “retain its charm” and find ways to adapt to the challenges presented by development.

He acknowledged the importance of the 2003-2004 town survey in guiding the town, but he said Bethany has to make decisions based on what’s going on now. “We have to look at what’s going on in the county,” he said. “We have to find ways to adapt, to maintain our character.”

On the subject of that character, where Young derided “mini-motels” and Parsons talked about incentive to preserve older beach cottages, Healy said that he didn’t think the town’s 40 percent lot coverage cap should be lowered, citing much higher caps in the urban and suburban areas around his D.C. home. “I don’t think house sizes are too terrible,” he added.

Many of the questions asked at the BBLA event Healy answered with a similar theme: issues of concern should be looked at by appropriate committees, who would yield recommendations to the council. Healy said that, as a council member, he would want to hear those committee recommendations before making decisions on a number of the changes suggested and issued listed as concerns by voters.

That included the proposed smoking ban for the town’s beach, which the Charter and Ordinance Review Committee is due to make its recommendations on this month. Healy said he was concerned about the enforcement issues involved in a ban, though.

Olmstead defends record as mayor, council member

Olmstead, as the sole incumbent running this year, was the target of some pointed questions on Friday, facing criticism about the council’s ability to plan for the downturn in the area’s housing market, questions about the selection and powers of the mayor, and scrutiny over her part in the takeover of the town museum by the Cultural and Historical Affairs Committee that she has headed since its inception.

Four years of service on the council, Olmstead said last Friday, had heightened her “awareness of what a great town Bethany Beach is.” During those years, she has served on numerous committees, as well as the council’s secretary/treasurer and then vice-mayor, before being selected by the council as the new mayor in 2006 — a move that led to the resignation of Jack Walsh from the council, as well as to a resignation on the town’s Planning Commission.

Olmstead emphasized her work with CHAC, as well as her leadership of the Commercial Architectural Guidelines Committee, of a sub-committee revising the town’s fines and fees and, as mayor, serving as the public contact point for many involved in the replenishment funding fight over the last year. She said her aims for the town were to maintain its quality of life and help it deal with changes.

Faced with the question of why the town council had failed to foresee the decline in the real estate market, Olmstead countered that the council had foreseen that happening but had opted to wait until it arrived before considering raising property taxes. She pointed to spending cuts that took place as a result, as well as to increases in parking meter fees and fines, and to fees on town businesses, which she said helped to spread the revenue raising beyond just the town property owners.

On the subject of the town survey, Olmstead said she felt the council had been very much open to hearing the viewpoint of the town’s citizens, through council meetings, letters and other methods. She emphasized that dissatisfaction with a roof pitch enticement had also been heard by the council, which had repealed the legislation after the town’s first-ever call for a referendum.

Asked whether the town should move to direct elections for its mayor, or even to return to a council president instead, Olmstead said having the council pick the mayor was common practice. “We all have an equal vote,” she emphasized. “No one person has a bigger impact on decisions in the town.” Further, she said, “When there’s an election for mayor, it tends to get very political.” Asked if she planned to nominate anyone for mayorship should she be re-elected, Olmstead demurely replied, “Of course.”

Parsons said he also objected to direct elections, saying, “The town council members know better than anyone who does their homework, who is a team leader, who is getting their goals done or not.” He said mayoral elections tended to be subject to public relations campaigns. He said he was focusing on getting re-elected before considering nominations for council officers.

Healy said he feared direct elections of the mayor could result in the town losing a good council member who might otherwise serve on the council but not be chosen as mayor by voters. Young, meanwhile, was torn on the notion of electing the mayor. “The mayor is the official we send out to deal with the state and other governments,” she noted. “They represent us, and what they say is accepted by everyone else [as our position],” she added, saying she would want to think on the idea before deciding whether a change was needed.

Olmstead, too, opposed the creation of a special fund for town-funded beach replenishment. She said she felt federal and state officials were the appropriate people to manage and fund replenishment of the beach and agreed with Healy that there was concern that building up a beach fund for any purpose could result in the town losing potential federal and state funding in the future.

She also agreed with Healy on the proposed smoking ban, referring to CORC’s consideration of the issue. She was open to the idea of cutting the number of parking passes issued, but rejected the notion of a dog park in the town, saying that it would be better to have such an amenity handled by the county.

Young comes out strongly on development impacts

Olmstead was on the defensive on the subject of the town museum, where Young and Olmstead had most notably butted heads even prior to this year’s election season.

Young, having long served as the secretary of the Bethany Beach Historical Association that originally ran the museum and supplied its exhibits and more, had been critical of Olmstead’s efforts in late 2006 to formally remove the BBHA from any direct responsibility for the museum, wherein Olmstead cited confusion over whether CHAC or the BBHA were in charge. Olmstead had also asked for the return of funds sent to the BBHA by donors and members, as she said they had been intended to support the museum.

“Why didn’t the town support the BBHA?” one questioner asked on Sept. 7. “What gave the town the right to take over?”

Olmstead, in response, cited that same confusion over who was responsible for the museum, saying also that she felt the BBHA had failed in its assigned duties of advising the town council on the operation of the museum and growing membership for those supporting it. That, she said, was why she had gone to the council in 2004 and asked for CHAC to be formed – half of the members initially being members of the BBHA, she emphasized, including Young. She noted that any who wished to participate in CHAC and the museum’s operation were welcome to do so.

Young countered that the BBHA would likely still be operating the town museum, keeping it open and staffed with docents six or seven days of the week, if the group had been left in charge. She said she felt there had been no confusion about the museum until Olmstead had asked for CHAC to be established.

