OCEAN CITY – With Election Day approaching in a month, discussions are heating up at City Hall, as City Council members and citizens alike continue to stir the political pot.
Citizens For Ocean City spokesman Joe Groves approached the Mayor and City Council during the comments portion of Monday’s council meeting to speak in regards to an incident that occurred a couple of weeks ago.
At that time, Councilman Joe Hall asked Groves to come to the podium to answer a few questions starting with what type of organization Citizens For Ocean City is. Groves responded it is a 501c4, which is a non-profit that has the right to become political if it so chooses.
Next, Joe Hall questioned the organization’s favoritism of certain candidates for this year’s municipal elections followed by Councilman Brent Ashley pointing out that the Citizens For Ocean City website states it “promotes neighborly communications and discourse” but a cartoon caricature of Joe Hall in a Mad Hatter outfit has been posted on the site and accused Groves of posting it.
According to Groves, following that meeting, he had received 160 emails and phone calls from concerned individuals over the discussion.
“I believe strongly in this country that everybody has the right to say what they want to say, and I believe that it is ok to have an opposing view but unfortunately some of you don’t believe that,” Groves said in direction of Joe Hall and Ashley. “You don’t believe that it is ok because some of you who have an opposing view you call it ‘crap’ or ‘bull crap’ and we live in a country that you have the right to say that but unfortunately it shows the disrespect that you show to everybody else.”
Groves reminded the Mayor and City Council that they work for the citizens of Ocean City.
“Mr. President [Jim Hall] I am not bashful and I will answer any questions but it was out of line for the council,” Groves said. “Citizen comments were over and I was called up to answer personal questions that had nothing to do with city business … and it shouldn’t happen again.”
Groves also took the time to correct Joe Hall’s comments made last week in an interview with this newspaper. When questioned about his phone call during the search process to then-Fort Pierce, Fla. City Manager David Recor, who was a finalist for the Ocean City post, Joe Hall said, “I presented clear and overwhelming evidence at my ethics hearing that I had zero impropriety. I actually showed it was fiduciary responsibility and obligation to the taxpayers to make that phone call. I felt it necessary to make the right decision for the town. I felt it important to know that David Recor understood our charter and the makeup of our town in reference to the job. I showed there was no evidence ever, none, that there was instruction to not contact the candidates.”
Groves took a portion of his five minutes at the podium to warn Joe Hall not to “embellish the truth” because the fact was no testimony was heard at the ethics hearing back in April. Groves tread lightly on the matter because City Solicitor Guy Ayres instructed all parties at the private hearing to not discuss what unfolded as it was not a matter of public record.
Earlier in the week, Groves’ attorney at the hearing, J. Harrison Phillips, III, was not as reserved, confirming there was no testimony at the closed door meeting and Groves withdrew the complaint on his own accord and for his own reasons.
“I don’t know what hearing Joe Hall was at, but I can tell you there was absolutely no testimony heard or evidence presented at that ethics hearing,” Phillips said. “None whatsoever from anyone actually.”
Next, Ocean City resident Tony Christ approached the Mayor and City Council on Monday to ask a few questions.
“I am here tonight just to try to bring more information, I feel the more everyone is informed I feel the better off they are, particularly since this is the year of elections,” Christ said.
Christ has recently filed a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request for Mayor Rick Meehan’s and former city manager Dennis Dare’s city credit card statements. Christ, who owns property in the resort, questioned Meehan on his use of the city credit card.
The mayor obliged to Christ’s “interview” but felt it wasn’t an appropriate forum. He also didn’t believe Christ was questioning him in means to put information on the table and shared with the room that an acquaintance had told him that Christ has said, “Hey, why don’t you come on down and watch me screw with the council.”
“I do use that credit card on occasion and I can’t wait for those results to come out so that you can review them and make them public,” he said. “It is very rare, only for travel purposes that I can remember, or for the city manager hiring process that I have used that card in the last three or four years, and that would only be if I go to Baltimore, Washington [D.C], or Philadelphia to do media tours, and probably the only thing you are going to see on there is my hotel accommodations.”
At this point, Christ accused the mayor of charging $700 on the credit card when dining at BJ’s on the Water. Meehan said Christ was mistaken.
“The $700 item on my credit card I think was at Fresco’s and that was a result of during the interview process for the city manager,” the mayor said. “As part of what we contracted, we were told as we got down to the last one or two applicants that the best thing to do was for all of us to go out, take them to dinner, and have discussions with them. The entire Mayor and Council was there, the only difference was I was the only one that had a credit card so I was the one that paid the bill.”
The mayor informed Christ that the process for him to receive his credit card records was in the works through the City Clerk’s Office and he was fully aware that Christ was concerned he had not received them yet.
City Solicitor Guy Ayres reviewed the process for a FOIA request. He said under the law once a request is made for public documents the agency, which in this case would be the city, two hours of research is provided at no expense but beyond that the town is allowed to charge per hour, which is the salary of the employee, plus the calculation of benefits, as well as a fee is charged for a copy of the records.
Councilwoman Margaret Pillas asserted that if the FOIA application is added to the town’s website there should be no fee for information provided via the Internet and also questioned why Ocean City has not made public records available through the town’s website yet.
City Manager David Recor said to do so it is a matter of allocating in the budget for staff time in the IT department to create a framework and structure to have public records posted on the internet. He added that he is aware of other municipalities that have a webpage available for public records to be posted and easily accessed without having to go through the City Clerk’s Office.
“If that is a direction that the council wants us to pursue, we can certainly do that but you have to realize that doesn’t happen overnight,” he said. “That is a policy position that you can make and we can pursue as an organization.”
Christ interjected that he was provided with the reason the copy of the credit card statements he has requested is taking so long is because they are required to be paired with the mayor’s explanation of the charges.
Recor said that the response to Christ’s request is a matter of simply making a copy of a period in time of those credit card statements and it does not require any explanation.