By Joe Capozzi
As Briny Breezes Council President Sue Thaler sees it, there was nothing nefarious about her efforts to gather feedback from residents about a hot topic around town — proposed code changes that would help homes adapt to rising sea levels.
The way she did it, though — taking it upon herself to write and distribute a questionnaire without the rest of the council’s knowledge — prompted sharp rebukes from her colleagues and an apology from Thaler.
The drama unfolded April 28 when Town Manager William Thrasher asked the council what he should do with completed questionnaires that people were dropping off at Town Hall.
“To my knowledge, we have not discussed this,’’ Thrasher said, holding a stack in his hands. “I’m not even sure if this is town business, either.’’
Thaler explained that she wrote the seven-question survey and asked Briny Breezes Corp. to insert copies in the mailboxes of residents.
A summary at the top of the questionnaire read, “The Town invites your comments and questions’’ about proposed code changes discussed earlier that month at two Planning and Zoning Board meetings.
“It was at the request of several residents, a handful, who did not know how to give us feedback to the Planning and Zoning Board meetings that have been held,’’ Thaler told Thrasher.
Thaler said she thought it was important for the council to hear directly from residents about the issue, “rather than having people talk about them at happy hour, talk about them at the pool, and we don’t get that feedback.’’
The other council members said she should have at least brought the questionnaire idea to the council for discussion first and then distributed the flyers only if the council approved. Some members said they learned about the questionnaire only in passing from residents.
“I knew nothing about this,’’ said Alderwoman Kathy Gross. “I feel like I was kind of blindsided.’’
“This should not have been put out unless it was from all of us, not just you,’’ Alderman Bill Birch said.
“This being represented as council when it wasn’t (discussed) on this dais is not appreciated at all,’’ said Alderwoman Christina Adams. “We never even voted on it.’’
“I am new,’’ Alderwoman Liz Loper said, “but I thought we always discussed things among ourselves before something was put out. I would never go and assume I should put something out without talking to everybody else. I was as shocked as everybody else and I don’t think it was right for us not to have discussed this.’’
Thaler apologized and said she would seek the entire council’s input “if I were to do it again.” Thaler, who said she notified the town manager and clerk in advance about the questionnaire, attended the two advisory board meetings. She said she was left with the impression that “very few people … understood what was going on and there was a lot of street talk about it.”
She said she wanted the replies to come to the council and Town Hall rather than her personally. “I wanted to be sure we got feedback directly from people ... because I think it is important for all of us as municipal representatives to hear what our constituencies are thinking,’’ she said.
Here are the questions, some of which Thrasher and council members characterized as leading and biased:
• “Should the town address current and future flood risk to keep the community safe?”
• “Should the town allow 3-story structures in Briny Breezes?”
• “Should the town allow underlying support columns at a height more than that required by FEMA to allow storage and parking underneath residential units in space that is restricted and uninhabitable?’’
• “Should the town allow roof heights up to 35 feet?”
• “Should the town allow bricks-and-mortar homes in Briny Breezes rather than modular or mobile homes?”
• “Should the town allow buildup of the ‘dirt’ under a home which could create a ‘bowl effect,’ causing unintended flooding on adjacent lots?”
• “Should the town hold hearings on these major decisions during summer/fall when 75% of owners and residents are gone?”
Thrasher said he was concerned the questionnaire gave the appearance that the Town Council was trying to circumvent the Planning and Zoning Board.
‘’The Planning and Zoning Board would have eventually sifted all this out. They would have had no need for a survey. They are gathering information. They are sensing from the community,’’ he said. “I trust Planning and Zoning to come up with an applicable recommendation to this council when they are ready to do so.’’
Town Attorney Keith Davis said he understood a council member’s urge to act alone, but “there’s still an opportunity for a misunderstanding if something is done unilaterally and your colleagues are not aware of it.’’
“Anything coming from council should come from action of council at a public meeting.’’