Committee Confirms Permit Vote After Open Meetings Violation

FENWICK ISLAND – A resort committee held a public meeting this week to reaffirm its decision on a building permit application after being found in violation of open meeting regulations.

On Tuesday, the Fenwick Island Building Committee held a public meeting to vote on a building permit application from the developer of the Sands Motel after the Delaware Attorney General’s Office opined the committee had violated the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA).

In July, the committee denied a building permit for the construction of a new hotel where the Sands Motel currently stands. While they agreed to allow mechanical equipment on the roof of the new hotel to exceed the town’s height limit, the committee disapproved of an elevator shaft that would also encroach on the height limit.

Last month, Councilwomen Julie Lee and Vicki Carmean and Councilman Roy Williams filed a FOIA complaint with the attorney general’s office alleging the Building Committee – as well as the building official, town solicitor, mayor, town manager and chair of the Building Committee – violated FOIA by discussing and deciding on a building permit without holding a public meeting or allowing the public to observe the conversations.

Late last month, the Delaware Attorney General’s Office opined that the town’s Building Committee had violated FOIA, but not the five named individuals.

“Because the five individuals are not a public body, we find that they did not violate FOIA as alleged,” the opinion reads. “However, we determine that the Building Committee is a public body and that the Building Committee violated FOIA by its failure to conduct a public meeting to approve the building permit application.”

As remediation for its FOIA violation, the Building Committee held a public meeting on Tuesday to formally vote on the building permit application submitted by the hotel developer.

Committee chair Bill Weistling said for years the Building Committee had reviewed permit applications for new construction over $20,000 with no formal meetings, and that on occasion the committee chair was asked to consult with the building official and other town officials on matters relating to building permits and town code.

“Over the years, the times have changed, the towns have changed and in the meantime Delaware had enacted and created FOIA,” he said. “I believe that since the word ‘committee’ is used, the attorney general’s recommended process here is the reason for their determination.”

While he accepted the committee was at fault for violating FOIA, Weistling applauded the attorney general for exonerating the five named individuals in the complaint.

“I suggest that everyone read the attorney general’s report and how one member of this committee, myself, and four others – the mayor, the building official, the town manager and the town attorney – handled the process on this building permit application,” he said. “The process has been used for 25 years and the building official, the town manager, the town attorney and others may need to consult on a building permit application. I thank and applaud the attorney general for exonerating us five from any violations of FOIA by the accusations of Council Members Carmean, Lee and Williams.”

Weistling added that permit applications sent before the committee will be voted on in public meetings moving forward.

“The attorney general did find that the Building Committee did violate FOIA by not holding a public meeting on this topic,” he said. “We have never done this in the past 25 years, but we respect the attorney general’s ruling and we will be holding Building Committee meetings in the future to sign off, approve or disapprove any building permit application.”

Following comments from Weistling, the Building Committee voted 2-0 to reaffirm its decision to deny the building permit application. Committee member Reid Tingle recused himself from the meeting.

About The Author: Bethany Hooper

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Bethany Hooper has been with The Dispatch since 2016. She currently covers various general stories. Hooper graduated from Stephen Decatur High School in 2012 and the University of Maryland in 2016, where she completed double majors in journalism and economics.