Notice, input issues plague Bethany meeting

Bethany Beach officials were again faced with criticism and dismay from constituents over issues of public input at an Aug. 7 special meeting that had originally been called for a possible vote on the town’s proposed commercial architectural guidelines.

Three items were added to the agenda for that meeting after the original notice for it was posted on July 20. That first notice showed only the single item to be considered.

The agenda additions were posted around town on July 31, just one week prior to the meeting, satisfying legal requirements for official notice. But many present at the meeting on Monday had either not heard about the additional items or had heard about them only recently.

The Coastal Point, which routinely publishes meeting agenda information in the week prior to advertised meetings, did not receive notice of the meeting, or the additional items, through the town’s e-mail notice system. Generally such notices are sent.

A phone call from the Coastal Point to town staff in July to follow up on notice of the preceding public hearing had yielded notice of the 2 p.m. meeting itself, but no subsequent notice regarding any aspect of the Aug. 7 meeting was received through the e-mail system and the Coastal Point did not receive a legal advertisement regarding the meeting or updated agenda. Therefore, the additional items were not included in the Coastal Point’s meeting notices for the week.

Thus it was that many of those present for the public hearing and subsequent public hearing were in the dark as to what was on the agenda, let alone the details upon which they might have otherwise commented.

Some inquired as to the details of the issues involved, only to be told that the related documents had been available at town hall for the asking.

To comment or not to comment

The issue was a doubly difficult one for council members to deal with. On the heels of a recent — and much criticized — decision to try to better organize council meetings through limits on public input, they had reiterated a desire to allow such input, cementing a public-input segment at the beginning of regular council sessions.

The move mollified some critics, but others continued to object that the council might not allow input and questions during council discussion prior to votes on individual issues — a major source of the chaos council members said they were originally seeking to curtail.

That became precisely the issue Monday, as former Planning Commission chairman Phil Boesch, current Planning Commissioner (and council candidate) Steve Wode and former Mayor Joe McHugh inquired as to the details involved in the newly added items on the agenda and expressed consternation at having to wait until after the public comment segment to hear reports that might or might not answer their questions or spur additional comment that would then not be permitted.

“I want to hear the report before I comment,” Boesch said, referring to a report from JMT Engineering on the town’s proposed Streetscape project. He inquired as to whether additional comment and questions would be permitted after the report.

“I’d prefer not to,” Mayor Jack Walsh responded, “but we may be able to make allowances.” He suggested Boesch make his comments then, at the approved time.

Boesch did so, inquiring as to the status of the project, of which he has been a frequent critic since changes were made to a version of the plan developed through a special committee he served on and the handling of the project was transferred to Town Manager Cliff Graviet and JMT.

He specifically inquired as to whether the report that was to be presented included project specifications and estimates that he said were to have been forthcoming from JMT. “The people know nothing. I assume you all do,” he said to the council members.

Walsh did not respond specifically to the questions, saying Graviet’s report would answer most or all of Boesch’s concerns.

Wode was curious about the details of a proposed contract to build trails at the former Natter property, which is undergoing a transformation into a nature center. He also said the public had never seen those details.

Former Mayor Joseph McHugh asked about the third additional item — a proposed contract with FuturTech Consulting to set up and maintain a town hall computer network and backup system — saying he had no idea what the agenda item involved.

In that case, Graviet noted that the bid on the project had been received the week after the July council meeting and that he had decided to place it on the council’s agenda for the Aug. 7 special meeting to get the project moving as soon as possible.

“If it’s a cause for concern, we can add it to the Aug. 18 agenda,” Graviet said, referring to the next regularly scheduled council meeting.

It was a cause for concern for a number of those present at the meeting, and apparently for some council members as well. Council Member Lew Killmer suggested tabling the planned votes on the Natter and FutureTech contracts until the council’s Aug. 18 meeting. He received unanimous agreement on that notion (Council Member Wayne Fuller absent).

Council Member Tony McClenny proposed that a vote on the Streetscape project also be tabled until then, but Graviet explained that the vote was only to determine whether the council would accept the report and schedule a public meeting on the plan. That was acceptable for the council members and they proceeded to listen to the reports on all three issues.

• Contract for FutureTech Consulting: The $17,866 contract would include a town-hall computer server, tape backup devices, a virtual-private network (VPN) to allow authorized employees and officials to access the network from outside the building, full backups made daily and stored off-site monthly, and maintenance of the system. Council members will now vote on the contract on Aug. 18.

• Contract for N.W. Johnson Builders/Natter property: The $268,772 contract includes construction of a raised, flat boardwalk and chip path system through the Bethany Beach property’s woods and wetlands, accessible by both walkers and bicyclists. Some $180,000 of that would come from funds remaining from a DNREC grant, the remaining approximate $89,000 amount from the town. A vote on this contract was also tabled to Aug. 18.

• JMT Engineering: The concept submitted by JMT refers to parking along Garfield Parkway, with the major change being in the removal of existing diagonal parking on the south side of the median near town hall in favor of parallel parking and the addition of diagonal parking on the northeast portion of that median. With that change, the plan allows for 5-foot-wide bicycle paths in all traffic directions.

Graviet noted that the net parking loss or gain under the plan had yet to be determined because the town is in early talks with the Disciples of Christ Christian Church to possibly use or acquire a portion of the church land adjacent to town hall for additional parking or playground space.

The major work on the project by JMT, he said, had been to adjust the plan in the wake of the first real survey of the area by JMT. But they also proposed additional elements, such as parking, through the church property.

He said the “overall concept” proposed to the Christian Church had been received favorably by church officials thus far but that they had not seen the detailed plan from JMT and had not agreed to anything yet.

Graviet said he hoped to bring the revised plan — received by the town only last week — to church officials in the coming weeks and, perhaps, to have a solid response from them in time for a planned public workshop on the Streetscape plan.

Council members, upon reviewing the massive plan drawing and hearing Graviet’s report, agreed unanimously to set that public workshop in September.

Allowed to continue his questions outside the prescribed public comment period, Boesch further inquired as to funding for the project, noting the previous loss of a $144,000 Delaware Department of Transportation (DelDOT) grant when the town was unable to act on the plan quickly enough. Funding was also lost to the DelDOT funding shortfall of last year.

Graviet said DelDOT officials had found additional funds for the Bethany Streetscape project since then, tapping state highway monies.

Boesch also inquired as to the timeline for developing those project specifications and estimates (PS&Es), which he said were to have been part of JMT’s current task.

Graviet replied that developing the PS&Es “wouldn’t make sense” at this time, with public input still to be obtained and a final plan to be approved. He said the cost for JMT’s services thus far had been approximately $105,000, with about $40,000 remaining of grant funding for the design phase of the project that would go toward the development of PS&Es.

To Boesch’s question about whether $40,000 would be adequate to cover that cost, Graviet said he didn’t know. That answer will come after the townsfolk have had a chance to examine the revised Streetscape plan and give their input to council members for a possible final vote.