Bethany examines public input at workshop

The Bethany Beach Town Council met for its first-ever workshop on Tuesday, council members still reeling from a wave of negative feedback on a new council policy more strictly limiting public comment at their regular council sessions.

While the new policy is technically more limiting on public comment, restricting it to brief questions or comments during a segment at the start of the meetings, council members said their intentions had been misconstrued.

They didn’t want to limit the public’s ability to provide input, they said, just keep it in a more controlled format at the regular council meetings, so as to reduce the chaos and confusion that had sometimes come to their own discussion of issues during the meetings.

“Our intentions were badly misinterpreted,” Council Secretary-Treasurer Tony McClenny said during the June 6 workshop.

So badly misinterpreted, McClenny said, that an adjustment was needed. He suggested the council continue to have public input during the meeting, on issues where the council was to vote. The public could be allowed to briefly comment or ask questions, he said — after the council members had made a motion, gained a second and held their own discussion, but before they held a vote.

“Our discussion may also answer some of their questions,” he emphasized, in explaining why the public comment should be allowed at that point versus others.

McClenny said he’d had times in the past where opposition expressed during council meetings had changed his mind on issues. “I would like to hear from the public if they have anything to say that hasn’t been discussed,” he added.

But McClenny joined with other council members in saying the origin of the new policy had been a legitimate concern. “I’m upset with the handful of people who, without being recognized, stand up and speak,” he admitted. “It’s confusing, and we lose track of where we were. I just don’t think that’s fair.”

Council Member Harry Steele, who had championed the new policy, clarified the original intention behind it. “It was misinterpreted that we’re trying to shut the public up,” he said. “We were trying to create something more formal, something more organized. It may take four or five meetings to find the balance between what the council wants and what the public wants,” he asserted.

Vice-Mayor Carol Olmstead concurred. “It was never our intention to preclude the public from making their feelings known,” she said. “We’re trying to keep order during the council meetings.”

Council members agreed that while their concerns about order — originally aired at a council retreat in May — were legitimate, that McClenny’s suggestion on allowing public comment on specific issues prior to votes was a viable solution to the turmoil that had been generated by the new policy.

They further noted the ability of citizens to express their feelings or raise issues for the council outside the council meetings — through e-mail, by telephone or in person. “I’m open for input all the time,” Steele emphasized in closing the discussion.

Though no formal action is permitted at the workshop meetings, council members can be expected to address the issue at their June meeting.

Workshop purpose re-examined

Likewise, public input was one of the major issues involved with determining the future format for the new workshop meetings themselves.

But council members were decidedly of two minds on the subject. Some viewed the workshop as an additional opportunity to receive public input, especially in light of the uproar over the new council meeting policy. Others said the intention in starting to hold workshops had been to allow council members to have a more open discussion than regular council meetings allowed, without violating requirements of the Freedom of Information Act.

The resulting question was how the council members wanted to format the workshops — with or without public input.

Mayor Jack Walsh had opened the June 6 workshop with the announcement that public input would not be allowed, except perhaps at the end of the meeting, with council permission and if time allowed. He emphasized that the workshop was an information-gathering tool for the council members.

That left Steele wondering what the council would do at the new sessions, since they couldn’t vote or even form a formal consensus on issues discussed. “I thought the idea was to have public input, to create a back-and-forth, an open discussion with the public,” he said.

Council Member Jerry Dorfman agreed, referencing the negative feedback the council had already received on limiting public comment to the designated period at the beginning of council meetings. “We should allow public input at the workshops,” he said.

Town Manager Cliff Graviet reminded them all that the main focus in starting the workshop sessions had been to allow the council more extensive discussion on issues than the council meetings really allowed.

But McClenny had another compromise to offer, saying, “We’re going to have other workshops during the year that we can open to the public.” He acknowledged that the open, unlimited workshop format of some prior public workshops had been particularly helpful in the commentary it generated.

Still, Council Member Lew Killmer was concerned about how council discussions might take on a life of their own in a venue where the public was allowed to freely comment, particularly once the meetings were reported in the media.

“This was to be an open forum for the council to discuss various issues, to talk freely under the constraints of FOIA,” he said. “You’re here because FOIA requires it,” he told those present in the audience.

He said he had no general objection to public input. But, he emphasized, some issues simply didn’t lend themselves to public input, such as his frequent what-ifs and times when he was simply thinking out loud and seeking the feedback of other council members on those loose ideas. Those notions could end up stirring up controversy when he hadn’t even fully thought them out yet, he said. And other issues were really things the town manager or department heads should be handling and not the council, he said.

There, the council members agreed, suggesting Graviet add a town manager’s report to the workshop agenda, in which he could update the council members on those minor kinds of matters, such as pothole complaints.

Overall, the council members were in agreement that some form of public input might be useful at the workshops, though that too might be limited.

Topics for the workshops will not be limited in number, despite an effort to keep them under two hours, but the council members decided that the focus should be on “big-picture” and “big-ticket” items, not minutiae. And any discussion that generates potential legislation would have that topic added to the following month’s council meeting, not the immediately upcoming one — in this case, just a week and a half away.

Despite concern from Planning Commission Member Steve Wode about access of non-resident citizens to the meetings, the council did not consider changing the new workshops from their original Tuesday scheduling.

Also discussed at the June 6 workshop:

• A suggestion from the mayor to add comfort stations to the north and south ends of the beach or boardwalk. Discussion focused on the feasibility of portable toilets versus plumbed units, as well as the potential locations for the stations. Issues of aesthetics, odor and maintenance, and nearby residences were also raised. Consensus was a public workshop might be in order, with Graviet to provide some basic information and possibly some elevation drawings to consider.

• Possible extension of council terms from two years to three, with council members elected in groups of two, three and two in successive years. Killmer said he found the first year on the council to be heavily affected by a learning curve and that a three-year term would allow council members to get up to speed and cause less disruption in changeover. Consensus was to also take that issue to a public workshop.

• Board of Adjustments makeup, scheduling and attorney. Council members acknowledged there was a clear need to hire an independent attorney to work with the board, since cases in which the town was a party require them to hire an additional attorney to replace Town Solicitor Terence Jaywork, who currently works with the board.

They also favored increasing the membership from three members to five, focusing on the limits of a board where a quorum is two members. And they favored regularly scheduling meetings, monthly or bi-monthly, to establish a regular schedule that could be canceled if no cases were to be considered. The changes would require a charter change and may be considered at the council’s July meeting.

• Town donation policy. Council members cemented their support for the existing practice of only donating to organizations serving the whole town, such as police, fire companies, emergency medical services, library and Fourth of July parade organizers. Council could make special exceptions to the rule, they noted. A formal policy will be developed.