Bethany disempowers historical association

It’s been a long fight for members of the Bethany Beach Historical Association. And it’s a fight they lost on May 26, when the town council voted 5-1 to transfer all authority for operation of the town museum to the Cultural and Historical Affairs Committee (CHAC) led by Vice-Mayor Carol Olmstead.

The vice-mayor offered a resolution aimed at what she called “confusion” over who was in charge of the town’s historical museum, which is now located in the lobby of town hall.

Olmstead said the 1997 council resolution that had formed the Bethany Beach Historical Association (BBHA) as a group charged with advising the town on the museum, helping it raise funds for the museum and encouraging public participation in preservation of town-related artifacts had, in fact, seen little success in the intervening years.

While the group boasts 80 paying members, according to BBHA Secretary Margaret Young, Olmstead asserted that most were entirely inactive, with only a select few having active involvement in the museum in recent years, mostly as docents providing information and tours to museum visitors.

Olmstead said that inactivity had led the council, in 2004, to create CHAC with essentially the same list of responsibilities as they’d given to the BBHA in 1997, though they’d never dissolved the BBHA. And, while she said she had expected the BBHA and CHAC to work together and essentially become one in the intervening years, it had never happened, she told the council.

Though the BBHA had overseen operations at the museum’s former location, next to the town hall, and managed its small collection of artifacts, photographs and memorabilia, Olmstead said it had failed to live up to its responsibilities to advise the town on museum operations, to raise funds for the museum and the location eventually provided by the town, and to get active involvement from the public.

Instead, she said, CHAC had overseen museum renovations, coordinated funding from the town for the museum facility in town hall and spearheaded recent efforts to collect additional artifacts.

Though two members of the BBHA served on the newer town committee, Olmstead said they had refused to operate in full coordination with CHAC, leading to a duplication of efforts by both groups and confusion over who had authority to do such things as coordinate museum exhibits and authorize tour groups to visit.

That authority, she said, should lie solely with CHAC and the town administration, and not with the BBHA members and the docents (usually BBHA members).

Council members thus waded into the perilous waters of an ongoing dispute between the BBHA and CHAC, with Council Member Wayne Fuller objecting to the notion of the council essentially dissolving the BBHA — a separate group that had done good work in the past, he said.

Council Member Jerry Dorfman asked if the BBHA members had been asked their opinions about the situation. Young said she’d contacted 35 of the 80 members by phone, receiving unanimous objection from them to Olmstead’s efforts to absorb the group and put sole museum authority with CHAC instead.

Young noted that the BBHA’s funding comprised a commingled combination of membership dues and donations to the BBHA and museum — none of which had been requested by CHAC or the town until recently, she noted, and only then as part of Olmstead’s efforts to resolve the “confusion” over museum authority.

Dues had been collected and newsletters sent to members in recent years, Young said, noting that Olmstead had insisted that the BBHA members should be more active. “We’ve tried to be more active,” Young said, noting that only two members of BBHA were also part of the limited membership of CHAC and that their requests to return older museum displays to the new location had not been permitted by CHAC.

Indeed, while Olmstead cited a recent CHAC vote in favor of absorbing the BBHA and taking over the museum’s operational powers, the vote was split, with the minority BBHA members opposing the idea and non-BBHA CHAC members favoring it.

Despite lengthy discussion inside CHAC, the group remained at odds, and Olmstead had pursued a council resolution to put an end to the dispute. Continued objection from the BBHA members stymied that effort for a few months, but Olmstead formally put a resolution vote on the agenda for council on May 26.

Her arguments generally won over her fellow council members, who voted 5-1 in favor of securing museum authority with CHAC and requiring the BBHA to turn over all funds to the town. Fuller cast the opposing vote, while Council Member Tony McClenny abstained from voting on the loosely drafted resolution.

While the vote may clarify any confusion over authority, it does call into question who will be manning the museum in the future. With the BBHA providing most of the docents to the museum, it is possible hard feelings over the move could sever relations between those active BBHA members and the museum’s current management.

Public objects to reduced input

Council members took considerable public input during discussion of the issue May 26, despite an announcement earlier in the meeting about a council initiative to keep council meetings to a more formal structure, with public input kept to a single segment of the meeting.

Council Member Harry Steele said that, in the past, the council’s frequent decisions to allow public comment while they were discussing specific issues prior to a vote had tended to sidetrack the meeting and discussion process for the council members themselves. He favored a more formal system that limited the comment period, he said.

Mayor Jack Walsh noted that the council planned to add a workshop to its regular meeting schedule to allow additional public input and dissemination of information about council action, with regular timetable yet to be determined. The initial workshop was set for Tuesday, June 6.

