Bethany shakeup continues with Trodden resignation

Posted Monday, September 11, 3:30 p.m.

Dramatic fallout from Sept. 9’s Bethany Beach Town Council elections continued into Monday morning, as Planning Commissioner Steve Trodden delivered a letter to the Coastal Point office containing both continued criticism of the work of the Architectural Guideline Development Committee for the C-1 and C-2 Districts (AGDC) and its chairwoman, Vice-Mayor Carol Olmstead, and his resignation from the commission in the wake of Olmstead’s election Sunday as the town’s new mayor.

It was the second resignation by a planning commissioner in less than a month, as Dave Evans resigned from the commission before their Aug. 19 meeting. Both men resigned publicly in protest over the process used to develop the architectural guidelines. It was further the third planning resignation in a year, with Chairman Phil Boesch’s resignation late in 2005 over the process involved in developing the town’s final Streetscape plan.

In his letter to the editor, Trodden cited the fact that Olmstead had requested a legal opinion from Town Solicitor Terence Jaywork on the AGDC’s place in the guideline process, but had done so after criticism from planners over their own minimal involvement in what they saw as a planning matter.

“The time for legal opinions is before you act – not afterwards,” Trodden said in his letter. “Why should the taxpayer pay for an opinion that says, ‘Boss, you did OK’? Whose interest does such an opinion serve?”

“‘Legal’ versus ‘proper’ are obviously two totally different concepts,” Trodden continued. “Not all bad public policy decisions are illegal. I will leave legality judgments to others more qualified than I. However, I am dubious about any opinion that concludes that the Planning Commission doesn’t have to do the planning!” he added.

“It’s supposedly OK to give this function to a group that includes members with a vested interest in the outcome as long as the Planning Commission has a role as a Review Board on their efforts,” he noted with obvious skepticism.

“I am dubious also when the opinion seems to put great weight on the idea that the guidelines deal ‘only’ with one dimensional element, i.e. height. What could be more crucial for the future appearance of downtown Bethany Beach than the height of its buildings? Why would any other dimensional elements be required to warrant a full-fledged planning process?” Trodden further said. “What I have no doubts about is the propriety issue.”

Trodden went on to detail the process by which the new guidelines were developed, noting that planning commissioners had signed off on increased roof-height allowances while language in the draft document still called for an 8-foot setback for structure above 24 feet as mandatory. That feature was later changed from mandatory to “highly recommended” by AGDC members and the non-mandatory version was adopted by the town council, with the height allowance intact.

Further, Trodden noted that despite his suggestion that both Olmstead and AGDC/Town Council Member and Planning Commissioner Lew Killmer recuse themselves from voting on the guidelines, the council had not really paused to consider that request and both had voted – in favor of them.

“There has long been a saying that, ‘Government actions must not only be proper but also they must have the appearance of propriety,’” Trodden goes on to say in his letter. “In my opinion, the above-described process fails to meet this standard.

“I thought that the recent election, in which two of four Town Council incumbents were defeated, would send the new Council a clear signal that this kind of manipulation would not be tolerated,” Trodden said.

“Sadly, however, Sunday’s Council vote to elevate Ms. Olmstead to Mayor says clearly to me that a majority of the Council still doesn’t get it,” he concludes. “Therefore, since I cannot work under a leader with a distorted view of how power should be judiciously exercised, I hereby announce my resignation from the Planning Commission effective upon completion of business on Saturday, September 16, 2006.”

It was yet another bombshell in a week of bombshells, following on the heels of Jack Walsh’s sudden resignation from his council seat immediately after he received only two council votes (Wayne Fuller’s and his own) to continue as mayor, compared to Olmstead’s four votes (her own vote, plus that of Jerry Dorfman, Tony McClenny and newcomer Tracy Mulligan) to take over in the position. Newly elected Council Member (and Planning Commissioner) Steve Wode voted for McClenny to become mayor.

Walsh said Monday that his resignation was due to a lack of support for his leadership from the bulk of other council members and not specifically in protest of Olmstead’s elevation.

Regarding the resulting tumult on the Planning Commission, Walsh said, “There’s a definite conflict there. It’s unfortunate, too, that there’s so much turmoil here when we have all these very bright people, and these things get out of hand. It’s unfortunate that these things happen this way.”

Indeed, the conflicts between the commissioners and council members have reflected general concerns from some citizens about the council’s decisions, just one year after no challengers put themselves forward for the other three seats.

Walsh said Trodden’s resignation just signaled that there truly is a deeper issue between the two bodies that has yet to be resolved, despite the changes on the council this week.

“There’s obviously a problem there,” Walsh said. “There is a disconnect there.”

The bottom line of concern for Walsh, at least as far as the commission goes, is the potential brain drain of the town’s interested citizens.

“The thing that bothers me is the fact that we’ve lost two commissioners, both resigning within the last six months. We’re going to need a bunch of commissioners,” he said.

As for how the commission might settle out in the wake of a resignation that technically takes it to one less than a quorum of the five members, “Steve Wode seems a likely council representative – that’s my guess,” Walsh said.

Chairwoman Kathleen Mink has one more year to serve on her term, he noted, adding that Killmer – the former council representative on the commission, who is now also out of that job due to his loss in the council election – is probably a candidate to fill one of the three resulting open seats on the commission. “He seemed to enjoy that,” Walsh said.

Killmer did indeed express his interest in returning to the commission as a citizen when asked about the possibility on Saturday.

“Before I resigned, I did have a memo sent out to everybody all the council members to provide me with a list of names of candidates to serve on the planning commission, realizing we were going to have a shortfall,” Walsh added. The appointment of new commissioners was indeed on the Sept. 15 council agenda, which will now be overseen by Mayor Carol Olmstead.