There has been robust debate about what Tuesday’s municipal election in Ocean City is all about.
The council majority members up for re-election, Jim Hall and Joe Hall, say it’s the money and keeping the direction of the city on a “conservative” track. While acknowledging the importance of fiscal responsibility, the non-majority incumbent members, specifically Doug Cymek and Mary Knight, say it’s more about pride and character of the town.
To us, it’s about leadership, and the council majority in power now in Ocean City clearly does not know how to lead. It’s not just a few mistakes in judgment here and there. Its constant errors and costly gaffs that make the majority look completely inept on all fronts.
The majority’s idea of leadership is to make decisions with an iron fist without any effort at all at consensus building. When challenged, as evidenced by several notable confrontations in council chambers, some members even show their anger with a beyond reproach mentality.
The most obvious example of pitiful leadership was what ensued during and after the removal of former City Manager Dennis Dare. A “different direction” was the party line response for months after Dare’s removal. Only with an election looming and Dare entering the council race did the litany of reasons then surface, most of which had to do with alleged insubordination. That would be a valid reason to terminate a city manager, as the individual works for the council and takes orders from the elected officials. However, that was not the reason given initially. Instead, we were told he’s a great leader, swell guy and the majority just wants a new direction, one that ultimately cost almost $300,000 to execute when the retirement package with Dare and finding his replacement were tabulated. All of this to keep the town on a so-called conservative track, which the majority maintains has only come about since October of 2010 when Councilman Brent Ashley unseated former Council President Joe Mitrecic.
Additionally, what we recall most about the city manager removal process comes from the day the surprise council meeting was held and the council majority informed minority members Doug Cymek, Mary Knight and Lloyd Martin — as well as minority friendly Mayor Rick Meehan — that Dare was going to be canned. He was actually told retire or be fired. Before, during and after the meeting, we were at City Hall, trying to confirm whether Dare’s days were done in Ocean City. While waiting to see if any official would comment in the parking lot, two council majority members — Brent Ashley and Joe Hall — were seen having a good laugh during a conversation. This was minutes after a 29-year city employee — 21 years as city manager — was terminated. Nobody should be laughing about that or anything else minutes after making that decision, no matter how radically different your views on government may be. That was significant.
To us, the notion that this council is conservative is what’s laughable. The opposite of conservative is radical, which is how we would describe this council majority, and it’s a time for a change. The city needs to be cleansed of these power mongers. Individually, we like each of the majority members, but they as a governing group have embarrassed Ocean City.
The council majority had no idea what the next step was after Dare was removed beyond the assumption that Public Works Director Hal Adkins would take the job. He didn’t because it was not going to be by a unanimous vote. In his letter to the council, he also said the hot political theater was not comfortable for him at that time, leading to a city manager search process that was also disturbing on some levels.
There’s no better example of how the council majority is not conservative than the dysfunctional manner in which sweeping changes were introduced to pay and benefits changes. We actually think a couple of those ordinances were smart business moves for the city, but again the majority had no idea how to conduct the process of getting them approved. Instead, the ordinances were brought forward and only four of the 11 actually made it to law. A majority member even later said in a council meeting it was a good thing some of them were vetoed and that it was expected not all of them would pass. Why introduce them then?
The council majority does not get any credit for reining in spending from us. The total budget in 2010 was $112 million and in 2012 was $114 million, down from a high of $121 million in 2008. For perspective, the budget back in 2000 was $67 million. The general fund budget has declined from a high of $80 million in 2009 to $75 million in 2010 to $73.8 million in 2012. Back in 2000, the general fund budget was $40.6 million.
In fact, yes we believe the city was spending way too much money in 2008 and we called for a major change at the time in how the city was operating, specifically suggesting each department should have its spending cut by 5 percent, or come to the council prepared to go to the mat to defend why it can’t be done. That didn’t happen but some major changes were made, hiring and salary freezes, eliminating a day of trash collection, doing away with shift differentials, increasing eventually the bus fare, dropping its recycling program and closing a division of the costly public works department.
The city was headed in the right direction and many of these changes should have been made prior, but they were not. However, neither were they advocated in a successful way by some of the majority members. The city’s budget had a lot of fat, no question, and it should not have been there. There is plenty of blame to go around there. However, changes were being made ahead of the devastating assessment cycle that hit Ocean City with a $10 million-plus drop in property tax revenue over a three-year period.
The council majority took over power after all those spending decisions were made and has reaped the benefits of the budget declining consequently. We do not believe any single decision made by the council majority has saved the city any money. Even if there are a couple sources of savings that may be realized eventually, they are wiped out by all the other decisions that have cost the city so much in financial resources.
Along with the fiscal realities comes a tremendous loss of community pride as we see it. As a whole, the residential and business community does not trust this council and that’s because of the way the council majority chooses to govern — with a take it or leave it mentality that’s above any sort of questioning and an approach that’s not rooted in reality. That has to end.
Another example of how dysfunctional the council majority is came during the last labor contract negotiation with the police officers. Along with prematurely abandoning all subcommittees, sans the Police Commission which is mandated by charter, the council decided the entire body should handle union contract negotiations. What happened was no council member was actually involved in the process. The attorneys discussed the specifics and then reported back and forth between the FOP and the city. The end result a stalemate. Did the council majority meet with the FOP to discuss matters and try to reach a deal? No because there is no leadership whatsoever. The council majority requested Doug Cymek, Mary Knight and Lloyd Martin meet with FOP leadership, for whatever reason, probably because majority members knew they could not get the deal done. That meeting took place at Denny’s and 90 minutes a later a two-year deal was in place and the FOP agreed to no pay raises and benefits changes for those two years.
