Serio becomes mayor of Fenwick Island

Everything old is new again in Fenwick Island. In their Aug. 18 reorganizational meeting, the newest members of the Fenwick Island Town Council were sworn in and joined four continuing members to unanimously select veteran Council Member Audrey Serio for the position of council president and the town’s mayor.

In the spirit of new beginnings and cooperation, Council Member Chris Clark had also nominated newcomer Diane Tingle for the position, but Tingle refused the nomination, citing her belief that the council — with its three brand new members (Tingle, Gardner Bunting and Bill Weistling Jr.) — was best led by someone who had served longer.

Accepting her refusal with aplomb, Clark noted his expectation in nominating Tingle that the council could work together as a dedicated team. “It doesn’t matter who’s in charge,” Clark concluded, voicing a spirit of egalitarianism for a governing body that was fraught with personality conflicts, division and infighting in its previous incarnations.

Likewise, experience was key in Serio’s decision to appoint “elder statesman” Theo Brans as council vice-president and deputy mayor of the town. Asked for nominations, Clark and Council Member Martha Keller each voiced their own interest in the position. But Serio said the previous council’s plan to hire a town manager played into her decision to choose Brans.

“Keep in mind that we will soon have a town manager,” Serio said, emphasizing that the new executive could be expected to alleviate many of the burdens from both mayor and deputy mayor, and might benefit during the transitional period from Brans’ many years of service to the town and council. With his experience, he was also well-suited to step in for the mayor when needed, she said.

Tingle received the new council’s unanimous vote to take over from outgoing Council Member Vicki Carmean the position of council secretary. And her fellow newcomer, Gardner Bunting, likewise was unanimously selected as council treasurer. Keller supported his nomination with emphasis on Bunting’s responses to pre-election budget questions in the Coastal Point.

Commissioners appointed

Serio also made appointments on Aug. 18 to a number of the council’s traditional commissioner positions. Bunting will serve as public safety commissioner. Weistling will help supervise the public works department. Keller will continue work as environmental commissioner. And Brans will continue supervising operation of beach functions.

In dealing with the position of administrative commissioner, Serio again noted the impending hiring of a town manager to deal with day-to-day issues and said she felt she and Tingle should share the position traditionally also held by the council secretary — at least for now.

“I expect it will go away soon,” Serio said of the administrative commissioner position. She said she and Tingle could share duties for now and assist the eventual town manager once that person is hired — estimated for early in 2007.

Finally, Serio appointed a number of committee chairpersons. Bunting, as treasurer, will also head the town’s budget and audit committees. Weistling, who has served on the town’s Charter and Ordinance Committee for years, will become its chairman. And Clark will continue as the town’s commercial liaison.

“It’s important,” Serio said of that position and the town’s commercial citizens, emphasizing that she’d like to see the group become more active in the busiest months of the year.

Clark to spearhead planning effort

Clark was likewise asked to head a task force that will help develop the town’s overdue comprehensive plan. But that turned out to be a more concrete position as Town Solicitor Tempe Steen reminded the council that the town was required to have a Planning Commission to oversee development of the comprehensive plan.

Thus, Clark became the council’s representative on and the first appointed member of the state-mandated body.

Remaining to be filled are a number of committee chair positions, including those of the Beautification Committee, and Recreation and Park Committee. Serio said she hoped to have those positions decided by the council’s regular meeting in September.

Citizens called to serve

Also needing to be filled are three seats on the town’s Board of Adjustments. Longtime BoA member Mary Pat Kyle has resigned her position, effective in September, and two other members have reached the end of their terms.

Serio requested any suggestions for appropriate persons to fill the positions be forwarded to her, with hopes of filling them by the first regular meeting for the new council, on Aug. 25.

Existing members of the board will serve for a planned Aug. 28 hearing.

The committee memberships themselves will also be determined in the coming weeks, with Serio saying she planned to develop a form with Town Clerk Donna Schwartz that would allow citizens to express their interest and qualifications for committee positions.

Council policies reviewed

With those decisions made, Steen asked the council members to consider a number of areas of policy for themselves — not the least of which was how they would interact with Steen as town solicitor.

While no formal vote was taken, with Serio and Keller leaving the meeting before it was concluded, the council members showed a consensus in favor of the existing policy of open restraint, allowing any council member and town staff to contact Steen at will — but with restraint, keeping in mind the cost of her services.

Steen also delivered to the council members her traditional lecture on municipal government, reviewing the state laws and other rules that she said the council members should be prepared to adhere to.

One change on the near horizon is the addition of an elections board — a change mandated by the recent passage in the state’s General Assembly of significant changes to the state’s Title 15, governing elections.

The town will need to add an additional independent body to its existing Board of Elections. The former will be prepared to arbitrate any complaints or disputes regarding a town election, while the latter will continue its duties to oversee voting and tabulate results. And attention may need to be paid to the absentee ballot process as well.

Steen also revisited a number of particular areas of concern for the council members, including potential problems with the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) that could be incurred through the use of e-mail. That brought the meeting full-circle, as Keller had noted Serio’s known reluctance to respond to e-mails from fellow town officials, and others.

“We all know that Audrey has been less responsive to e-mails and telephone calls,” Keller said, voicing some minor concerns over her selection as mayor. But Keller noted that Serio had expressed reluctance to respond to e-mails in part because of concerns about possible FOIA violations. Additionally, Keller said, “Tempers can run high,” and e-mail all too often became a vehicle for those tempers to be loosed from control.

Closing her statement on the issue, Keller said she knew the council could look to Serio for leadership but hoped she would communicate more with them than she had in the past.

Steen stood firmly behind the concerns over e-mail and FOIA, telling the council members firmly that they should not engage in any discussion of issues in e-mails to each other. As with telephone calls and in-person meetings, Steen said, the council members should limit any discussion of town business outside open meetings and executive sessions to one-on-one interaction.

To help avoid that common pitfall, council members agreed they might try a concrete reminder in their e-mails sent for informational purposes, along the lines of “For informational purposes only — Do not reply.”

Thus, they can share information and receive notice of happenings in the town from administrative staff with significantly less temptation to turn the original e-mail into a free-for-all council discussion of such information.

Public notice highlighted

Steen also noted the requirement for all municipalities to give seven days’ advance notice to the public of all meetings: council meetings, workshops, formal committee meetings, ad-hoc groups, the planning commission and Board of Adjustments — every meeting at which town business is done, even if no council member is present.

That notice should include an agenda for the planned meeting and as detailed an agenda description as possible, and council members further plan to continue to avoid taking action on items without sufficient notice via an announced agenda.

In a true emergency, though, meetings can be held with less notice, allowing the council members to deal with a crisis such as a looming hurricane, for example. But the rescheduling of meetings will still aim to be done with at least 24 hours of notice.

Excluded from public observation are executive sessions, including discussion of individual employees, their performance and pay, as well as any discussion of contracts or potential capital acquisitions, to better protect the town’s financial position.

Steen also emphasized the need to keep minutes of all meetings, though the rules on such arestill somewhat nebulous, requiring only that minutes be kept in some form. Traditionally, the town has kept extensive written minutes of council meetings — along with audio tape — but minutes of committee meetings have been kept somewhat less reliably and in considerably lesser detail.

On Steen’s advice, council members also agreed that all recommended changes to draft minutes will be formally made at open meetings, when they are to be adopted, rather than through individual discussion with the council secretary or administrative staff.