Just one year ago, the citizens of Bethany Beach were dealing with the appearance of relative quietude in Bethany Beach election news. No one filed to run against the three incumbents, making for the perception that most were content with their government.
In contrast, 2006 looks to be a banner year.
By the time Tuesday’s 4 p.m. deadline to file for candidacy for the town council elections on Sept. 9, some eight candidates had thrown their names into the ring. That includes the four incumbents whose seats are up for grabs this year and four citizens who are hoping to take those seats for their own.
Seeking re-election are Council Members Jerry Dorfman, Lew Killmer, Tony McClenny and Harry Steele. Seeking to unseat them are Charles Gravatte, Joseph Healy, Tracy Mulligan and Steve Wode.
The large-scale election pool comes in the midst of a petition effort to repeal a residential building height-cap allowance passed by the current council in April, discontent over changes to handicapped parking and objections to the council’s decision to remove the Bethany Beach Historical Association as an entity responsible for the town museum.
There has also been heated debate over the best way to designate uses for the former Christian Church and Neff properties now owned by the town; the town’s Streetscape plan; and commercial architectural guidelines that could be adopted as soon as Aug. 7, in advance of a commercial construction moratorium’s expiration on Aug. 9.
Added to that environment were deep concerns expressed by citizens about a council decision to limit public input during council meetings — a stance that was later modified after a public outcry and assertions by council members that their intent had been misunderstood.
Most recently, grass-roots efforts by a number of town notables have endeavored to encourage citizens to run against the current group of council members.
Resident Julia M. Jacobsen wrote in a letter to the editor earlier this month in which she objected to the handicapped parking changes: “Bethany is rapidly getting to be an unfriendly and costly place to live. Please consider running for Council. If you own property here, you are eligible to run and vote.”
This week, resident Dennis P. Cleary wrote of his opposition to the height-cap change and the proposed referendum, suggesting current council people could be ousted over the issue: “But referendums are not the mechanism to challenge every decision of the town council. Ask all the candidates what is their position and then vote for the candidate who best represents your views. That is what elections are all about.”
And former Mayor Joe McHugh — who retired from his post and council seat in January of 2005 — has openly encouraged a shift from the current council. He reminded would-be council members of the deadline to file for candidacy in a mid-July letter that concluded: “Be part of a team that curtails the increases in property and size, restores our image as a friendly, family-oriented town, pays attention and does what our citizens want, and doesn’t try to fix what ain’t broken. Please think about running. This is your town.”
Meanwhile, a recent letter from former Planning Commission Chairman Phil Boesch criticized the decision to require a supermajority of council members to approve changes of use for the church/Neff property; a recent letter from resident Dan Costello criticized the decision to approve the height allowance; and resident Jane Errett Vincenti this week criticized their decision to limit the powers of the Historical Association.
Each of those concerned citizens stopped short of directly calling for council members’ ouster, but the mood in the coastal town has decidedly shifted from any appearance of contentment to open activism against the current council and some of its decisions.
Veterans, appointees up for re-election
This year’s set of council members up for re-election includes both veterans and relative newcomers.
Steele — known for an independent streak and wry sense of humor — is a council veteran after four years. He heads the town’s flood and stormwater drainage committee, which most recently moved ahead with recommendations to improve drainage in the Bethany West community.
Steele has also been vocal in recent weeks in attempting to clarify the issues involved in the height-cap increase, which he said is not a move by council toward overdevelopment in the town, but rather an attempt at aesthetic improvements.
One-time Planning Commissioner McClenny will take his second turn in a town election, after being elected to his seat in 2004, when he unseated former Mayor Bob Parsons with hefty support at the polls. McClenny has since become the council’s secretary/treasurer, delivering a monthly report on the town’s finances, as well as serving as the chairman of the Budget and Finance Committee and as a member of several other committees.
Killmer and Dorfman were both appointed to their seats by the council in 2005, after the resignations of McHugh and Council Member Robert Degen. It will be their first time up before the town’s voters, and their seats are on the line.
Killmer, briefly the chairman of the town’s Planning Commission, now sits as the council’s representative on that commission and is the chairman of the Charter and Ordinance Review Committee, as well as an active member of several other town committees.
The former Planning Commissioner Dorfman, meanwhile, has taken over as chairman of the Parking and Traffic Committee, as well as remaining a member of a number of the committees upon which he had previously served.
Challengers have familiar names
Among the challengers, Wode is perhaps best known in the town. He is a member of the Planning Commission, as well as its intergovernmental liaison — charged with keeping tabs on issues in the surrounding towns and county that could impact on development and planning issues in Bethany Beach. (The Planning Commission is a traditional breeding ground for council members in Bethany Beach, though not all have come from its ranks.)
Mulligan is a frequent attendee at town council and committee meetings. He has been complimented by committee members on his intensive study of the town’s finances and has frequently questioned the larger impact of changes such as the height-cap increase. But he has yet to formally serve in any town office or on any committee.
Mulligan put his name forward for appointment to fill Degen’s vacated seat in May of 2005 but Dorfman was selected by the council. (Steele cast the lone council vote in favor of Mulligan at that time.)
Most recently, Mulligan noted publicly that he had reversed his opinion on a similar height-cap increase proposed for the C-1 commercial district, after having initially thought it might make the structures too tall for the scale of the town. He said he now supports the new allowance.
The son of Trice and Frances Miller Gravatte, who once operated the Addy Sea, Gravatte has long family ties to the town. He is also a one-time Planning Commission member, having served with Boesch, McClenny and current Mayor Jack Walsh on that body during the time when the town’s 2004 citizen survey was taken.
Healy was most recently noted as one of Mulligan’s fellow aspirants for the May 2005 vacancy on the council. But unlike the other four candidates, he opted not to show up for the special meeting at which the replacement was selected and made no public statement promoting his candidacy.
Each of the eight candidates will have ample opportunity to make their cases for voters’ ballots prior to the Sept. 9 election, if they wish. Those opportunities will include an upcoming question-and-answer series with the candidates in the Coastal Point.
With the scrutiny and criticism currently being leveled on the council, each of the candidates will have the opportunity to make or break their bids with their stances on the slate of controversial issues the town has faced recently and will continue to face in the coming two-year term.
The seats of Mayor Jack Walsh, Vice-Mayor Carol Olmstead and Council Member Wayne Fuller will be up for challenge in 2007. Walsh notably voted against the controversial height-cap allowance. Olmstead originated the move against the Historical Association’s powers at the museum.