Fenwick Island citizens were in for something of a shocker when the names of the candidates for the town council’s Aug. 5 election were revealed. None of the three incumbents whose terms are set to expire threw their hats back into the ring.
Mayor Peter Frederick and Council Members Harry Haon and Vicki Carmean all chose not to run for re-election this year, though Carmean’s decision was clearly a close one, with her application for the position initially put in and then withdrawn at the last minute prior to the June 21 deadline.
After a turbulent year in Fenwick Island politics, particularly with controversy over council processes and floor-area ratio limits that were drafted by Haon’s Charter and Ordinance Committee over the winter and passed on a 3-2 council vote June 23 (Carmean opposed, Frederick and Haon in favor), there was an expectation in the town of a bountiful field of candidates.
Frederick has, in fact, for several months ardently encouraged those who were dissatisfied to run for council. But even town hall staff were surprised that all three incumbents chose to vacate their seats.
However, Frederick said the strife between council members was obvious and at the root of his decision not to run again – at least for now.
“I appreciate the opportunity to have served and would hope to serve again,” Frederick said this week. “But the council wasn’t working well and I thought the best thing for me to do was to step back and let everybody else step back, and let a new group in and see if they can get things going again.”
“As a group, I feel very happy with all the things we accomplished,” Frederick noted. “But there was obviously diversity among the team. And I felt the best thing to do was to step back. I would like to serve again. But it was just time for me to step back and watch from afar.”
For his part, Haon said, “I’ve been on council for 14 years, and I think it’s time to let some other people make their contribution. And I’m really pleased that so many have stepped forward and were interested and willing to serve.”
Looking back at those years on the council Haon was quick to see the town’s successes. “I’ve enjoyed the 14 years a great deal,” he said. “There have been some significant things accomplished not by me but by the council in general.” He cited central water, a new community park, improved road systems and drainage. “And, of course, the biggest thing was the beach replenishment,” he added.
“I think there’s more to be done and I’m sure the new council will get after those things,” he concluded.
Haon said his focus was going to shift to family, his business and plans to write a book. “I won’t be at a loss for things to do,” he said.
Carmean, with her last-minute withdrawal from what would have been a six-person race, also cited a need for more time with her family as part of her decision not to run again in 2006. The closeness of that decision could also hint at a future return to the council, such as the one Frederick said might be in the making for him.
But, for now, the three council veterans will vacate their seats for those in the audience and on the beach.
That doesn’t mean, however, that there will be an easy election for the other candidates. There are, in fact, five candidates for the three seats. And most are familiar names in the town.
The list includes frequent meeting contributor Bill Weistling, who is the chairman of the town’s Building Committee and a member of the Charter and Ordinance Committee. He also serves on the board of the Fenwick Island Society of Homeowners (FISH).
And candidate Diane Tingle was most recently noted for her criticisms of the process through which FAR was developed, as well as her participation in the Town Manager Search Committee.
Boettcher, too, was heard objecting to FAR in recent months.
“FAR is wrecking the town,” Boettcher declared at the May 19 hearing on the issue, addressing the heated division it has caused between the town’s citizens. “And it’s not needed,” he added, having said previously that the limits were a violation of personal freedoms akin to restrictions in Russia.
Boettcher said citizens were far more concerned about the town’s height limits than imposing FAR. He said many houses could instead stand to be raised 2 feet, to get them out of the flood plain.
For his part, Gardner was a member of the Fenwick Island Concerned Citizens, which challenged the then-council’s statement to citizens over police department and other controversial issues during 2003.
Smallwood was also vocal during that period, asking publicly for the resignation of then-Mayor Peg Baunchalk, whom he held responsible for major accounting oversights under her administration.
The slate of candidates could be significant — especially in light of the reminder from Council Member Theo Brans (whose term expires next year) that passage of FAR on June 23 could be a short-term victory for its supporters. “This is subject to change. The next council, if they like, can change this,” he said. (Brans also voted in support of the measure.)
Of the remaining four council members, one council member is believed to be opposed to FAR — Audrey Serio, who was absent from the June 23 meeting and thus did not cast a vote. Martha Keller, who was also absent June 23, has stated support for some form of the restriction. Council Member Chris Clark has voiced support for FAR also, but voted against the measure June 23, citing his belief that it should be part of the long overdue comprehensive plan for the town.
Based on those stances, a slate of three anti-FAR candidates could tip the balance against the measure in the future and form a basis for its repeal.
Differing interpretations of a recent survey on FAR were unified in showing the deep divisions on the issue. But objections to exact counts of those for and against the ordinance at various points in the process indicated a desire among some residents to have an official voice in deciding the town’s stance.
Council members rejected a call for referendum, instead opting for the non-binding survey. But even though the incumbents are departing, the Aug. 5 elections could turn out to be as much a referendum on FAR as a way to seat new council members.
The town’s citizens will have a chance to determine if that is the case when they go to the polls on Saturday, Aug. 5, between 1 and 5 p.m. at the town hall. Voters are asked to bring a picture ID, and absentee ballots are available by calling Town Clerk Donna Schwartz at (302) 539-3011.
Clark said June 23 that he was particularly concerned with bringing the townsfolk back together after the period of division it has recently experienced. Whether that happens is something that will likely be determined — directly or indirectly — by the votes cast Aug. 5.