DELMAR — As expected, Bethlehem Town Board members took their first step towards introducing its bond resolution for the Delaware Avenue Complete Streets and Road Diet Project to the November ballot during Election Day, Tuesday, Nov. 2.
By a 4-to-1 vote, the Town Board rescinded the resolution it originally passed in April, thus pushing the reset button on a process that initially started with a referendum not intended to go before voters.
Though there were other topics discussed Wednesday, June 23, the nearly three-hour meeting focused predominantly on Delaware Avenue and the legislative moves by the board. Half of the time was devoted to public comment where the polarized project continued to be debated between safety and business. New voices, however, questioned the legality of rescinding a resolution, challenged under petition, only to reintroduce it next month.
The Town Board first voted to pass a $5.2 million bond resolution that would approve funding of the road diet. Business owners, including those in Delaware Plaza, have long protested against the project over concerns it would choke off customer traffic. In May, those same proprietors aided a successful petition drive to force the resolution to a referendum at a special election by no later than August.
With the Town obligated under state law to hold a special election, Town Attorney Jim Potter shared an option that would instead allow the board to introduce the referendum in November at the behest of Town Supervisor David VanLuven.
It first required the Town Board to repeal its original resolution vote, followed by a vote on July 28 to hold a referendum without petition. Assuming board members pass both votes, the referendum during the General Election.
“I think that what we’re witnessing is an exercise in raw political power being accomplished by the Town Board, being assisted by the town attorney, to find a way around the law,” said Jim Morrill. The Glenmont resident, and owner of Delmar Beverage Center on Delaware Avenue, compared the Town Board to Albany’s notorious Democrat political machine under city Mayor Erastus Corning and party patriarch Dan O’Connell. “But that’s not even happening in the city of Albany now. It’s happening in the town of Bethlehem and that’s disappointing to me.”
The crux of Wednesday night’s arguments focused on whether or not the Town Board could legally repeal April’s resolution after more than 1,500 residents forced what was a passive referendum into a special election by August.
Since opponents to the passive referendum submitted their petition, VanLuven and his fellow Democrats have voiced attempts to dispel misinformation about the project. Those attempts include summarizing the project on the town website and pushing for a November vote.
Residents recognized that the referendum has changed names to Delaware Avenue Road & Sidewalk Safety since May. VanLuven referenced the new moniker on a social media post three weeks ago. The new name caters to supporters who weigh the importance of the project’s promise to increase safety. That promise is based on the weight of a town-commissioned feasibility study from Albany engineering firm Crieghton Manning that cites more than 200 accidents along the 1.3-mile corridor of road over a five-year period.
Town documents, however, continue to refer to the project as the Delaware Avenue Complete Streets and Road Diet. Republican Jim Foster asked to confirm it will continue to be called that when the resolution is presented again in July.
The date switch discussion has been contentious, with one side calling arguments to keep the election for August as a form of voter suppression. Others anticipate more residents will vote in November than in August.
In May 2013, when residents decided through a special vote to keep the town highway superintendent job as an elected position, less than 6,000 people voted. In the 2019 General Election, more than 18,000 residents decided a political race between board candidates Dan Coffey, Joyce Becker and Jim Carriero.
The 2019 General Election was also conducted throughout the town’s 31 districts, allowing more access for residents throughout town. In contrast, the 2013 special election was limited to just one polling station, Town Hall. Clarkson had said the Town could not garner enough volunteers to operate multiple polling stations.
The rescind-and-revote draws from the actions of a Long Island town board in 1959. The Town of Islip had pushed to erect an incinerator to address its 360-ton daily yield of garbage. Voters shot down separate proposals for two locations. Less than a month later, the board passed a plan to build one at a third location through a permissive referendum. Opponents, however, forced that to a public vote, too.
The plan passed in all but three of the town’s hamlets. Of the 30,000 registered voters, less than 7,000 took to the polls in the April election. The district in which the incinerator was later built opposed the measure by an 8-to-1 ratio. Opponents followed with a lawsuit under the claim the vote didn’t take place within the time defined by when they submitted their petitions. The state Supreme Court disagreed.
“The important thing about the case is that it confirmed that a Town Board has the authority to repeal a resolution that is subject to a referendum at a special election following the filing of a petition,” Potter wrote to The Spotlight, “and [it] has the authority to adopt the same resolution and provide for a referendum election at a later date.”