Bethany Beach voters will head to the polls on Saturday, in what is perhaps the most contentious election in the town’s recent past.
With some citizens expressing deep dissatisfaction with the current council and its recent decisions, things have gotten personal for the four incumbents running for re-election, though all eight candidates have personally attempted to stay above the fray during their brief campaigns.
Allowances in height restrictions, restricted uses for the former Christian Church and Neff properties, the town’s Streetscape project, planning processes and other controversial issues have been central in the 2006 elections for four seats on the council, and differences of opinion on those issues have even yielded two protest resignations from the town’s planning commission in the last year.
Four citizens put themselves forward to challenge the incumbents for their seats, lending some credence to the notion that the change may be desired by a significant portion of the populace, though even they have said the challenges are more about shaking things up than about seeking to oust individual incumbents.
The incumbents argue that recent complaints and attacks have come from a small, but vocal, minority of townsfolk and that council decisions have all been made with the best interests of the town, and its future, in mind.
Voters will have their chance to voice their opinions on those issues — and, to some degree, the current council — when they head to the polls Sept. 9, between noon and 6 p.m. at the town hall.
Their choice will be among incumbents Jerry Dorfman, Tony McClenny, Lew Killmer and Harry Steele, who are up for re-election, and challengers Charles Gravatte, Joseph Healy, Tracy Mulligan and Steve Wode.
At least four of the seven members of the town council must be residents of the town, but all may be residents of the town — a notable fact when Gravatte and Healy have both championed their candidacies on the basis that they feel non-residents are being given short-shrift in representation on council. Currently, all council members are full-time residents.
In a unique turn of events, the candidates have cemented themselves in two blocs — incumbents and challengers — touting their varied experience and views and, to some degree, laying the choice in the voters’ laps as to whether the council should hold steady on its current course or have a change of direction.
Turning to the Internet, the four challengers advertise their candidacies and stances on the Web site at www.bethanybeachde.net. The incumbents, meanwhile, behind the Web-savvy leadership of McClenny, again have their own Web site, at www.bethany-beach.net.
Each of the candidates has been invited to a Bethany Beach Landowner’s Association “meet-the-candidates” event set for Friday, Sept. 8, at the Bethany Beach Volunteer Fire Company’s fire hall. A reception is set for 6:30 p.m., with the candidates to be questioned by voters at 7 p.m.
The candidates for 2006:
• Jerry Dorfman was appointed by council members to fill the seat of former Council Member Robert Degen in mid-2005. This is his first time running for elected office. He currently chairs the town’s Traffic and Parking Committee, where he oversaw a change in the handicapped-parking rules that was designed to help eliminate abuse by non-handicapped drivers. He also serves on the Charter and Ordinance Review Committee and previously served on the Planning Commission, prior to his appointment to the council.
• Tony McClenny is completing his first term on the town council, having been elected in 2004. He has served as the council’s secretary/treasurer since the council was last reorganized, as well as chairing the town’s Budget & Finance Committee and serving on the Communications Committee. McClenny previously served on the Planning Commission, resigning from that post to meet a restriction of one council member on that body.
• Lew Killmer was appointed by council members to fill the seat of former Mayor Joseph McHugh in early 2005. Killmer previously served for more than two decades on a Pennsylvania planning commission. He currently serves on the Bethany Beach Planning Commission as the council’s representative on that body, having briefly chaired the commission prior to his appointment to the council. Killmer also chairs the Charter and Ordinance Review Committee and serves on the town’s Audit Committee. He also recently served on the committee that helped develop architectural guidelines for the town’s commercial districts.
• Harry Steele is completing his second term on the council. He chairs the town’s Stormwater and Drainage Committee, having initially run for the office on the issue of improving the town’s drainage situation. He oversaw the development of a stormwater and drainage plan that is currently being implemented in the town and has pursued the possible construction of a “bladder dam” designed to help reduce tidal flow from the Loop Canal. Most recently, Steele has been vocal in attempting to clarify what he says is a misinterpretation of council votes on residential height allowances, emphasizing the original goal of improving “curb appeal.”
• Charles Gravatte is the son of Trice and Frances Miller Gravatte, who once operated the Addy Sea and thus has long family ties to the town. But Gravatte is a non-resident and said he feels the council needs more non-residents as members. He is also a one-time Planning Commission member, having served with Phil Boesch, McClenny and current Mayor Jack Walsh on that body during the time when the town’s 2004 citizen survey was taken.
• Joseph Healy was one of the aspirants for the May 2005 vacancy on the council, to which Dorfman was appointed. Healy has also touted his candidacy as a way to increase non-resident representation on the council. He said his plan, if elected, would be to focus on long-term planning issues and finances for the town.
• Tracy Mulligan is a frequent attendee at town council and committee meetings. He has been complimented by committee members on his intensive study of the town’s finances and has frequently questioned the larger impact of changes such as the height-cap increase. But he has yet to formally serve in any town office or on any committee. Mulligan also put his name forward for appointment to the council in May of 2005. Most recently, Mulligan noted publicly that while he opposed the residential height allowance, he had reversed his opinion on a similar height-cap increase proposed for the C-1 commercial district, after having initially thought it might make the structures too tall for the scale of the town. A part-time resident, Mulligan has said his candidacy is one of the challenger, aiming to encourage council members to consider other views.
• Steve Wode is a current member of the Bethany Beach Planning Commission, as well as its intergovernmental liaison — charged with keeping tabs on issues in the surrounding towns and county that could impact on development and planning issues in Bethany Beach. Wode is also the vice-president of the Bethany Beach Landowner’s Association and has worked with the Bethany-Fenwick Area Chamber of Commerce to address a number of local issues, including infrastructure stress due to development. Wode was a leading force behind the movement to encourage the Delaware Department of Transportation to plan for three lanes in Route 26 from the Assawoman Canal to Clarksville. Wode also said his primary goal in deciding to run for the council was to foment some change to its existing makeup and/or stances.
In addition to the in-person polling time on Saturday afternoon, absentee ballots for the 2006 Bethany Beach town council election may be requested in person no later than 3 p.m. on the day before the election. Absentee ballots must be received by 4 p.m. on the day before the election.
Bethany Beach property owners do not need to register to vote in the election, but residents who are not property owners in the town must register in order to be able to vote.
The council will hold its traditional reorganizational meeting on Sunday, Sept. 10, at 6 p.m. at the town hall, at which time the victorious candidates will be sworn in and the council will select its officers for the new session.