Sussex County Delaware

Fenwick Election
on Saturday, Aug. 2

Fenwick Island, Delaware ...

Eight Candidates Vying
for Four Vacant Seats

SC Online Content Editor

Voters in Fenwick Island will elect at least three new town council members from a field of eight candidates on Saturday, Aug. 2, 2003.

The spots up for grabs are those currently held by council President Peg Baunchalk, beach commissioner Theo Brans, police commissioner Edward "Buzz" Henifin, and treasurer Richard Griffin. Brans is the only one of the four who chose to seek re-election.

The candidates -- and many residents -- hope the election will help the resort town move past its recent set of financial, legal and personnel problems.

The candidates -- Virginia Borodulia, Theo Brans, Chris Clark, Carol Hughes, Martha Keller, Audrey Serio, C. Mark Tingle and Nicholas Valiante -- voiced their thoughts on a number of issues at recent candidates' forums sponsored by property owners' organizations.

Borodulia, Brans, Clark, Hughes, Keller and Valiante attended a July 19 forum sponsored by the Fenwick Island Society of Homeowners. Serio and Tingle were unable to attend that forum but joined the other six candidates at the July 25 forum sponsored by the Fenwick Island Concerned Citizens.

Residents packed the town meeting room, seeking answers to questions about the town's financial future, town regulations and their hopes for the town. Following is a look at each of the candidates' proposals during the forum:

Virginia Borodulia

Borodulia owns property in Fenwick Island, including her husband's medical practice, and lives in Bishopville, Md. She said her only "agenda" is "to work with the new council and the community for the betterment of our town."

Borodulia said she is concerned that with at least two brand new council members to be elected in August, "we don't even know what issues we might uncover regarding legal issues," after a year in which former Fenwick Island Police Chief George Dickerson sued the town for wrongful termination, the police department experienced its second wave of mass departures in 12 months, the town faced an investigation over possible misuse of federal funding, and the town's finance administrator was fired after major financial mismanagement was uncovered, including the failure to have the town's finances audited for four years.

Borodulia said she favors a review of all town ordinances by a committee of residents and council members, "not just one person." She said she also would like to see the town charter changed to add a provision allowing recall of council members. Such a change would have to be approved by the state General Assembly.

She also said she favors limiting council members to three consecutive terms. "People get stagnant and you need to get some fresh blood in," Borodulia said.

She also said she believes the town should give residents more frequent reports on the status of its budget, such as a quarterly update. She added that some services should be looked at, such as trash pick-up, to see if it would be more cost-effective to contract with an outside firm. The town currently provides trash pick-up.

Borodulia said she questioned the need for the town to implement a tax on commercial rentals last year. She said that although taxes are sometimes "a necessary evil," the council members owe the taxpayers an explanation of why the tax is needed before it it is enacted.

She said employees should not be given bonuses at the whim of the council. "I think of bonuses as somebody meeting a sales quota or something like that," she said. Bonuses, without a clear salary structure, "cause dissention among employees," Borodulia said, and she believes raises are better. The council caused some controversy when it voted to give town administrator Helen Torres a $2,000 bonus a few months after she was hired.

Theo Brans

Brans, the only incumbent seeking re-election, said he hoped residents would re-elect him to council, in part to ensure some "consistency" in town government.

Brans said his four years on the town council have been "exciting," pointing to the construction of a townwide water system and a parking permit system that, after early glitches, seems to be working well, Brans said.

Brans added he feels good about the town's lifeguard squad, which he said needed to be brought back to the level of quality it had attained in the late 1980s.

He said he wants to see improvement in the flow of information from the town to the public. While Brans said he welcomes "watchdog" groups, he wishes residents would make sure criticisms are not anonymous. "That's what's not helping our town," he said of residents using pseudonyms to post on online forums about town issues. "They're cowards," he said. "I will not react to this. I was not brought up by my parents like this."

When asked whether the town has insurance to cover liabilities from a lawsuit by former Police Chief George Dickerson, Brans said he did not know.

About the town's recently approved budget, Brans commented that, "so far, we are solvent."

On the subject of bonuses, Brans said they "should be earned. They should be a reward for an employee if they do something special," he said.

