Bethany renews beach lobbying contract

Bethany Beach Town Council members voted 5-1 on Dec. 15 to renew their contract with beach-renourishment lobbyists Marlowe & Co., joining with neighboring South Bethany in extending the contract until Dec. 31, 2007, as the two coastal towns continue to await word on federal funding for their anticipated joint beach reconstruction project.

At $3,750 per month, split evenly between the towns, it’s an investment in the potential to gain some of the estimated $14.4 million in federal funds still needed to get their dwindling beaches reconstructed, as has already happened for all other municipal beaches in the state.

However, just $3.3 million in federal funding is in the bank for the construction phase of the project, and appropriations have been delayed past the start of the 2007 fiscal year — which began in October — and possibly into February or even October of 2007.

Pressure on to get funding

So, as winter’s nor’easters threaten additional erosion to beach, bulkhead and private property, the focus on the ability of Marlowe & Co., and lobbyist Paul Ordal, to convince federal legislators to fund the project has been keen — particularly during discussion of renewing the contract.

Public frustration with the limited appropriations so far, this year’s delays and the lack of any sand yet added to the beach was only exacerbated by the Thanksgiving storm that destroyed stairs and driveways, and damaged boardwalks.

Town Manager Cliff Graviet that same night confirmed damage to supporting beams of the town’s boardwalk from that storm, and clarified that the storm hadn’t damaged the bulkhead but instead had revealed pre-existing problems with the bulkhead by removing so much sand. Damaged beach stairs outside the Garfield Parkway area won’t be replaced until spring, he noted, with expectation of more storms to come.

Members of Bethany’s Intergovernmental Relations Committee recently brought up not only the possibility of hiring additional or alternative lobbying help — in the form of an appropriations specialist — but even talked about whether they and other town officials might do as well or better in lobbying efforts on their own.

Officials support Marlowe’s work

Throughout the deliberations on the issue, Bethany Beach Mayor Carol Olmstead and her South Bethany counterpart, Gary Jayne, have reiterated their confidence in Ordal and encouraged patience with the process, saying a breakthrough might be just around the corner. And even those questioning whether a change in strategy might be needed agreed that the change to a Democratic-controlled Congress might make the difference for the lone remaining construction project in a state with two long-serving Democratic senators.

Still, it was not without continued questioning of the town’s plan for obtaining federal funding for the project that Bethany Beach council members voted to renew the Marlowe & Co. contract.

Other measures needed?

Council Member Tracy Mulligan opened his commentary on the issue by stating he had no problem with Marlowe’s work. But on his mind was how best the town, its officials and its citizens could complement the work being done by Ordal in the coming months, to try to bring that desperately needed funding home.

He noted a remaining undefined “goals” section of the Marlowe contract, which the terms agree will be defined between the town and its lobbyists, and which Mulligan felt should be better defined before the contract proceeded.

Mulligan proposed that, as part of its vote to renew the contract, the council agree to add to its already-scheduled Jan. 4 council workshop the topic of beach replenishment and treat it as the highest priority, seeking to find through public input some actions the council and townsfolk could take in conjunction with expected consideration of appropriations measures in January and February.

Priorities questioned

While Olmstead reaffirmed replenishment as the council’s highest priority, she took issue with Mulligan’s timetable and sense of urgency, saying, “We have other issues to deal with.”

As it stands, the council workshops have recently focused on a page-by-page review of a new draft of the council’s policy and procedure manual — work Mulligan said he thought could wait or at least be done in addition to a replenishment discussion. He had agreement from Council Member Steve Wode, who said, “We can’t just sit back and wait for Marlowe to do whatever they are doing.”

Olmstead objected to the notion that the town officials weren’t doing anything on the issue, noting ongoing efforts to encourage property owners and visitors to send e-mails supporting the project to their senators and congressmen — an effort Mulligan and Wode felt could use some additional steps heading into the new term.

But Council Members Lew Killmer and Jerry Dorfman agreed with Olmstead on the council’s short-term priorities, with Dorfman referencing statements by Democratic leader Sen. Harry Reid (Nev.) that the new session’s first priority would be to finally pass the overdue budget bills — with no earmarks, those budgetary tags that fund specific projects such as the towns’ beach replenishment.

