Bethany Beach Town Council members on July 20 considered sweeping changes to the town’s rules regarding referendums.
In the wake of the successful petition last year for referendum over a controversial provision in the town’s new residential architectural guidelines, a major overhaul of the referendum process was undertaken by the Charter and Ordinance Review Committee (CORC), focusing on what information is provided to, and by, those who sign petitions seeking the reversal of town legislation.
Council members in early 2006 had largely supported both the core ordinance to encourage pitched roofs and the enticement to create them — higher roof-height allowances for such homes — (then-Mayor Jack Walsh voting in sole opposition). But many in the town, including Walsh, found the allowances to be an open doorway to larger homes — a trend that was openly being fought, at least in terms of perceived size.
Part-time resident Dan Costello had organized opposition to the legislation and continued that opposition after it was adopted, formally seeking to have the ordinance overturned through a referendum. Costello and his fellow petitioners successfully collected enough signatures to mandate either council repeal of the controversial allowance or at least a referendum on its repeal.
The issue was hotly debated during the town’s 2006 election season, with citizen discontent over the ordinance and other issues registering in the form of ouster of two incumbents (Lew Killmer and Harold Steele) and their replacement with candidates who had sought change on the council (Tracy Mulligan and Steve Wode). (Killmer, as a narrow fifth-place finisher in voting was later selected to fill the unexpectedly vacated seat of Walsh, which is up for election this September.)
Steele, in particular, along with then newly selected Mayor Carol Olmstead (whose seat is also up for election this year) and Town Manager Cliff Graviet, was critical of the way the referendum petitioning had been handled by Costello and his group, saying that those being asked to sign the petitions had been misinformed about the issue. They said they felt a better explanation of the function of the ordinance would have led many to realize it was not in need of repeal.
Building Inspector John Eckrich personally confirmed that there were problems with the petition process, reporting that the person who had asked him to sign the petition at his home in Bethany had inaccurately described the impact of the ordinance the group was seeking to repeal.
While the newly reconstituted council in September of 2006 did vote to repeal the ordinance, Olmstead, at least, indicated that she would like to see the issue brought back before the council in the future, if it could be refined and explained well enough to citizens. (It has not returned to the council as yet.)
To deal with the concerns posed by allowing petitioners to phrase the issue themselves and requiring only limited information on a subject ordinance be provided, CORC members recommended the town devise a form upon which a standard amount of language from the ordinance would be required, as well as information about the citizenship status of petitioners and signatories.
Other complaints about the 2006 referendum focused on the potential of peer pressure and lack of privacy involved in the multi-signature petition sheet, and CORC members considered and recommended a one-signature-per-page system as a result, though they later abandoned the idea on Jaywork’s recommendation.
Opposition to referendum and petition changes continues
During much of the drafting process, Costello remained involved, stating his opposition to many of the proposed changes and to the consideration of any changes at all, saying that it seemed efforts were being made to limit the ability of citizens to successfully seek a referendum.
He described petitioners needing to tote clipboards full of multi-page signature sheets and verify both their own voting rights and that of signatories, and he opposed limits on how the subject ordinances should be described.
“The changes before you are unnecessary, petty and punitive, in my judgment, and are designed to guarantee that Bethany citizens will never again successfully exercise their right to petition an ordinance to referendum,” Costello wrote in a letter to council members on July 16 that he also forwarded to the Coastal Point.
“When the council approved a residential height increase in 2006 and chose to characterize it as a roof pitch/ beautification effort, many citizens, myself included, were outraged,” he wrote.
“Citizens forced the council to repeal the height increase that we found so offensive to the traditional community character and sense place of our town, and this proposed ordinance is the council’s response,” Costello wrote. “It says to me that the council is fixing the referendum power to guarantee that it will never be used successfully again.”
Though he has repeatedly been assured by town officials that such is not the case, Costello has remained opposed to the changes in the referendum rules and asked council members to vote down, or at least table, the proposed changes.
Despite that opposition, council members unanimously voted to adopt the changes on July 20, cementing the idea that the wording of an ordinance on a referendum petition should represent as closely as possible what a voter might see on the resulting referendum ballot and the portion of town code of which they are seeking repeal.
Ordinance wording to be included in petitions from this point forth
Council members on Friday tussled with exactly how much of the language should be included in the petition, seeking to avoid allowing either the petitioner or the town to tailor the language in a way that would favor either side.
Killmer said he was concerned that the town would end up requiring too much of the ordinance to be in the petition and that the result would defeat the purpose of including the language. “Who’s going to read that?” he asked rhetorically, saying only the segment up for repeal should be included.
Vice-Mayor Tony McClenny, on the other hand, favored including as much of the related verbiage as seemed pertinent. “If they would like to read it, then they can. If they don’t, they can skip it,” he said.
“I won’t sign any petition where I haven’t seen (the whole thing,” Wode put in.
With that discussion in the balance, Jaywork recommended the council adopt language that would require inclusion of “the complete text of the challenged section of the ordinance, in context.”
That decided, Mulligan recommended the council also add a requirement to notify all eligible voters, by U.S. Mail, of the referendum petition, along with the existing requirements for postings at public places and publication in local newspapers. Jaywork further recommended posting to the town Web site.
On that minor count, Council Member Wayne Fuller disagreed, but all seven council members voted in favor of the referendum changes as a whole. The changes, which are part of the town’s charter, must be approved by the state legislature, which will return to session in January of 2008