Brans urged the townspeople to look ahead, not backward. "We can't do anything about yesterday," he said. He suggested the town begin healing by celebrating its 50th anniversary in earnest.

Chris Clark

Clark, who had been town treasurer when he served about a year on the council three years ago, was asked why he had resigned from the council.

He said when he was appointed to fill the seat that opened when Richard Mais resigned, he wanted to familiarize himself with town finances. What he found, Clark said, was "awful disarray" in the finance administrator's office. When he spoke with other council members about it, Clark said, he was told "to leave her alone ... that she was too busy to answer questions."

Clark said he resigned because he did not want to have "my name and my reputation hung out to dry" when the town's financial problems came to light.

Clark, who lives in Fenwick Island and owns a business just outside town limits, said his concerns echo those of other residents. "It's been a tough year," Clark said, but the result has been "people coming together ... and more people speaking up." "It is time for rebuilding and for looking toward the next 50 years," he said.

He said he is worried that "Fenwick Island is starting to look more and more like Ocean City," and that businesses along Route 1 may disappear, replaced by high-density residential development.

Clark said he wants to see the town focus more on preserving its environmental assets, particularly the Little Assawoman Bay, through tougher land use ordinances. He also suggested the town consider using revenue from real estate transfer taxes to buy open space in the town.

Clark said he favors term limits as a way to keep people with fresh ideas on the council. He would like to see council members serve no more than three consecutive terms, with a mandatory year off before running for council again.

Concerned about preventing future cash crunches like those that seem to beset Fenwick Island and other area towns, Clark said he would like to see the town find revenue sources other than the transfer tax, which he said "has been a go-to too many times," when the town needed an infusion of funds to make payroll or cover other expenses.

Clark said employee bonuses should be included in the town's budget as a line item, and should only be given for "structured reasons."

Carol Hughes

Hughes, who is a full-time Fenwick Island resident as well as co-owner of Blue Heron Gifts in the Village of Fenwick shops, said she wants to see the council adhere to the town charter as it governs. She also said the town's budget "should be driven by the revenues that we have."

Hughes favors a more open government process and said she'd like to see the council "eliminate as many of the closed sessions as possible," and implement workshops designed to allow more public input.

Hughes also said she wants the town to focus on implementing job descriptions for town employees as well as performance standards on which their salaries and job status will be based. She said she believes "any public employee should have a pay scale," and that bonuses should be "goal-oriented." She stressed that town employees are often "between a rock and a hard place" because they feel their jobs are in jeopardy after every election. "I never want them to think they are council-driven," she said. "They should have the freedom to come to the council and say "you can't do that."

She remains opposed to the business rental tax enacted last summer by the council, saying it should be repealed because it is not fair to businesses. When a homeowner who rents her property asked why, Hughes said the burden is greater on the business owners because the cost of the tax is passed on to them, where the residential rental owners can spread the cost over all their rental customers.

"We need to support our businesses," Hughes said. "If the tax threatens to put them out of business, then our entire town loses." She said she feels the tax was driven by a need for revenue for the town, not an interest in fairness to the residential rental owners who already paid a rental tax.

Hughes also expressed concern about some safety issues, including the need for enforcement of bicycle laws, and the need for better timing of traffic lights to prevent "bottlenecks' at side streets with cars waiting to enter Route 1.

She stressed the need for diligence in review of variance requests for bayfront and canalfront homes seeking to fill in behind bulkheads. This practice creates a safety hazard for boat traffic as well as environmental hazards, Hughes said.

Martha Keller

Keller, a full time resident of the town, said she would like to "restore and preserve Fenwick as our quiet family town," favoring a long-range plan that lays out a "block-by-block strategy for maintaining Fenwick's small-town atmosphere. "The charm of Fenwick is having a little mix," of residential and commercial, Keller said.

She said her professional experience, ranging from teaching parenting skills to selling real estate and developing new communities, gives her the skills to help lead Fenwick Island.

While the other candidates stressed issues they feel the current council has neglected, Keller said "many of the issues mentioned have been addressed by the present council," such as job descriptions and pay scales. "We just need to follow up what this council has done to correct the criticisms it has received," she said.

