Elections bring upheaval in Bethany

It’s been an explosive week in Bethany Beach government, as the Sept. 9 elections brought about substantial change not only to two of four contested council seats but also to the Planning Commission, council officers, standing committees and even the council seat of Jack Walsh, whose term doesn’t expire until 2007.

As voters cast their final ballots on Saturday, most had no idea that the final tally would result in Walsh’s eventual resignation, as the newly reformed council on Sunday would deliver a surprise and select Vice-Mayor Carol Olmstead to become its new head.

Many of the votes in 2006’s council election were cast with an apparent desire for change, after the September 2005 elections went uncontested and seemed to hint at citizen satisfaction. The subsequent months of debate over residential height allowances, commercial architecture guidelines, commercial setbacks and public input seemingly rallied anti-incumbent voters to the polls.

But the pro-change voters didn’t entirely have their way.

Challenger Steve Wode tied with incumbent Tony McClenny for the lead in voting, securing seats for both on the new council. Challenger Tracy Mulligan was elected with the third highest total, but incumbent Jerry Dorfman squeaked into the fourth and final council seat.

Incumbents Lew Killmer and Harry Steele — both a public focus of dissatisfaction over the controversial planning decisions — were narrowly defeated, by just five and six votes, respectively.

Statements of shock at the ouster of the two incumbents were already rolling in shortly after the results were posted on the town hall door, though supporters of the challengers said they’d expected an even bigger victory. Neither side enjoyed a clear success or defeat.

Thus it was that the council went into their Sept. 10 reorganizational meeting, planning to select from among their number a mayor, vice-mayor and secretary-treasurer.

Wayne Fuller nominated Walsh to continue in the post — an almost expected outcome by most accounts.

Mulligan — perhaps seeking additional dialogue regarding change — nominated McClenny for the post, asking for additional discussion of the roles before a vote, but was told that wasn’t a part of the usual process.

Dorfman, who later said he thought all should have a chance to serve as mayor, nominated Olmstead, in what was potentially both a change and a retention of the incumbents in the council’s leadership roles. It was that nomination that garnered the winning tally of four council votes and set in motion the biggest shocker of the week.

Within minutes, Walsh had resigned from his council seat, citing both a desire for truly fulfilling experiences and concerns that it would be awkward to continue on a council that had not supported his further mayorship.

Further fallout landed Monday, when Planning Commissioner Steve Trodden delivered his letter of resignation to the Coastal Point, citing Olmstead’s involvement in what he deemed an abusive process in leading development of the commercial architectural guidelines.

And while Killmer had already been mentioned for a possible reappointment to the Planning Commission as a citizen — Wode to take over as council representative, perhaps — by Tuesday, suggestions were already circulating that Killmer should instead be appointed to fill Walsh’s vacated council seat, as the nearest finisher in Saturday’s voting and without significant delay.

Traditionally, the seats of retiring council members in Bethany Beach have been advertised for applicants, who then have the opportunity to provide their qualifications to the remaining council members. The council then traditionally votes to select one from among their number — the very way both Dorfman and Killmer were added to the council in 2005.

But as of Wednesday morning, town officials had sent out a revised agenda for their planned Sept. 15 council meeting. That revised agenda included discussion and possible vote on a replacement to fill Walsh’s seat, suggesting that Killmer could, indeed, be nearly immediately appointed back to the council, despite the loss at the polls.

Town Manager Cliff Graviet clarified Wednesday afternoon that the posting of the revised Sept. 15 agenda had included the same wording for the appointment process as is found in the town charter — nothing more or less. Under “New Business,” the item reads:

“(Discussion and Vote) Election of a person to fill the vacancy on Council created by the resignation of John (Jack) Walsh. Mr. Walsh’s term is unexpired and pursuant to Section 6.5 of the Town Charter, the remaining Council members shall elect another qualified person to serve for the remainder of the vacant seat’s term. The term to be filled will expire in September 2007.”

Graviet said the council might vote Friday, or it might not. That decision would be up to them, he said, and would likely follow upon a discussion of the process the council members wish to use to fill the vacant seat, including either an immediate vote or the more traditional application process.

The bottom line: a council that, while changed, could potentially be even a little different from what voters had meant to have happen; a Planning Commission with only two members after a series of protest resignations; and a town left with its head spinning after a week of sudden shifts and surprises.

The coming weeks will begin to sort out the resulting chaos, but those directly deciding how things will fall out in the end are not the voters but rather the newly reconstituted town council.