A candidate’s forum on Friday, May 10, ahead of the upcoming South Bethany Town Council election, was punctuated by tense exchanges between candidates, as well as between candidates and homeowners
The forum is traditionally held whenever there is an election in South Bethany. This year, there are four seats being contested in the election, which is scheduled for Saturday, May 25, from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m.
Three of the seats have two-year terms; the candidates vying for those three seats are challengers Jane Bonbright, Laurence Budd, Darren Donohue and Richard “Dick” Oliver, and incumbents Carol Stevenson and Frank Weisgerber.
There is also one seat with a one-year term, resulting from a council appointment to a vacated seat, with challenger Derek Abbott and appointed incumbent Gerald Masiello running for that seat.
At one point during the forum, a resident accused candidate Laurence Budd of creating a “fraudulent” Facebook page during tensions over recent issues with the town’s police department that culminated in the departure of Chief Troy Crowson and all but one of the town’s police officers.
Budd said he had listed the “South Bethany Police Support” Facebook page as a being that of a government or civic organization. He added, however, that he didn’t think he was in the wrong because he did so believing the page was created regarding a governmental body and that he didn’t think categorizing it as such was implying that he was representing a government.
When Budd began an exchange with a resident in the audience, Council Member Carol Stevenson, who is also a candidate in the upcoming election, stood up and began to address her part in the Facebook page’s demise.
“I wrote you a message on the Facebook page. I said, ‘Who are you?’” Stevenson said. She said she did get an answer that included the names of at least some of the people other than Budd who were involved in the Facebook page. But she said she still had concerns about the social media page.
“I actually did send a message to Facebook because you were ‘South Bethany Police Support,’ and you said that you were a civic and a government organization. I don’t believe you were either. And you said that your location was the South Bethany Police Department,” Stevenson said.
Budd commented that the FB page that was put up “had all of our names on it. Everything we’ve sent out has been signed, has our names on it,” to which some in the audience responded by yelling “No!”
The frustration expressed by some audience members at last week’s forum, as well as several of the candidates, has focused on what has been perceived as a lack of transparency and accountability on the part of the council regarding the situation in the police department.
“I have some concerns about the way things have happened over the last year and a half or so,” Abbott said. “A number of folks and I tried to get involved, tried to have input and tried to offer help,” he said. “We felt like we were ignored.”
Incumbent Frank Weisgerber said the council during the police department issues was as transparent and open as it could be without violating laws governing meetings and privacy.
“We’ve had a very tough year,” Weisgerber said. “Two national studies came back and pointed out some issues with our police department. And we met with the chief and tried to get him to address these; he chose to ignore them.
“Because it was personnel, we could not meet with the public,” Weisgerber said. “We had to have executive sessions. Again, government regulations required us to do that. But we’ve heard the questions [from the public] for the last three-four months,” he said. “We’ve answered over and over, but the answer is never accepted. So we finally just said, ‘Thank you for your input.’”
Incumbent Gerald Masiello, who has spent his career working with law-enforcement agencies in the United States and abroad, said that in the past few months “the town manager and I have worked diligently trying to restructure our police department. I think that we have done an excellent job; we’re like 65-75 percent through the process. When we’re through, you will be proud of your police department,” Masiello said.
Bonbright said her neighbors have expressed dissatisfaction with the way South Bethany’s affairs have been managed recently.
“A lot of them have felt the upheaval that has gone on with the South Bethany Police Department and the town council governance,” she said. “They are uneasy about lack of information shared and lack of opportunity to become engaged, not to mention concern about expenses for unnecessary legal fees and payout fees” resulting from the police department issues and the officers’ departures, Bonbright added.
One of the candidates calling themselves “new voice candidates,” Bonbright said she supports term limits as a way to prevent “insular government,” as well as live-streaming of town council meetings and South Bethany Property Owners Association meetings as a way to allow non-resident property owners to participate in meetings.
Another candidate, Darren Donohue, said he has been spending summers in South Bethany and brought up the other top concern among the candidates — quality of water in the town’s system of canals.
“Growing up here, we used to swim in the canals and do all that fun stuff that you can’t do anymore,” Donohue said.
Donohue pledged to get involved with the Town’s efforts to monitor and improve the canal water quality, even if he is not elected.
Dick Oliver, who has led the town’s Planning & Zoning Commission for seven years, emphasized the importance of maintaining a balanced budget in the Town, as well as adhering to the Town’s comprehensive plan. He said a report was recently completed on how the council is doing in that regard.
“I’m pleased to report they’re doing pretty well,” he said.