She argued that the museum had suffered not only the loss of its original home to the building of the new town hall in 1997 but also of its subsequent location inside town hall to new offices and then of some exhibits that the BBHA had been ready to put on display.

While the museum issue was Young’s standout conflict with the council this year, she also was part of the referendum effort over the controversial architectural guidelines. Her family purchased property in the town in 1945 and she has lived there part-time or full-time for all of her life.

In that time, most of the town’s original homes have been lost, and preservation of those homes is a major concern for her. She pointed last Friday to the preservation of the “Addy III” on the former Natter property, where it will be used as a nature center, as one method by which the town could preserve its older homes. She has suggested another such home could be rescued from demolition and placed on the former Christian Church and/or Neff properties as a new home for the town museum.

Young said she didn’t have a big problem with the 40 percent lot coverage cap, but that new, larger homes were often including seven or eight bedrooms, with room for 16 to 20 people, bringing with them the loss of light, air and views, as well as parking headaches. She mourned the loss of the big back yards that existed during her children’s youth, saying, “Something can be done.”

Young also came out strongly this week on concerns over the fees charged for communities outside the town to shuttle their residents to the beach in Bethany. The $3,000 seasonal fees allow an unlimited number of trips and place no limits on the number of vehicles used to shuttle those people to Bethany. Young said perhaps the town could start charging by the trip, helping to raise additional revenue and making the system more fair for all. Parsons also appeared open to the idea.

Both said they would consider making more parking available close to the boardwalk for residents, while Olmstead noted that the council had previously rejected the idea as seeming unfriendly to visitors. Young said she had concerns about enforcement of the proposed smoking ban and felt the town had other, more serious, matters to deal with.

She said she was particularly concerned with how the town was going to receive ambulance service in the future, with the Millville Volunteer Fire Company discontinuing its provision of an ambulance to the coastal district of the Bethany Beach Volunteer Fire Company in early 2009.

Olmstead pointed at the responsibility of the Delaware Fire Protection Association, which is working on a solution, saying they would come to the town for its support. Parsons agreed, saying, “This is not just Bethany’s ballgame.”

But Young said she favored collaboration between Bethany, South Bethany and Fenwick Island, which are all affected by the change. “We all need to become involved and contribute,” she said. Healy, for his part, noted the substantial capital expenses for starting up a new ambulance service, as well as its ongoing operation costs, saying he wanted to see some numbers and look for solutions.

Overall, citizens attending the BBLA event Friday night appeared to have been intrigued by many of the answers given by the candidates. At least one reported at the polls on Saturday that the prior evening’s event had changed their likely vote that day, though they declined to say which candidate had impressed them or failed to do so.

Absentee ballot changes yield improvements

Contrasting with 2006 — when 50 absentee ballots were rejected for a variety of problems — only four votes via absentee ballot were rejected this year. Three were returned without properly sealed envelopes, causing their security to be in question. A fourth balloting envelope was returned without any ballot inside.

The improvement would seem to bear out the success of changes in the absentee balloting system in the town, which took place as part of a wave of election reforms at the state level this year. Town officials reviewing the absentee ballot problems from the 2006 election had determined that the town’s existing system needed changes and streamlining to reduce any disenfranchisement of voters.

Indeed, a test ballot conducted among members of the town’s Charter and Ordinance Review Committee in October of 2006 showed that even town officials had a hard time properly completing the absentee balloting procedure under the old system. Four out of five committee members had failed the test, neglecting to properly seal one of two ballot envelopes.

According to Election Board head Faith Denault, in the case of the September 2006 election ballots, some of the voters had also failed to seal an envelope. Others had included their required proof of identity in the same envelope as their ballot — rather than the separate envelope included in the packet — necessitating the ballot be compromised in order to check their identity.

Still others had switched the envelopes, putting the ballot and identification in the envelopes assigned to the other form. In each case, the would-be voter had failed to follow the specific instructions of the absentee ballot in some significant way and their vote was not counted.

A simplified absentee ballot was deemed to be an improvement during the town’s discussion of state election legislation this year, and was quickly instituted, just in time for the Sept. 8 elections. The reduction in ballot rejections appears to have confirmed the change as a positive one for the town.

Another year of close races for council seats also cemented the importance of each and every vote, each and every absentee ballot. While Parsons lost his seat by eight votes in 2004 (there were no challengers and no elections in 2005), just five votes separated elected candidates in 2006 from those who came close behind.

Further, just a single vote separated Killmer — initially ousted in the voting — from the likewise ousted Harry Steele. And that single vote was what apparently cost Steele a return to council when the council filled the suddenly-vacated seat of Walsh the day after the election, with the voters’ next choice: Killmer.

Bethany Beach elections in recent years have been a stellar example of the value of a single vote. Each citizen had a maximum of three votes — one per contested seat – with 2,179 total votes cast this year. That was nearly 1,000 fewer votes cast than in 2006, at 3,162, with four seats up for grabs and eight candidates running. This year, 234 voters voted by absentee ballot, compared to 261 in 2006.

In the end, seven votes made the difference in this year’s election.

The council will hold its traditional reorganizational meeting on Monday, Sept. 17, at 10:30 a.m. at the town hall, at which the council officers — including the mayor — will be selected from among the new council. The meeting was delayed this year due to a new voting challenge requirement that forces the council to wait at least a week after an election to seat new members.

At that time, Parsons will once again stand behind the council table and Healy will join the group. Olmstead will also return to the council table, where she could be returned as mayor or where any of the other six council members could step into the role of the town’s new chief executive.