Proposed elections and fishing regs concerns

While the bulk of the Fenwick Island Town Council’s April 8 workshop-without-agenda (WWA) focused on the town’s commercial district and its comprehensive development plan, the meeting’s open format naturally made it the venue for discussion of other topics, ranging from proposed changes to municipal voting regulations statewide to the potential impact of a new saltwater fishing license requirement.

Reporting various bits of information from the most recent meeting of the Sussex County Association of Towns (SCAT), Mayor Peter Frederick acknowledged ongoing concern on the part of most municipalities with the proposed changes to the state’s election laws, Chapter 15.

Frederick said the municipalities had been informed that the new legislation would supersede municipal charters, not immediately requiring them to change their charters to comply but instead simply overriding the portions of the charters and current procedures that aren’t in compliance.

He joined other area officials in noting the impact of the proposed legislation on the towns’ absentee-voter procedures — particularly in what might be required to obtain an absentee ballot and to properly vote using one.

Frederick said the current version of the changes requires voters to formally request an absentee ballot in writing and, further, to have their ballots notarized before returning them to the municipalities. Those extra steps could pose just enough of an inconvenience that non-resident voters in the coastal towns — far more than in non-coastal towns and often in the majority of eligible voters — might end up electing not to vote, officials fear.

Further, the proposed changes also require all members of town councils — as well as mayors — to be full-time residents of their towns. That would eliminate a significant number of current council members in the coastal towns from eligibility for their current seats. Additional residency requirements on mayors could also shape the future of local governments into a very different form.

And, just to add further concerns for the towns, council members might be required to provide full financial disclosures — a daunting prospect for even seasoned, paid government officials, let alone the volunteer councilpersons and mayors. They fear the pool of candidates willing to serve may get considerably smaller — perhaps alongside their pool of non-resident voters and elections officials.

The consensus among the council members — as has been the case in all the area’s coastal towns — was that the changes were unneeded, drafted simply to address flagrant problems in Smyrna and not to deal with any real, pervasive issues across the state. Eagle eyes remain on the legislation as it begins to move toward possible adoption later this year.

Beach shuttles, fishing addressed

Frederick also briefly addressed the town’s previous proposal to the state to have the town run a shuttle-bus stop north of the town, across from the state park. He said the state had rejected the idea, in favor of instead using portions of the southern, unincorporated area for a drop-off.

The shuttle will drop off residents of the new Bayside community at the southern state-controlled beach — but council members noted there is a lack of facilities there. That may be bad news for all parties, council members opined. With no concessions, the beachgoers will have to fend for themselves as far as food and drink, while changing areas and restrooms will also be lacking.

And Frederick said he felt the state had been short-sighted in not seeing the potential revenue for the northern concessions in dropping beachgoers there — revenue that would potentially offset the costs. The town, meanwhile, lost a small bit of potential revenue for running the facility, as well as a little bit of control over where the visitors go. But Frederick said the state had apparently chosen the southern drop-off for its no-cost option.

Frederick said the topic had been on the SCAT agenda, as well, with promises by the group to put it toward the top of their legislative agenda for the coming session.

It had been noted for the SCAT attendees, he said, that the license requirement would not only be for finned fish but also include those who dig for clams, rake up oysters and pull crabs from area waters. That magnified the impact for coastal dwellers and visitors, with residents of Dewey Beach particularly concerned about how it would impact their nightly trips to the bay for their provender for dinner.

Police, commissioner roles examined

Frederick said the SCAT meeting had also revealed issues that Fenwick Island was dealing with regarding its police force. He said the town had discovered that, despite continuing education credits, one of the town’s police officers had been deemed by the state to require 26 weeks of additional training in order to continue in her duties.

While the officer was determined to need only three more courses, the state had insisted the full 26-week certification training be redone. Frederick said the case was not unusual for municipalities, since Delaware has only a single-tier police certification system.

Even the many military police officers returning to the state from active duty are being required to take the full state course, the mayor noted.

Frederick said SCAT members were looking into alternative certification programs, such as those offered in other states, that would not require every would-be officer to take the full 26-week course.

Finally, rounding out the WWA, Councilwoman Martha Keller said she felt the council needed to re-evaluate its job descriptions for its commissioner positions. She said there was no current problem spurring her concern but that the ongoing town manager search had reminded her that duties might need to be more clearly defined.

Keller said she felt the town’s 2004 visioning workshops had set a clear group of goals for the town from the council’s constituents, and that those goals should be the key points used in defining what each of the commissioner positions involved.