Keller addressed safety concerns such as the need to make crosswalks stand out more to ensure pedestrian safety. She also stressed the need to plan more community activities as a way to unite residents of the town and enhance the small-town feel.

Keller was the only candidate who said she would consider implementing beach tags as a way to prevent overcrowding on the town's beaches. She said Delaware beaches are experiencing the same inland growth that led New Jersey beaches to implement beach tags. "I don't like beach tags, but ... we may need to go there," Keller said.,/p>

She said that although she has not attended many council meetings in recent years, she has reviewed meeting minutes from the past two years to familiarize herself with issues.

Audrey Serio

Serio told the audience on July 25 that she has had ties to Fenwick Island for more than 50 years -- either as a part-time resident, full-time resident or a business owner. Her father, James Clark, was one of the town's first council members.

She said she has "no formal agenda" except that she wants to give something back to the community she has always loved.

Serio said she agrees with the concept of term limits, saying she wouldn't mind a two-term limit.

She favors formation of a financial task force to help the town get its finances back under control. The group should be "a mix of residential and commercial," Serio said. "We need to start making some knowledgeable decisions," she said.

Serio also said she feels the town needs to give its employees explicit job descriptions and a set pay scale.

She stood out from the other candidates as the only one who said she might be inclined to reconsider the town's 30-foot height limit. "It looks like somebody went around and sat on all our roofs," Serio said.

C. Mark Tingle

Tingle, who said he lives in Fenwick Island nine months out of the year, has owned property in Fenwick for three years. He said he has become extremely upset by the problems besetting the town and the behavior of its council. "I can't even come to the meetings anymore," he said.

Tingle quipped that perhaps the town should hold a "Fenwick Island Return Day" after Saturday's election to have candidates "bury the hatchet" and put the past behind, just as the centuries-old Georgetown tradition allows state and federal candidates to do.

Tingle said he is particularly concerned about the council's use of the real estate transfer tax to solve budget crunches. He said, however, that the town should use the transfer tax funds for projects like the planned park improvements. "That's what the money's there for," he said.

Increasing speed on Route 1 is another concern Tingle expressed at the July 25 forum.

On the subject of employee bonuses, Tingle said "I don't see where a bonus structure is necessary." He added that a personnel manual is essential to the town. "Without rules, how would you ever get rid of an employee you find to be unsatisfactory?" he asked.

Nick Valiante

Valiante, retired after a career in law enforcement in New Castle County, said he seeks "to ensure open government by encouraging citizen participation. Valiante said the town's citizens are "a reservoir of wealth", which can be a valuable resource for the council to tap.

Valiante stressed the need to control development in Fenwick Island, particularly to uphold existing setback requirements and height restrictions. He said the town must not allow "over-building on postage stamp lots" resulting in overcrowding in the town. He said the town needs to develop a five-year plan to control its growth.

He also said the town needs to "live within its budget," basing its spending plan purely on available revenue, to prevent budget shortfalls. On a related note, he criticized the current council's practice of introducing budget-correction measures during standing committee reports, without any public notice.

"Everything we do in this town hall is public record," Valiante said. "Government should be transparent," he said.

Valiante said he "never heard of governments giving out taxpayers' money as bonuses," and said he still has some "unanswered questions" as to why Torres received the $2,000 bonus.

Valiante received applause at the July 25th forum when he expressed concern about recent decisions by the Board of Adjustment which he feels did not follow town ordinances.

"We do not live by our setbacks and our height restrictions," he said. Residents seeking to expand their property have received permission to fill in lagoons -- a practice Valiante said is both dangerous and bad for the environment. "Our lagoons are our streets," he said.

The July 19 forum was sponsored by the Fenwick Island Society of Homeowners. The Friday, July 25, sponsored by the Fenwick Island Concerned Citizens, was moderated by state Sen. George H. Bunting Jr. and state Rep. Gerald W. Hocker.

The election is set for Saturday, Aug. 2 from 1 p.m. to 5 p.m. Absentee ballots must be notarized and returned to the town hall by 5 p.m. on Aug. 2.

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