Almost every seat was filled in the town hall conference room as the new Fenwick Island Town Council met for the first time on Friday, with additional people chiming in from a video call.
Showers of applause intermittently broke out during the meeting, and some nodded their heads in support as the new council members introduced themselves.
And yet, it was clear that this new leadership was emerging from rocky beginnings.
Following a slew of resignations – including the town manager, town solicitor, two council members and more than a dozen committee members – Mayor Vicki Carmean said the new council is not deterred.
“I suppose all these people who have resigned thought we would not be able to move forward,” she said. “But each day we’re making progress.”
The council has already made strides toward its goals, including unanimously approving a motion to restore the words “quiet resort” to the town seal, and changing the process for public participation so that people have the opportunity to comment immediately before each vote.
Members also approved the first reading of an amendment that would set new height restrictions for commercial buildings, making those requirements consistent with residential buildings.
Typically that amendment would then go to the Charter and Ordinance Committee, but several vacancies led the council to temporarily suspend all committee activities.
At least 15 committee members have resigned over the last few weeks, according to a list compiled by former Council Member Bill Weistling. Because several of these members sat on more than one committee, a “number of committees” now have zero members or very few, said Council Secretary Natalie Magdeburger.
The applications to join committees are now open on the town’s website and due on Sept. 15. Meetings will continue after that deadline, and high-priority committees like Charter and Ordinance and Audit will accept members on a rolling basis, Carmean said.
Since some of the committees only had a few members before the resignations, the mayor said she will now require at least five people for each committee. She plans to limit the committees to no more than two council members and hopes to support a diversity of perspectives, including choosing members from both the bayside and oceanside of Fenwick.
Magdeburger, who is also Carmean’s daughter, echoed these thoughts when she responded to Charlie Hastings, a committee member and longtime resident who announced his resignation during the public participation part of the meeting.
“You don’t need to resign,” Magdeburger said, addressing Hastings. “I want to hear what you have to say. I want to hear even if you disagree with me because, at the end of the day … I have to serve, and I want to serve all residents of this town.”
“Give us a chance, Charlie,” she said.
Another resident turned around in her chair and asked Hastings to stay, saying she didn’t want to lose his experience. A second resident and current committee member took to the podium and emphasized that the town voted for new leadership, but Fenwick Island also needs the wisdom and education from these previous committee members.
Beyond committees, there are still two vacancies on the council, too.
To fill these vacancies, Carmean said the charter gives the council authority to appoint people for the rest of those council members’ terms, which is one year for both positions. People can submit letters of interest to the town until Sept. 15.
The council members also voted during executive session to begin the hiring process for the town manager and town solicitor. For the attorney, Carmean said the council will advertise the position and connect with lawyer contacts that Magdeburger knows through her profession.
While the process for hiring the town manager was not solidified on Friday, Carmean said the council will follow a typical procedure and advertise the position in the newspapers. In the meantime, there are no plans right now to hire an interim town manager, but instead she said she and the town staff will step up as needed.
Early in the meeting, Magdeburger thanked the town staff for helping the new council get acclimated, even when the changing leadership sparked some unforeseen effects.
“I know it was very unsettling, and a little chaos in the beginning of things, but you guys were absolutely amazing and very, very professional in how you handled things,” she said. “The transition has been seamless.”
To close the meeting, the mayor had a message for the people of Fenwick Island: No matter where people stood before or during the election, she wants everyone to feel included.
“This is a new beginning,” she said. “We need to come together and work together.”
Emily Lytle covers Sussex County from the inland towns to the beaches. Got a story she should tell? Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org or 302-332-0370. Follow her on Twitter at @emily3lytle.