OCEAN CITY — In a surprise turn of events, an unlikely majority of the City Council moved this week to have a charter change drafted to merge the municipal election in October with the general election in November.
By City Charter, the municipal election was established and conducted by Ocean City’s seven-member election board. The election date is set for the third Tuesday in October in every even numbered year.
City Council members’ four-year terms are staggered to not allow a full change-over in a single year, while the mayor’s term is limited to two years.
The question of whether to consolidate Ocean City’s municipal Election Day with national elections has been brought up several times in the past, as recent as last November when the council voted 6-1, Councilman Joe Hall in favor, to keep the election day the same. The benefits in consolidating have always been to increase voter turnout and save money.
On Monday night, Councilman Doug Cymek unexpectedly brought up the discussion after being contacted by constituents in recent weeks over the matter.
“There are a lot of people feeling we should try to get the maximum number of voters out this time and I was opposed to it originally … but I would vote for it,” Cymek said.
Councilman Brent Ashley interjected that Ocean City’s Election Day is a tradition and it separates the town from the primary and general elections as well as provides a separate occasion to provide an opportunity for community interaction.
Cymek, nonetheless, thought the merged elections deserved another look.
“It is important to get the voters to come out, we have also been talking about saving money and here is a chance to save at least $17,000 … and there are a lot of other hidden costs that haven’t been tabulated yet, but I promised the people that called me to bring it up to get a motion and put it to rest for once and for all,” Cymek responded.
Councilwoman Mary Knight said she had also been contacted over the issue and has come to feel that the town’s separate Election Day has become disruptive for those who come out and vote just a couple weeks later in the national elections.
“I have always voted against it also, but I think at times we really need to listen to the voters and our constituents,” she said.
Joe Hall said that in the last 10 years of service on the council he has consistently advocated for the election days to be combined. He believes the days confuse voters, and although residents intend to vote in the municipal elections, they often miss it thinking it is conducted on national Election Day.
Mayor Rick Meehan was displeased with the conversation that had erupted and agreed with Ashley that municipal elections in Ocean City is a tradition, adding he has reservations over the idea.
Council President Jim Hall did not agree that the separate elections are confusing, especially with the amount of media coverage and proliferation of signage around town.
“I would vehemently oppose this and tell you that is one day we get to intermingle and talk to people as they are showing up to vote. They are voters and you at least get a minute or two to pitch yourself or thank them for coming or thank them for living in Ocean City, so I would hope you don’t change this,” he said.
Councilwoman Margaret Pillas said she would not make a final vote that day since the discussion was not scheduled and there needs to be an opportunity for public comment before a final decision is made.
The tie breaker came down to Councilman Lloyd Martin who said the issue has troubled him, but agrees that the separate election days confuse voters and consolidating the two days would increase voter turnout.
“When the County Commissioner gets a thousand more votes than everybody else does because people were out there voting on that day, we need this as well … it is a tough decision but basically I think we need to do it right now,” Martin said.
City Solicitor Guy Ayres advised the council not to make a final decision that night but to instruct him to form a charter amendment that will be moved to the council’s next legislative session at which time the public could comment. A charter change receives one reading before a final vote and the mayor does not have the power to veto it.
The council voted 4-3 to formulate a charter change to consolidate Ocean City’s municipal election with national Election Day in November. Council members Joe Hall, Cymek, Knight, and Martin were in favor, and Ashley, Jim Hall and Pillas were opposed. Public comment will be allowed at the July 2 meeting at City Hall.
According to city records, in 2010 out of 6,000 registered voters in Ocean City, only 1,383 voted, a 24.7 percent turnout, which was a decrease from 2008 when 1,393 people voted, a 24.8 percent turnout.
The estimated cost of conducting Ocean City’s individual municipal election is $10,000. The Roland E. Powell Convention Center is currently utilized as the voting site and would continue to be used if municipal elections were to coincide with national elections.
Other municipal elections are held every month of the year with May being most popular, and with only a few exceptions, cities and towns conduct non-partisan elections.
Out of the 157 municipalities in Maryland, there are fewer than 10 that hold their elections on the same day as our national elections.