“We have some time to work on this,” Dorfman said, with Killmer also emphasizing a need schedule any beach replenishment discussions when South Bethany officials could join them.

Olmstead allowed that another meeting on replenishment was a good idea and would happen but said the timetable of any time in January was unrealistic, netting agreement from Killmer, who said a number of council members planned to be out of town for part of the month.

Wode, however, was unconvinced. “We can’t wait until June.”

“It can wait until February,” Olmstead interjected.

“I don’t know that it can wait until February,” Wode concluded.

Mulligan said he worried that the town would act too late, where it was never too early to do so.

Marlowe worked magic

Speaking to Mulligan’s main objections, Intergovernmental Relations Committee Member Bob Parsons, who has been tasked with managing the project as relates to state officials, said he felt the goal of the contract was already pretty well established, if not in great detail.

“The goal is getting sand on the beach,” Parsons said, suggesting Ordal could be trusted take whatever intermediate steps were needed.

Parsons also defended Marlowe & Co.’s work, saying, “In the first year we employed Marlowe, there were to be no new projects. They got us $300,000 in pre-construction funds on the construction side of the ledger ($425,000 total). I don’t know if Mr. Marlowe has a magic wand or if Paul Ordal has a special dance that he does, but they get it done.”

Prior to council discussion, those in attendance heard an impassioned plea from attorney and property owner Hal Dukes, who has worked on obtaining easements related to beach replenishment projects and who said he supported using Marlowe & Co. to help obtain funding.

“You have to ask, ‘What are they doing for us?’” Dukes acknowledged, prepared to answer that very question. “They are one facet of a necessary step to get beach replenishment funding. They will be there on a daily basis for appropriations. Nobody in this room is going to be able to do that. These guys will be there for you.”

“You pay them to stand up and say the reasons why beach renourishment is important, and to mention the town as part of the discussion,” Dukes continued.

Support offered on new steps

But Dukes also suggested the town officials had a responsibility beyond paying for Ordal’s services. “Dewey Beach and Rehoboth Beach, they used every single chance they had to get their name out there,” he said of some of the first municipal beaches in the state to be reconstructed.

Dukes suggested the town needed to be more active, looking at petitions, letters and phone calls from locals and visitors alike to get their name in front of legislators whenever possible. Further, he offered help from the Bethany-Fenwick Area Chamber of Commerce, which he said could bring petitions to all of its member businesses that patrons could then sign in support of federal funding.

“Anything that can be done, we will do,” Olmstead said in response to Dukes’ suggestion. But Dukes cautioned her that resting on the laurels of the 3,000 e-mails sent so far might not be wise. “It’s a new Congress. You have to do it all over again.”

Killmer was also skeptical of the notion of a petition, saying lobbyists had told them not to bother with traditional mail and paper documents, which are much delayed in reaching legislators under new security screening.

And as for the need for imminent face-to-face meetings with the Delaware delegation — suggested at the Intergovernmental Relations Committee meeting — he noted that some of the council members had already seen those lawmakers, in Georgetown at Return Day festivities.

Further, Killmer said he was concerned that multiple efforts by town residents and property owners would serve to undermine professional lobbying. “If they represent Bethany Beach, we should know what they are saying. We should make sure we are speaking with one voice.”

Mulligan also expressed concern over a lack of regular reports from Marlowe & Co., as called for in the contract. He said none were on file in the town. He said a communication schedule should be confirmed as part of the council’s extension of the contract.

But Parsons said he was in receipt of monthly reports from Ordal via e-mail, perhaps explaining the lack of a paper trail, as well as the lobbying firm’s regular newsletter on general beach issues.

In the end, both issues were a source of division for the council, with Mulligan and Wode on the short end of a 4-2 split (Wayne Fuller absent) on Mulligan’s suggested requirement for a January meeting on replenishment and a clarification of the reporting requirements for the firm as part of the contract renewal.

Supporting his statement that he had no problem with Marlowe’s work, Mulligan did join in the positive vote for renewal, with Wode voting in the negative, “just for effect,” the council member explained with a wry smile.