OCEAN CITY — Before a crowd of agitated citizens at City Hall last Friday, “a change in our management direction” was the reason cited by Council President Jim Hall for the removal of City Manager Dennis Dare.
During a closed session last Thursday afternoon that Dare and City Solicitor Guy Ayres were not asked to attend, the council voted 4-3 — Council members Brent Ashley, Joe Hall, Margaret Pillas and Jim Hall in favor and Doug Cymek, Mary Knight and Lloyd Martin opposed — to ask for Dare’s resignation by the end of business Friday.
On Friday, during another private session, the council voted in the same 4-3 fashion to terminate Dare’s employment if he does not resign by the end of business today.
Dare, who been the chief administrative officer of the city since 1990, was then faced with deciding whether to accept the council’s resignation request or be fired.
Although the timing of when he resigned was unclear, Dare did confirm he submitted his resignation “conditionally subject to agreement of conditions and terms.”
According to Jim Hall, the council has offered Dare a severance package that includes his salary through Dec. 31, give him his full 30-year retirement (he’s been with the city 29 years), a “100% recommendation” and all the required health and pension benefits.
Dare said he does not have an immediate comment on the current situation.
A question raised by Jim Hall at the Friday public meeting, which was attended by about 75 citizens agitated by the process the council was undertaking, was whether Dare had an employment contract.
Dare told the council he did, but Jim Hall said efforts were currently being made to determine if a contract exists. It was later discovered the contract is alive and well.
An extension agreement, penned Feb, 5, 1996, as well as an employment agreement, drafted October of 1990, does, in fact, exist and stipulates Dare has an agreement in place to remain employed from April of said year to April of the next year. The agreement is not signed annually, it simply rolls over from year to year as an annual extension, according to the city.
“In the event the Employee is terminated by the Council without cause (“cause” defined herein to be a criminal act, breach of this Agreement or gross dereliction of duty) before expiration of the aforesaid term of employment and during such time that the Employee is willing and able to perform his duties under this Agreement, then the Employee shall be paid a sum equal to his then base salary for a period of 120 days; provided, however, that should Employee become employed during 120 days, then, in that event, the severance pay to be paid hereunder shall be reduced by an amount equal to the payments received by Employee for employment during the balance of the 120 days.”
Jim Hall said in Friday’s public meeting that whatever the contract states the council will adhere to accordingly.
“This was a tough decision, one made by the majority of the council, to change the management direction of the town,” Jim Hall said. “Dennis has done a wonderful, wonderful job for us, but we wanted to take the town in a different direction.”
Prior to the meeting being adjourned, Council Secretary Lloyd Martin addressed the crowd of citizens.
“This is not a good day for Ocean City,” said Martin, the only member of the dissenting three to sit in on Friday’s meeting because of his role as council secretary.
Mayor Rick Meehan also did not convene in closed session because he was not notified of the meeting and due to Ayres not being present. Knight and Cymek cited the same reasoning of Ayres’ absence for not attending the private meeting.
Martin added, “we all know nobody’s perfect but the town is going in the right direction. Change is not the right thing to do right now. Hopefully, people will see what happens when they don’t come out and vote. So everybody speak up and I want to hear it all.”
Meehan also weighed in during the public meeting, criticizing the stated reason for Dare’s termination.
“Just one thing — the change of direction should be done by the Mayor and Council. The city manager or whoever it is works for the Mayor and Council,” Meehan said. “It’s not the city manager creates change, it’s the Mayor and Council so I’m not sure I follow that line of thinking.”
After the meeting, Jim Hall fielded some questions from the press, denying Dare’s removal was the first of many changes in the city’s employment circles and that the move was financially motivated as a means to cut city salaries.
“I don’t know anything about it if there is,” he said. “I don’t know of any other plans to make changes, but I’m one of seven and if they wake up tomorrow and say they’re going to make a change, they could do that certainly. I don’t have any plans or lists … What I had hoped was Dennis would accept the deal, shake hands and we would all say, ‘we had a great time working together.’ That may be in fact how it goes.”
Jim Hall summed up the developments by saying, “Four members of the council want a different city manager, they want to do something different, this is the new direction they want to go. He’s a great guy, a great city manager, we just decided wanted a new city manager. I wish him luck in whatever he does.”
Knight, Meehan, Cymek and Martin also confirmed there were no discussions about other employees during these two meetings.
“I’m so out of the loop I have not been involved in it so I don’t know,” Knight said. “I can confirm there were no other talks about other employees during yesterday’s meeting. I can also confirm when I tried to bring up Dennis’ accomplishments — I credit Dennis for saving us $5 or $6 million over the last five by his right-sizing efforts — that was not heard. The decision was this was the time to do this.”
Meehan added, “The discussions that have taken place have solely been about Dennis. I have not heard at this point of any other personnel discussions, although I do know after the election last year there was talk about the new majority having a hit list. … I think this is a sad day for Ocean City and Dennis is going to be very difficult to replace. We are going to go through a very difficult period.”
In an interview later, Meehan said he was not sure what the next step at City Hall was going to be, regarding the city’s top office.
When former City Manager Tony Barrett resigned over two decades ago in the face of a looming council termination, it was then-Mayor Fish Powell who stepped into the role of the city’s chief executive officer. That’s what the city charter stipulates.
“You know, they have just pulled the rug out from under the manager of your community for 21 years for no stated reason or compassion … I have no idea where we go from here and I need to give it a lot more thought,” he said. “What I can tell you is this is a very different town than it was back when Fish, with all due respect, stepped in. As of 5 if Dennis is terminated, then the duties of the city manager fall to the mayor, so yes I will do it. This is going to be challenging and I know the department heads will step up. My job will be to facilitate the office and to provide the information and structure for the council to make decisions. That’s what I will do.”
The Kite Loft owner Jay Knerr expressed later after the meeting his disappointment in the council’s actions.
“Secret meetings and rash decisions is no way to run city government. It is certainly a sad day for Ocean City when four City Council members vote to terminate a long standing employee after stating that he has done an excellent job,” Knerr, who was in attendance at today’s meeting, said. “Taking the city off in a so called ‘new direction’ at this time without a clear plan is nothing short of irresponsible.”