Resort election: Newcomers vs Incumbents

Do voters want change or status quo?

July 26, Cape Gazette

By Ryan Mavity

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This year's Rehoboth Beach municipal election will answer a basic question: Do voters want change in the way the city communicates with residents and the business community or are they generally content with the way the city is run? Mayoral candidate Tom McGlone has vowed ' Change The Tone,' as his campaign signs say. McGlone is one of three candidates for office in this year’s municipal election who are business owners, spurred to run after the events of Sept. 10 2010, when the city cracked down on noise emitting from restaurant patios.

The crackdown resulted in the arrest of two restaurant owners and a firestorm of criticism over code enforcement. With the Saturday, Aug. 13 election fast approaching, McGlone and nearly 20 volunteers were recently stuffing envelopes in the back of Seafood Shack restaurant to help McGlone in his effort to unseat incumbent Mayor Sam Cooper.

“ I think what happened in the fall basically was an example of how government was sort of unplugged from the community,' McGlone said. ' And I think that what’s happened in terms of grassroots support has occurred because people in the community are looking to get government more plugged in. Right now, it seems that government is sort of in a vac-uum.'

But McGlone knows the challenge in front of him, trying to take the seat of a seven- term mayor with a lengthy record of accomplishment.

“ What people always tell me is that ‘ Signs don’t vote,’ ” he said.

A financial advisor by trade, McGlone began attending city meetings last summer, and, as a spectator, felt the commis­sioners did not listen to public comments on various issues.

“ But I think the real issue was me trying to get the attention of the commissioners, when all this was going on about the patio and the noise to say, ‘ Two- thirds of the people don’t live here, how are you going to be communicating this to them?’ And it went on, month after month after month, and I asked that question multiple times, and nobody could answer the question,' McGlone said. ' I got the impression there wasn’t really any intention in communicating that to folks who don’t live here.'

When asked what he would do differently as mayor, McGlone said, “ I would definitely act as a leader and a consensus builder.

The mayor’s job, in my mind, is sort of the CEO of the city. He or she should be speaking on behalf of the city and also should be making sure to pull the commissioners together as a team to work on behalf of the city.”

Keeping the status quo

Cooper has been an institution in Rehoboth for nearly 30 years – eight years as commissioner, 21 as mayor. He compares this year’s election to the 2005 election, when he defeated newcomer Bob Sokolove, as opposed to when he defeated then­ Commis-sioner Paul Kuhns in 2008.

Much like the patio and noise issue has been an emotional issue, in 2005, the city was in the middle of limiting the size of new homes by adopting the floor- to- area ratio discussions, which Cooper said was also an emotional issue.

“ My biggest concern in a lot of elections, and this one in a way, is being able to distance yourself enough from your competitor.

Three years ago, Paul Kuhns had been on record as wanting to build a police station and what have you, so it was easy to separate from that,' he said. Cooper said he is trying to keep the election free of mud-slinging and focusing on his record, which includes several huge projects, including the Rehoboth Avenue Streetscape, the Lake Gerar bridge and the Boardwalk reconstruction, most of which was accomplished with large grants from state and federal government. He also cited the ocean outfall project, which is in the permitting process, and said he had the experience and knowledge to see the project through.

“ I don’t think he’s put forward anything that’s significant enough to want to change,” Cooper said. “' Everything’s great, it just needs a little tweaking' is what people have told me.”

Of the events of last September, and the often contentious city meetings that resulted, Cooper said, “ The people that came to those meetings... are a small portion of the city. You can have a small group that can make a lot of noise, and it looks like a lot of flash and lights.”

Future commissioner?

Like McGlone, Rick Kirchhoff and Mark Hunker are also business owners who got the impetus to run for office after the patio noise crackdown. Also like McGlone, neither Hunker nor Kirchhoff had run for public office before.

The difference is, with Commissioner Dennis Barbour’s withdrawal from the race, at least one of them is guaranteed to become a commissioner.

However, neither candidate is changing his approach to the race.

“ It’s funny; to be honest it hasn’t really registered,” Hunker said “ I haven’t looked at his dropping out as strategic.”

“ I haven’t had a whole lot of time to think about it. Clearly, one of the two of us will be there, and I think the city is going to be well served with whoever that is.

