OCEAN CITY – Frustrated somewhat by the lack of participation during various public hearings, the Ocean City Mayor and Council this week took up a spontaneous debate about the need to find a better way to reach out to the town’s citizens about its important proceedings.
The issue arose during the review and potential approval of the town’s new Critical Areas ordinance. The Mayor and Council on Tuesday were prepared to move forward with a vote on the town’s new Critical Areas laws after reviewing some late changes in the ordinance. However, it came to light during the work session on Tuesday several citizens were concerned about the potential impacts of the new law, despite the fact public hearings on the contents of the ordinance were held months ago.
Nobody from the public attended the public hearing on the Critical Areas ordinance, prompting Councilman Joe Hall to broach the subject of finding a better way to inform the public about hearings in the future.
“We have to do better about getting the word out about public hearings,” he said. “Over and over and over, we have these hearings that nobody attends, and as we’re about to vote on something, we hear there is concern from the public about certain issues. I don’t know how we do it, but we have to get it fixed.”
Joe Hall said it has been a problem as long as he can remember. He questioned whether the town needed to revisit how it gets the word out about public hearings.
“It’s been a joke since I was first elected and we haven’t gotten any better at it,” he said. “I don’t know if we have to call people or send out mailers or what we have to do, but it obviously isn’t working the way we’re doing it now.”
However, Mayor Rick Meehan said the town does everything required of it in terms of advertising public meetings through legal advertising and called for the public to be more aware of what’s going on in terms of meetings and hearings.
“At some point in time, people need to take responsibility for following these things on their own,” he said. “It’s 2010 and we all have to be aware of what’s going on out there. I think the town does a good job of getting the word out, but if we need to do more, than we’ll do it. If we have to get out there with a bull horn on the day of the hearing, we’ll do that too.”
Meehan said one area that could use improvement is the timeline between hearings and the ultimate approval of an ordinance or a major policy change.
“The only thing we can do better is develop a quicker timeline,” he said. “We have a hearing on this, then it goes to the Critical Areas Commission and then comes back to us for another review and the next thing you know, nine months have passed since he held a public hearing.”
City Engineer Terry McGean said in his experience, citizens often skip the public hearing and complain later when a particular issue is close to being voted on. Using the example of the Critical Areas ordinance on the table, McGean said the public hearing was advertised using many resources and still nobody showed up.
“We put it out on the web,” he said. “What I’ve seen over the years is nobody cares until it affects them. It gets to the third reading and everybody shows up.”
Councilwoman Mary Knight said the town has been proactive in terms of utilizing social networks to get the word out about town business.
“I think it should be real simple to reach out to our tweeting friends,” she said. “We’re the progressive ones when it comes to social networking and that could be another avenue to reach out to people.”