More dysfunction was seen in the city budget process. If the council majority was truly interested in cutting expenses and being “conservative”, members would have been all over Mayor Rick Meehan’s budget, which he created with city staff while acting as city manager after Dare was removed. By the way, he served in that capacity for 10 months. Yes, it took almost a year to replace Dare, who was getting paid his full salary for most of the time by the way because of the way in which he was removed. Again, no idea on how to govern and leadership flaws exposed.
The city’s budget process was a sham. The city’s department heads were not permitted to present their usual detailed overview of spending and the process was rushed and hurried and it was clear this was a rubber stamp, but it should not have been. Instead of telling all department heads they needed to cut spending by say 2 percent across the board and saving money — a concept we find would be consistent under the “watch the money” ideal — the council majority said basically nothing. Instead, they at the last minute said let’s cut the tax rate a penny by taking money out of the reserve fund and throw city employees a rawhide bone in the form of a bonus — both blatant election year moves that could have been achieved by instituting budget cuts or coming up with new revenue sources.
More judgment issues have arisen in recent weeks with ads painting incumbents Cymek and Knight, as well as Dare and Mitrecic, as in bed with the union man. It’s just a ridiculous ploy to try and fool the voters. We hope they don’t buy it because it’s not true. Cymek and Mitrecic are against the union effort by the employees, while we suspect Dare and Knight are as well, but they don’t want to say it. The ads show desperation because the majority members up for re-election — Jim Hall and Joe Hall — understand well they have upset more people over the last two years than they have made happy. Muddying the waters by distorting the facts and providing inaccurate information are signs of desperation.
This council majority makes us uncomfortable with their recklessness, and we think the community deserves better leadership. That’s above all why we think incumbent council majority members Jim Hall and Joe Hall, the two most veteran political members of the majority, should not be re-elected. We like Jim Hall and Joe Hall on an individual basis and we think their policies could benefit the town. Their lengthy service shows they care about Ocean City and want what’s best for their hometown community. They just don’t know how to carry out their visions for the town in a way that makes them amenable to others, and we think each have made major errors in judgment over the last two years that concern us for the days ahead.
As we look ahead to the future, the city is going to need to find new revenues to continue to combat falling property tax revenue. New money along with more cuts is the only way to cope with falling property tax revenue, which make up a majority of the city’s cash flow.
The town’s strategic planning initiative, led by City Manager David Recor, will go a long way toward figuring out new revenue options. We like this concept that Recor is pushing a lot and we think it’s a worthwhile use of city time and funds. The city needs a guiding set of concepts and principles to follow that will eliminate personalities, politics and petty differences.
No matter what happens next week, the strategic plan will professionalize city government at the council level. Every decision will have to be consistent with the strategic plan or it will have to be reconsidered. This will make for a mature council and a professional process. We look forward to seeing that happen, no matter the outcome on Tuesday.
The following are our endorsements:
Rick Meehan is the easy choice here over an overmatched opponent. His knowledge of how Ocean City government operates is unsurpassed and his consensus-building approach serves him well as the town’s chief public figure. Perhaps for the first time ever in his 27-year political career, Meehan was powerless to stop decisions he thought ill-advised over the last two years, but he showed he was a team player and can put Ocean City first when he assumed the role of acting city manager for 10 months. By all accounts, he performed admirably and played a critical role in keeping government on track and calming the concerns of city employees during a time of turmoil.
Doug Cymek: He deserves a second term and is arguably the most prepared council member for the weekly meetings. He studies the issues, talks with city department heads routinely and researches matters to an extensive degree. His small business background makes him particularly keen to revenues and expenditures and the importance of keeping spending in check. His forte is public safety and that’s why he was instrumental in getting the latest union contract between the city and the FOP completed when court appeared certain. He has proven worthy of another term.
Dennis Dare: The former city manager will bring an in-depth knowledge to the council that should prove to be a tremendous addition. We expect Dare will be one of the more reserved council members and not one to speak a lot at meetings, but he will be a voice that will be listened to and respected when he speaks. It’s important to be well-versed on all aspects of the city as a council person and Dare will be able to step directly into office and not need that year of transition that newcomers usually require to get familiar with their roles. He will be invaluable when it comes to offering historical insights that may be needed for the entire council to make wise decisions, and his budget experience will help during that process. Dare will be a solid addition to the council.
Mary Knight: Over the last six years, she has been perhaps the most high-profile elected official, besides the mayor. We think it’s a good thing for city elected officials to be invested in their community, and Knight is certainly that. She attends a wide variety of community functions and that gives her a perspective on what residents have on their minds at all times, not just election years. She is smart and adept at researching matters that come before the council and is also one who likes to delve deep into matters presented at council meetings. Her communication skills and role in the community make her a valuable member of the council, and we think she should serve another term.
Joe Mitrecic: When he lost two years ago, we wrote in this space, “The significance of this election is huge. Whether it was necessary or not, change is here. The council dynamics will be altogether different in the coming months. Whether that’s beneficial or detrimental will be determined over the long term.” Indeed, Mitrecic’s loss was regrettable, and we would like to see him return as a councilman. Behind what many perceive as a stern demeanor is a man who cares tremendously about the overall community. He despises what has transpired since he left office and he is looking to restore some credibility to the council that is lacking currently. His professional, workmanlike approach will help the city and his experience working on budgets and as a former council president will allow him to serve the town well again.
While we understand why they want organization rights after the last two last years, we say no to the general employees’ effort to get union rights.
The employees are right to not trust the current council, but union rights are not necessary. They also understandably want to be treated as other employees in town who have union representation, but union dues will put a true hardship on some employees’ take-home pay and the cost will most likely not be necessary if voters provide a mandate for change from the current ways.
Rather than vote for the union referendum, we would advise voters to support the candidates we have endorsed because we think they will restore the employees’ trust in their government, making organization unnecessary.