I’d like for us both to be there, frankly. I think we need to focus on the city getting back on track again. We have some fence-mending to do,” Kirchhoff said.

Of the events of last September, Hunker said people from outside Rehoboth read what went on and questioned the city's direction, creating a negative perception.

' I think people like Rich and I, we have to stand up. There’s good here, there’s great here,” he said “ Certainly, sensitivities are heightened about the problems and the way they were handled.

There is still a troublesome undercurrent as to whether or not it’s targeted, and that concerns me. I hope and I don’t believe that it has been. But certain people have felt that. And that has to be addressed,” Kirchhoff said.

Kirchhoff said he does not like the way the city has addressed the situation, which he described as “ like a bunch of ostriches with their heads in the sand,” not addressing the issue immediately.

He said he wanted to make sure the city’s laws are enforced fairly and evenly, preventing the perception that businesses are being targeted for enforcement.

“ That is going to ruin the city’s image and reputation faster than anything else,” Kirchhoff said.

He said while the city did hire a code enforcement officer, who has been pleasant enough, the impression Kirchhoff has gotten from business people he has talked to is that they are being nitpicked to death. Kirchhoff said the city needs to deliver its message better.

Hunker said, “ I believe the answer to the problem was delivered as badly as the problem.”

Newcomer becomes incumbent

Three years ago, Commissioner Lorraine Zellers was in the same position as Hunker, Kirchhoff and McGlone: a first-time office- seeker in her first election.

In that election, Zellers ended up receiving the most votes of any candidate.

When asked how she is approaching this campaign, she said, “ My approach has been es-sentially the same as my last campaign. I have a vision for the city that I’ve tried to communicate to everyone. I do have a history on the commission now which I feel reflects that vision.”

Of the changes the city made following last September’s restaurant crackdown, Zellers said the city allowed an extension of the patio hours for restaurants and also hired a nighttime code- enforcement officer. She said she was happy many of the restaurants were cooperating with the code- enforcement officer.

“ I am committed to continuing the dialogue between the residential and business communities because we have to balance what’s good for both. My goal will be to improve communication between the city and the community to ensure that those who would be impacted by the city’s decisions to get that information,” Zellers said.

While she acknowledged that there has been some dissension on the commission over the past year, she was optimistic differences could be put aside.

She also cited the city’s recent recognition as a five- star beach and top 10 Boardwalk as proof that Rehoboth is doing some-thing right.

As for the new activeness of the business community, Zellers said, “ I do feel that the businesses are more active in the shoulder seasons, which seem to be getting longer each year, especially with special events like Sea Witch, and the jazz and film festivals. Certainly more visitors are coming to town after September, which provides more opportunities for our businesses to succeed. A vibrant business community is good for the city.”

For newcomers and incumbents, the best part of the campaigning process is going door to door, introducing themselves to voters.

McGlone said, “ I love it because I like people, and I like talking to people. I’ve gotten lots of very interesting feedback from people as I’ve been walking.”

McGlone has said if elected, the first thing he would do is invite all the commissioners and their spouses out to Ocean City to play laser tag as a team­ building exercise.

“ I know for me, it’s getting out there and meeting everybody.

Being invited into people’s homes. I have drunk more ice tea, lemonade and chilled water than I would ever do under a normal day. But coming in and sitting on people’s couches and sitting in their sunrooms has been a really great thing,” Hunker said.

Kirchhoff said, “ Meeting people has been a great experience, just getting different ideas of what people value about the city and what’s important to them.”

Zellers said, “ I haven’t really changed my approach – I am still actively working the campaign trail, walking the neighborhoods when I’m in town and talking to people. My campaign has never been about running ‘ against’ any-one, but running ‘ for’ re­elec-tion.”

While Cooper acknowledges campaigning is not his strong suit, he said getting out and talking to people, “ kind of energizes the batteries a little bit.”

McGlone agreed that, win or lose, the community, particularly the business community, now has the city’s attention.

“ They’re very interested and they know that Rehoboth plays a key role in this community. “ They just want it to be better,” he said.

Cooper said, “ What I try to get across to people is, if you change horses, doesn’t mean you are going to keep what you’ve got. You can backslide real quickly with the wrong person in there.

There’s nothing to say you keep the gains you’ve made.'