ZACK HOOPES ¦ Staff Writer
(Oct. 5, 2012) Fact and hearsay became increasingly difficult to distinguish at Monday night’s City Council session, as the meeting wore on into a public commentary section that reinforced the impression that this year’s electoral politics would be best described by Collective Soul’s debut album, “Hints, Allegations, and Things Left Unsaid.”
The theme of the evening seemed to be the question of whether politically charged personal disputes could or should be aired on the council floor. First up to bat was Joe Groves of the activist group Citizens for Ocean City, who criticized Councilman Joe Hall for asking him in front of the council two weeks ago about his group’s goals and intentions.
“I believe it’s okay to have an opposing view, but unfortunately some of you don’t believe that … it shows a disrespect to do so,” Groves of his grilling by Hall.
“I was called up to answer personal questions that had nothing to do with city business.”
Groves’ group was under suspicion by Hall for the fine line it treads regarding its tax registration as a 501(c)4 interest group. Although the group’s stated goals are to increase transparency and voter turnout, Groves has noted that it is overwhelmingly supportive of Mayor Rick Meehan and his political allies, and critical of Hall and his.
Citizens for Ocean City had previously held a reception that, according to Groves, “happened to coincide” with former City Manager Dennis Dare’s candidacy announcement. Although a 501(c)4 is allowed to endorse candidates and hold events that are complimentary to a candidate’s stance on certain issues, it is not allowed to directly donate to or manage a political campaign.
No one on the council responded to Groves, but as soon as he sat down, like clockwork, local landlord Tony Christ stepped forward to renew the saga where it had left off.
Christ said his lawyer had checked with the state regarding Citizens for Ocean City’s current tax filings, and found that it is not a 501(c)4, but is registered as a 501(c)3. Such a group is reserved for charitable non-profits, and would be “explicitly forbidden from participating in political campaigns,” Christ said.
Groves acknowledged that, but said the group has or is in the process of changing its status.
Christ also raised concerns about a recent request he had filed under the Freedom of Information Act to receive the credit card statements from the city accounts used by Meehan and Dare. Although he submitted the request 10 days ago, Christ said he had thus far received nothing.
When he inquired, Christ said, he was told that the expenses were part of a general fund budget that would have to be itemized and notated before distribution.
“I was told today that the reason my request was taking too much time was that the items would have to be explained before they were given to me, presumably by you, Mr. Mayor,” Christ said.
Christ also implied that he knew of some sort of questionable transaction on the card, in the amount of $700 from BJ’s restaurant.
Meehan then brought the journey full circle. “I’m not sure this is the forum to interview me,” he said, echoing Groves’ earlier complaints.
But he did address the issue, noting that his city credit card is mainly for travel expenses incurred during the media and promotional tours he does. Meehan also said he suspected the charge Christ was alluding to was actually from Fresco’s, and was from the dinners the mayor and the council held with city manager candidates during the spring hiring process.
“I can’t wait for those results to come out so you can review them and make them public. It’s only for travel purposes or for the city manager process. Those are really the only things I can remember [that are on the statements],” Meehan said.
Further, the mayor countered, he believed Christ was simply agitating for its own sake. Meehan said he had been told, by a mutual acquaintance, that Christ had asked the person to “come down and watch me [Christ] mess with the council.”
When asked by Christ who this person was, Meehan made another sharp turn into a previous council squabble.
“I’m going to have to take Brent’s line on this one. I won’t compromise the confidentiality of that source,” Meehan said, referring to Councilman Brent Ashley’s previous response when asked by former Council President Joe Mitrecic if Ashley had been alluding to him when he alleged that he had been told that a former council president was using golf passes for personal benefit.
Councilman Doug Cymek cautioned that records research was not necessarily guaranteed to be instantaneous.
“My understanding is that there’s a certain reasonable amount of time given to this,” Cymek said.
City Solicitor Guy Ayres said that, legally, the city is obligated to provide two hours of research as a due matter of public service. Past that, those requesting information could be charged at an hourly rate.
Just as an impasse seemed to have been reached – much to the audible relief of the audience – city resident John Medlin noted that an online system for viewing of city financial documents was discussed some years ago, to his recollection, but never implemented.
Although council seemed to be hazy on such a discussion, Councilwoman Margaret Pillas said she remembered the idea being presented in 2006, when the city issued a number of purchasing cards to employees.
“The idea, as it was presented, was that they need some way to go out and buy a nail or whatever they needed [on the job],” Pillas said.
City Manager David Recor interjected that such a system was not out of the realm of possibility.
“Boynton Beach, I know, has a wonderful structure in place where departments – when public records are created – put them on the records management page, and the public knows they can go to that page and access the records themselves,” Recor said.
“You have to realize that that doesn’t happen overnight, though. That is a policy decision that you can make and we can pursue as an organization. We can make credit card transactions available on a database, by departments or by employee. We can do a lot of things if we’re willing to allocate the resources to make it happen.”
Recor also suggested that Christ’s request be cleared up immediately.
“That’s a matter of simply making a copy of the statements for that period. It doesn’t require any explanation,” he said.
On Thursday morning, Christ contacted Ocean City Today to report that he had received the statements.
Council President Jim Hall, however, suggested that Recor was unlikely to find the commitment and follow-through to the records-posting idea after the political hunting season had ended.
“Something tells me that on Nov. 7, this won’t be an issue,” he said.