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Acres to hold summer hearing on voter eligibility

Art league members oppose measure
February 9, 2013
Members of the Rehoboth Art League have raised objections to a proposed charter change that would eliminate corporate-entity voting. Town officials will hold a public hearing on the charter change in July. BY RYAN MAVITY

The Henlopen Acres commissioners have tabled a charter change that would have eliminated corporate voting until a public hearing can be held in July.

The proposed change would eliminate all entity voting with the exception of revocable trusts where the grantor and the trustees are the same. The town has more than 50 trusts, nine LLCs, two partnerships and three corporations.

Town officials first debated the ordinance in early 2011, but tabled it so the measure did not affect that year’s municipal election. The objective of the change, town officials said, was to articulate the notion of  “one-man, one-vote” in the charter.

The measure was reintroduced in 2012 and sent to the state legislature for approval – municipal charter changes must be approved by the General Assembly – but it was killed before the legislature took a vote.

One of the corporations that would lose voting rights is the Rehoboth Art League, which opposed the change in 2012 and has raised objections to it again.

At a Dec. 14 special meeting on the change, Mayor David Hill said while the art league would lose its vote, all residents of the town will still be allowed to vote. He said the change affects only nonresidents and that residents of Henlopen Acres can deed their property any way they want and not lose their vote.

The commissioners had planned to vote on the change at the Jan. 11 quarterly meeting. Former Rehoboth Beach Commissioner Henry DeWitt raised a concern early on, saying the town should consider grandfathering in existing entities.

Town Solicitor Glenn Mandalas said he did not favor grandfathering voting rights because it could be viewed as discriminatory. He said the commissioners have never singled out the art league as a reason for the change.

“This ordinance is not about taking away taking away rights from the art league. This ordinance is addressing a very real concern about manipulating the voting process by a new corporate entity that could come in and have several sub-entities that could all have voting rights and could swing an election in Henlopen Acres,” Mandalas said.

Any notion the change was targeted at the art league was “completely baseless,” Mandalas said.

Commissioner Winnie Kee also said the town was not singling out the art league. Hill said the change is very similar to legislation that already exists in Rehoboth, Lewes and Dewey Beach; those towns do not allow corporate-entity voting, although Rehoboth and Dewey allow revocable trusts and nonresidents to vote.

Former art league President Marcia DeWitt asked the commissioners how many people would be disenfranchised. Commissioner Frank Jamison said 10 to 15 percent of current voters. Henry DeWitt, Marcia’s husband, said the town should send out a letter to all voters that were going to be affected before any change is submitted to state legislature. Henry DeWitt said town should also have a public hearing, preferably in the summer when most property owners are in town.

Kee said while the concept of a letter was fair, the town has held numerous open workshops and meetings on the matter.

“We keep having open meetings, and if people aren’t showing up, then what are we supposed to do?’ she said.

Jamison said, “This is almost like you’re pushing us to kick the can down the road again for another year. This has been going on for two years.”

Henry DeWitt said, “You’re taking a lot people’s votes away.” Marcia DeWitt added, “This is a sensitive issue. I believe this could well be perceived by people in the legislature, as well as our own residents and nonresidents and owners here in the Acres, that you are restricting the right to vote.”

Mandalas said the law has generally been that people vote, not corporations, and that the town has certainly given legal notice of the change through public meetings.

Kee and Commissioner John Staffier both said they were fine with sending a letter, noticing the matter in the town newsletter and holding a hearing to explain to people what the town is doing.

Staffier proposed going forward with a public hearing at the commissioners’ Friday, July 12 meeting, a measure approved by a 4-2 vote, with Hill and Commissioner Paddy Richards voting no.