NOTE: Sussex Beat is a mix of news, analysis and commentary by Eric Magill, publisher of Sussex County Online.
In one of the more amazing scenes you'll ever see at a town council meeting, Ocean View Town Council, at the urging of local residents, voted to rescind pending resolutions on a centralized water system by Tidewater Utilities Inc., thereby cancelling a scheduled referendum on the issue.
Council voted 3-1 at its regular meeting on Tuesday, Dec. 5, 2000 to rescind the resolutions that were to be voted on in a referendum on Saturday, Dec. 9, 2000. Council members Susan White, Wade Spanutius and JoAnn Ward voted to rescind the resolutions while councilman Doug Tolley voted to go on with the referendum as scheduled.
Council President Bob Orem, who voted to conduct the referendum at the November 2000 council meeting, was not able to attend due to illness. In a letter read by Ward, Orem also resigned his council position effective Dec. 10, 2000, due to health concerns.
Council voted 3-2 at that November meeting to hold the non-binding referendum on Dec. 9. At the November meeting, Orem, Tolley and Spanutius voted to hold the referendum while Ward and White voted against it.
At the Dec. 5 meeting, residents asked council to postpone the referendum because of confusion over what they were voting for. Ward and White said they were confused, as well, and White questioned why the town should spend more than $1,000 on a non-binding referendum.
The ballot to be used Saturday was to ask a single question -- Centralized Water: For or Against? -- but legal notices in local newspapers stated that a yes vote would be to authorize town council to accept a proposal from Tidewater Utilities to build and operate a centralized water system in the parts of town in which it holds a Certificate of Public Convenience and Necessity.
A yes vote would also have authorized the town to work with Tidewater on a CPCN for the parts of town that Tidewater's existing CPCN doesn't cover.
Many in attendance said the ballot was unfair because while they wanted centralized water, they did not want it from Tidewater, which has acknowledged having water quality problems in other systems.
Residents, one of whom is a current Tidewater customer, also expressed frustration with what they view as Tidewater's arrogance, and Ward read a stinging rebuke that she wrote in response to a letter from Tidewater Vice President Gerard Esposito that said some council members had used the water issue and Tidewater for "political posturing".
Those in attendance, along with White and Ward, urged Tolley and Spanutius to rescind Saturday's referendum and take a couple of weeks to come up with a new referendum that would give voters other options such as choosing another utility company or operating its own water company.
They were particularly critical of council for not investigating the municipal water company idea when neighboring towns such as Bethany Beach and Selbyville have successfully started their own. Reno Calabrese said that when he lived on Long Island, the municipal water system there charged residents $12 a quarter, a figure much lower than that proposed by Tidewater.
Orem has said repeatedly that legal advisors have told him the town couldn't deal with any other water companies because Tidewater's CPCN, granted by the Delaware Department of Natural Resources and Environmental Control in 1983 without any feedback from town officials, gave Tidewater exclusive right to serve the parts of the town covered by the CPCN. Esposito did imply in his letter that Tidewater would sue to enforce the CPCN.
After the discussion, White made a motion to rescind the resolutions. Ward started to second the motion but was unable to because she was acting as council president in Orem's absence.
That left Tolley and Spanutius, who had voted to hold the referendum in November, to second the motion. A deafening silence fell over the room for several moments before Spanutius raised his hand and seconded the motion to wild applause from the audience.
The applause grew louder as first White, then Spanutius, and finally Ward voted to rescind the resolutions.
Council will now hold a special meeting on Dec. 20 to determine its next course of action on the water issue, including a thorough investigation of the feasability of a town-operated water system.
Time is an issue because the town has only until Feb. 28, 2001, to make a decision or lose $2.194 million in grants and low interest loans that have been approved for the project.
White said that realistically council will need to reapply for the grants and loans -- basically just changing the name of the company or applying for the town's own municipal system -- by early January, 2001.
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