Despite that, the announcement of the initiative — which came out of the council’s May 12 retreat — caused concern among some of those attending the council meeting. They cited difficulty in getting a full grasp of information on upcoming council action, as well as the inability to respond to points made by the council members during the course of their discussion.

Resident Christina Edgar said, “If you discuss it, we should be able to comment.” She said that no matter how much detail was given about proposed resolutions and other planned council action, the townspeople were bound to still have questions and want to give additional input before votes were taken.

Edgar said she was concerned that the only alternative to allowing additional public comment was for council members to essentially make up their minds and operate by a script when discussing items prior to action. She had previously that night said it seemed as if council members had made up their minds on the subject of uses for the former Christian Church and Neff properties, since the council made no comment at a workshop on the issue but only took comments.

Steele took umbrage at the idea that he or other council members had made up their minds prior to getting public input and took Edgar to task for the suggestion, saying that any opinions he held could be changed by public input given outside the council meetings or during the formal public input period.

However, Edgar complained after the meeting that it seemed an increasing number of important issues were being decided in the town by the council members and Town Manager Cliff Graviet, without sufficient weight being given to public input.

That echoed the statements of Joan Neff, who advised the council during the earlier workshop involving her former property to remember that the property had been sold to the people of the town, not the council, and that the public’s should be followed.

During the discussion, Town Solicitor Terence Jaywork reminded all present that the council meetings were, strictly speaking, for the council members themselves. The public had a right to attend, but no legal right to comment at the council meetings themselves, he said.

Council members noted they could try out the more formalized public comment sessions and decide to revert to a looser structure in the future if the change did not work.

Also at the May 27 council meeting:

• Council members voted 6-0 to send consideration of a possible R-1B zoning district for Sea Villas back to the Planning Commission. The commissioners had tabled the issue at their meeting the previous weekend, based on plans to hold discussions with property owners in the development on May 27.

The R-1B zone would be targeted at ironing out conflicts between the development’s unique easement requirements (allowing property owners to build open decks on neighbors’ properties, for example) and town code — especially regarding a blanket variance issued by the town that turned out to be a little too wide compared to its intent.

Commissioners hoped that property owners might be convinced to voluntarily standardize to the town code, eliminating the need for a new district over time, but council members said some elements of the new district might help to prevent conflicts in the meantime, or if such an agreement was not reached.

(McClenny recused himself on the vote, as a Sea Villas property owner.)

• The council voted unanimously to support a reorganization of the town code book, likely into two volumes, by General Code Company. The total cost would be approximately $17,000, just $4,000 additional to the cost already estimated for other needed code updates.

• Bethany Beach aldermen will now be appointed for a two-year term — an amendment to an earlier council decision to use a non-specified term. The town was informed that state law requires terms be no longer than two years. The original change was made with the intent to minimize the number of trips to Dover needed for the aldermen candidates to be confirmed.

• Council members voted unanimously to convert the town’s pension plan over to use of the state government plan. The change would reduce the costs to the town by a net $60,000 but provide increased benefits to town employees, Graviet said. The town opted to start from scratch with the plan, however, noting the anticipated cost of $10,000 to $18,000 per year of service to directly convert existing pensions.

• Concessions for boardwalk exercise classes and beach yoga were awarded to Crystel Grandel and Silver Lotus Yoga, respectively, again in 2006, on a unanimous vote of council.

• Council also unanimously approved the $15,000 contract for the Fourth of July fireworks display set for Tuesday, July 4, with Schaeffer Pyrotechnic, the same company that provided the show in 2005. The plan calls for the show to be fired from a barge this year, owing to eroded beaches. Last year, the town scrambled to obtain a barge at the last minute after early summer storms narrowed the planned firing area. The estimated additional cost for the barge is said to be $10,000.

• Secretary/Treasurer McClenny reported the town’s finance for the first month of its fiscal year in April. The town collected 4.41 percent of anticipated revenue, compared to 4.81 percent in 2005, down $20,000 from last year. Expenditures were 3.93 percent of anticipated levels, compared to 4.952 percent in 2005, also down, by $4,600. Expenses were less than revenues, he noted.

• Graviet said work was proceeding on landscaping the lot next to town hall. He said the plantings would likely be joined by tables at which townsfolk could relax. The town manager also noted that he was pursuing a possible agreement with a wireless Internet provider to offer the service at that location, so residents and visitors could use the new landscaped location as a spot to work or entertain themselves with laptop computers and other wireless devices.