Bethany looks at referendum, ballots

With an election recently behind them and a possible referendum looming on the horizon, Bethany Beach Charter and Ordinance Review Committee (CORC) members met on Oct. 19 to discuss possible changes to town code regarding both referendums and absentee ballots.

Finding the absentee balloting process too complex and too likely to result in invalidated ballots, committee members agreed to look at changes that might be needed — particularly with recent adoption of House Bill 410 in the Delaware legislature, which made changes to Delaware’s Title 15 regarding municipal elections.

CORC members also targeted Chapter 24 of the town code, looking for things that might need to be changed or clarified, in the wake of a referendum petition effort that was officially certified as successful at the following night’s town council meeting.

While council members opted on Oct. 20 to voluntarily repeal the ordinance in question rather than calling for a referendum, in the coming weeks CORC members will still be brushing up on their Delaware law and town code, seeking to make the two work together to the best advantage of the town’s voters.

One area of possible conflict was noted at the Oct. 19 meeting, with members unsure whether absentee balloting would be permitted in a referendum.

Absentee ballots often swing Bethany Beach elections, with the unusual provision for non-resident property owners to vote, as is only common among the state’s coastal communities. Thus, the question of whether only in-person ballots can be cast will be a vital one for the drafters of new town code on the issue.

“We’ve never had a referendum before,” Council Member and former CORC chairman Lew Killmer emphasized, referring specifically to petitioned repeal efforts for ordinances passed by the town council.

Killmer noted that petition organizer Dan Costello had had questions about the referendum process going into it and said he believed the process needed clarification so that it was clear to all involved.

He suggested the town develop a “boilerplate” document that would allow petitioners to define which ordinance they were seeking to repeal and what other information would be required to accompany petitions collecting signatures in support of the referendum.

There had been further questions in the referendum process over the town’s roof-pitch allowance, including how long the town could take to verify signatures and certify the validity of a petition for referendum.

Overall, the little-used process garnered nearly as many questions as it did signatures. So it was that CORC member Fulton Loppatto said, “We need to educate the town. They don’t understand what they can repeal — only a specific ordinance.”

Perhaps unexpectedly, Costello said he didn’t have many concerns about the referendum portion of town code. “I had specific questions about how to proceed,” he said. “The answers I got from the town were very specific. They were perfect, clear, concise.”

As a result, Costello said, “I gave very specific instructions” to those who circulated the petitions. “This section of code is perhaps the clearest, most unambiguous section of code I’ve read,” he added.

Still, there were concerns during the process about the collection of signatures on the petitions and what petitioners told those who were asked for their signatures.

And some felt Costello’s questions about the process were enough to justify some clarification for the future.

CORC members will therefore take on Chapter 24 of town code in the coming weeks, as background research to tackle any changes beginning at their November meeting. New CORC Chairman and Vice-Mayor Tony McClenny asked for all comments on the section of code to be forwarded to him for inclusion in the discussion.

Also on Oct. 19, CORC members voted unanimously, 5-0, to forward previously drafted changes to the town’s Chapter 238, Water and Sewers, to the town council. The committee’s previous iteration drafted recommended changes — including a title change to Water and Stormwater Management — and was ready to send them to the town attorney for review and codification.

In its new form, CORC voted to send the draft on to the town manager’s office for such a review, before it goes forward for possible adoption by the council.

CORC members are also planning to look at the town’s ordinances regarding commercial concessions and sales in the coming months, likely after their November meeting.