Bethany considers referendum changes

After a contentious call for referendum on the roof-pitch measure passed in 2006 by the Bethany Beach Town Council, largely over the associated roof-height allowance, some in the town were convinced their code regarding referendums needed some clarification and perhaps some additional changes.

That effort came to an early stage of realization this past week, as members of the Charter and Ordinance Review Committee (CORC) met to finalize a draft of Chapter 24 of town code regarding referendum.

Previous discussion of the issue that involved committee members, town officials, those behind the 2006 referendum call and other citizens netted a number of proposed changes.

They range from small housekeeping-type issues to the sweeping change of a proposed form that will allow would-be petition signatories to sign individual petition forms of a format mandated by the town for enhanced clarity and privacy.

Among the changes proposed in the draft:

• A 180-day cap on petition circulation — a compromise between suggestions of 30 days and an open-ended period;
• Requirements that both the petition signers and the circulators of petitions be qualified voters in the town (including both property owners and residents); and
• A retooled ballot question if the petition is successful and does result in a referendum, asking if the voter is for retaining the ordinance as written or wishes to repeal it it.
The new form would include a number of the previous requirements for information from those signing petitions that call for the repeal of enacted town ordinances, such as the name and Bethany Beach address of the signer.

But it also handles that information differently in an effort to make the task of town staff easier in trying to verify which signatories are actually those of qualified voters.

Rather than a single signature/name/address line, which often proved too small to both fit the information and have it remain legible, the new single-page form offers an area for the printing of the voter’s name, their signature, their Bethany Beach address and the date they signed.

The proposed form also provides an area for the circulator of the petition to certify that they personally circulated the petition and obtained that specific signature, their address and that they are themselves a qualified voter.

That section garnered some resistance on Feb. 15, as Council Member Lew Killmer said he felt the address information would become burdensome as circulators accumulated hundreds or more petitions that each had to be individually certified.

But in discussion of how the town would distribute the form to would-be circulators, Vice-Mayor and CORC Chairman Tony McClenny said he expected circulators to receive a single copy of the form from the town, in either paper or digital format, and to then be responsible for all reproduction necessary. In doing so, he said, they could fill out their information on the original form and use it for the copies, saving some considerable work.

Ordinance text to be spelled out

The main crux of the form could be its inclusion of a central section where the text of the ordinance in question would be inserted verbatim, and continued on the back of the page, if necessary.

That change could be considered a direct result of the roof-pitch ordinance referendum, as concerns were expressed during the petition circulation that not all who signed it were fully aware of what they were asking for a referendum on. There were also some complaints that the ordinance was not being represented accurately in information supplied by those circulating the petition.

Both charges were denied at the time by petition originator Dan Costello, and Costello was taken aback at the Feb. 15 meeting when McClenny said that some signatories had even called town hall after signing, belatedly realizing that they hadn’t understood what they’d been signing and wishing to retract their signatures.

McClenny declined to specify how many calls had been received, but he said the few that were had been enough to consider elaborating on the existing requirement that the ordinance in question on a petition be specifically identified.

On the new form, potential petitioners will have the option to read the entire text of the ordinance, to make sense of it themselves, rather than having to rely on someone else’s description.

Killmer said he felt the change would help take some of the subjectivity out of the decision people were asked to make when offered petitions. “It will stress whether they agreed with the code instead of things outside of what’s on the voting machines. It focuses on the code instead of a philosophy,” he said.

Ballot question altered for clarity

McClenny had initially proposed that the voting question on the actual ballot resulting from a successful petition for referendum be simplified and clarified, to indicate whether the voter was for or against the specified ordinance with a yes/no vote choice.

Committee member John Gaughn said he felt things were sufficiently clear with the existing language. Costello agreed. “I can’t for the life of me figure out the big deal about asking if they’re for or against repeal. I’m from the school of politics where if there isn’t something wrong with it, there’s no need to change it. Why are we changing this? What injustices does it address?”

Costello has disputed the entire discussion from the start, saying it was unnecessary to change the existing procedures. Though he had asked a few questions during the process to help ensure his petition would be successful, he said, they were minor issues and quickly answered — nothing suggesting widespread change of the town’s procedures were needed.

Council Member Tracy Mulligan suggested a middle ground on the ballot question, suggesting that the questions should be a choice between a vote to retain the ordinance as written or to repeal it. Committee members favored the idea and agreed to go that route.

Privacy concerns yield form overhaul

There were also concerns expressed last week about the necessity for a single-page, individual petition form. Costello said he was concerned that carrying so many pages would mean added work in an already difficult process of gathering signatures, as circulators juggled all the pages and toted them around.

But members of the committee said there had been concerns about privacy and the impact of a public signature, where neighbors might look at a signed petition and make their decision about whether or not to support a call for referendum based on who had signed before them, or where neighbors might find themselves on opposite sides of an issue or feel pressured to sign because others had.

Generally, the latter was not the case, McClenny said, but committee members said they favored making sure that each individual signatory could maintain their privacy and that petitioners weren’t being influenced one way or the other by previous signatures.

They were whole-heartedly in favor of the recommended changes. The same could not be said for Costello, who emphasized the difference between a signature on a petition — where the voter might simply favor a referendum, rather than opposed the ordinance itself — and an official vote, in terms of privacy.

“I’m perceiving this as an effort to make referendums more onerous than they are today,” he said. “People will think that council is changing it because they didn’t like the outcome of the last one. … What was wrong with getting 20 signatures on a sheet? What is the great wrong that is being righted?”

Olmstead said that council dissatisfaction with the previous referendum outcome was not the intent behind the changes.

McClenny noted that while he understood Costello’s concerns, he could not agree with him. “The next person circulating a petition could be me, and I disagree,” McClenny explained.

But Costello was not assuaged. “I think the form’s an abomination,” he said. “It will make it more onerous on them than the existing situation — not impossible, just tougher.”

However, committee members were in general agreement that the changes were an improvement of the process — one that would make things easier for town staff, remove some issues of subjectivity and privacy concerns, and generally clarify things should another ordinance be called into question.

They voted 3-1 to send the changes to the town manager’s office, from whence it will be sent to the town solicitor for review and conversion into official language, before possible readings and a vote on adoption by the council.

Voting ordinances still in the works

Also on Feb. 15, CORC members received an update on the ongoing process of developing new voting ordinances for the town, in the wake of a new Title 15 voting law adopted by the Delaware General Assembly last summer. The law is set to go into effect at the end of June and would require the town code be in compliance before its next elections, in September.

But Bethany officials and those from other coastal towns have been working feverishly to try to address problems with limitations on which voters could be sent absentee ballots, and to get those fixes in place before it affects local elections.

Like many of the area beach towns but unlike most of the rest of the state’s municipalities, Bethany allows non-resident property owners to vote. However, the state does not allow absentee ballots to be sent or cast simply because the voter will not be in town at the time of the election or does not reside there.

The town and its fellows last week received a letter from the state Attorney General’s office, saying that discussions about possible changes to address the issue were still ongoing.

Representatives from the Sussex County Association of Towns (SCAT) and Delaware League of Local Governments (DLLG), and their attorney, have also been working on developing an amendment to Title 15 that might correct the problem, with a sponsor already on board should the amendment be needed.

Bethany is down to the wire on its changes, with the requirement that the new town ordinances be in place 60 days prior to an election. That will mean the town has to adopt its new election ordinances by the June council meeting, with two readings required prior to a vote. Thus, the new language will have to be drafted before mid-April.

McClenny said he hoped to devote much of the March CORC meeting to the issue, to work out that language after a hoped-for final response from the Attorney General and have it ready for April.