Sussex County Delaware

F.I. Council's Conduct,
Organization Questioned
Fenwick Island Town Council ...

Hearing on Chief's
Status Set for Dec. 4

SC Online Content Editor

The way Fenwick Island Town Council has conducted business in recent years came under fire from a new council member and members of the public at a Friday, Sept. 27, 2002 council meeting.

Shortly after being sworn in as a council member, Vicki Carmean said she had some concerns about the way the council was organized, particularly the appointment of a mayor, since the town's charter lays out a councilmanic form of government.

Peg Baunchalk, town council president, also holds the unofficial title of mayor. Harry Haon, similarly, is both council vice president and deputy mayor.

Haon, who often represents the Association of Coastal Towns at state and county meetings, said the unofficial titles provided some advantages. "These positions and these titles carry more weight," Haon said.

While Carmean said her remarks were "certainly not intended as a personal attack on anyone," she said the council should "be careful in the future" that its leadership keep to the councilmanic form rather than the mayoral form.

Carmean also took the council to task for its failure to have the town's financial records audited in recent years. She said she learned of the absence of audits when she asked for audited financial records from recent years and was told they weren't available.

Baunchalk said the town is currently catching up on the audits, and the records through 1998 are completed. The years 1999-2001 will soon be given to the auditor for review.

Resident William Weistling said, "I think if we have an audit of our budget on a yearly basis as soon as possible, I don't know why we need a separate audit of the police department or any other department for that matter."

Haon declined to comment on Weistling's reference to the council's decision earlier this month to spend up to $1,000 for an independent audit of the police department's finances.

But Baunchalk said she believes it would be a good idea for the town to invite the auditor to make a yearly public presentation on its findings in the future -- a practice already followed by most surrounding towns.

Resident Elsie Weistling said she, too, had some difficultly obtaining financial records. Weistling said the town's charter calls for an annual audit and she found it "very strange and very ... inappropriate" that Carmean, as a council member, had been unable to access the records. Weistling also praised the council for admitting to the lack of past audits and for remedying the situation now.

The council had also been strongly criticized by residents in July when it passed a new fiscal budget that included a 10 percent tax increase without allowing any public comment until it was ready for a vote.

Baunchalk took pains to go over the rules for public participation laid down at the July council meeting -- such as allowing everyone who has a comment or question to have a turn before anyone gets a second turn.

Resident and business owner Chris Clark stood and asked if it would be alright if he asked several questions at once. Baunchalk asked him how many, and when he said "five or six," Baunchalk allowed him to continue.

After Clark asked his questions, Baunchalk said, "Thank you Chris, you've taken up enough time."

Police Chief's Hearing Dec. 4 ...

The council also came under fire for its refusal to comment on the August suspension of Police Chief George Dickerson.

Council member Edward "Buzz" Henifin, also the town's police commissioner, announced that a public hearing on the chief's suspension has been set for Wednesday, Dec. 4.

Henifin made it clear that while the hearing will be open to the public, there will be no opportunity for public comment. Dickerson was at the meeting, but left before it was over without any comment.

Resident Kurt Hoffman asked "What were the grounds for the chief's suspension?" But Baunchalk replied, "We're not going to answer that," saying the council does not discuss personnel matters in public.

Ordinances Introduced ...

The council approved the introduction of several ordinances, including one which would require rental licenses for residential properties as commercial properties are already required to have, and one which would impose a gross rental receipts tax on all rental properties.

Tim Collins, a resident and owner of several businesses in Fenwick Island, said he felt the tax would have the effect of driving businesses out of town, because business owners who rent their shops would have to bear the burden of the tax in addition to high rents.

The council will schedule a hearing for the changes in taxation and rental licenses.

Hearings will also be scheduled for proposed changes in the town's zoning code, which would change the way businesses have to seek approval from the town.

Currently, the council holds the power to approve or deny businesses that are not listed in the town's zoning code; the change would require a public hearing. Two other proposed changes would add coffee shops and fitness centers to the list of approved businesses.

Another proposed new law would prohibit pile driving in Fenwick Island during the summer months. The town is currently the only coastal community that allows it during the summer.

Town Operations, Personnel ...

In addition to the move to catch up on the missing audits, the council announced several ways it is attempting to improve the way it and the town staff operates. Council member Peter Frederick chairs a newly created "administrative committee."

Frederick said he has begun to examine personnel issues and to improve the way the staff uses its computer system.

"I'd be embarrassed to give you a current status report" on the town's computers, Frederick said, adding that he is looking into ways to better utilize both the computers and the software that accompanies them.

Henifin said Glenn Hudson, recently hired as a "police consultant," has begun to look at a variety of areas in the police department, including scheduling, pay, benefits, retention of officers, recruiting and equipment.

Henifin also said the police were beginning to work four 12-hour shifts, followed by four days off, and that this system would "just about eliminate any overtime" for the five officers and would allow them to better manage their time.

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