(Oct. 10, 2014) Several developments over the past week have added significant intrigue to Ocean City’s 2014 electoral contest, with the municipal ballot less than a month away.
Former Councilman Joe Hall, a divisive figure in local politics for many years, has filed to run on this November’s ballot after failing to win re-election in 2012.
Opposition to Hall’s candidacy has already formed along familiar political fault lines, with the local lobbying group Citizens for Ocean City – which actively opposed Hall’s 2012 campaign, and advocated for candidates endorsed by Mayor Rick Meehan – contesting his qualification to run.
Additionally, Councilman Brent Ashley confirmed he will not be seeking re-election, meaning three of the four open council seats in 2014 will not have an incumbent.
“I ran for office to accomplish a couple specific things, which I was successful in doing,” Ashley said, in reference to the 2011 salary and pension reforms. “I had already been retired for six years when I came onto the council. At this point, I feel like my role is done.”
Councilwoman Margaret Pillas previously announced that she will also be retiring from office, and Councilman Joe Mitrecic has announced his resignation from council, effective Nov. 3, in order to fill Ocean City’s uncontested seat on the Worcester County Commissioners. Only current Council President Lloyd Martin will be running to retain his seat.
This means that the fourth-place vote-getter in the upcoming contest will fill the remaining two years of Mitrecic’s four-year term, which began in 2012.
As expected, Meehan also filed for re-election late last week. He is unopposed in the mayoral contest.
Further, local businesswoman Nancy Bolt filed Monday – the last day to do so – for a council seat, bringing the total number of contenders up to nine for the four spots.
“I’ve always wanted to run and never thought it was the right time, but now I believe it is,” Bolt said.
While eight of the 10 total candidates were officially confirmed by the council at Monday’s meeting, the candidacies of Hall and Philip Ufholz, a first-time candidate who filed some weeks ago, will have to wait.
Local attorney Jay Phillips, on behalf of Citizens for Ocean City, contested the two candidates’ filings, stating that they do not “meet the test set forth in the [city] charter” with regards to being domiciled in the city limits.
“We want to make sure that the candidates … meet the criteria of the charter, and then the voters will have the opportunity to vote as they please,” Phillips said.
Per the city’s charter, a candidate must be someone “who, for four months next preceding the election, has been and is, at the time of the election, a resident of and domiciled in the corporate limits of the Town of Ocean City, Maryland.”
Both Hall and Ufholz were not at Monday’s council meeting, when Phillips lodged his objection. The council voted to hold a separate hearing yesterday afternoon, past press time.
“I think if we have people who have taken the time to come down here and challenge [the filings], then the candidates also have the right to come down and state their case,” said Councilman Joe Mitrecic, motioning for a “speedy resolution” of the dispute.
However, Hall is expected to be out of town on Thursday, and the hearing will likely be continued.
“There will still be a hearing for at least one candidate on Thursday, unless Mr. Ufholz also requests a continuation,” City Solicitor Guy Ayres said.
Phillips declined to elaborate on why Citizens for Ocean City believe Hall and Ufholz do not meet the domicile qualification.
Suspicion may have been aroused due to the fact that Ufholz owns a home in Bethesda, where he lived during his years as a tax attorney on Capitol Hill. Since moving to the resort full-time in 2001, Ufholz said his daughter has used the property.
“The only reason we have that home is that my wife is preparing for our daughter’s wedding in May,” Ufholz said this week. “As soon as the wedding’s over, we’re selling it.”
Ufholz has owned his condo on 88th Street since 1975, he said.
During an interview with Ocean City Today this week, he provided his current drivers’ license and voter registration, both of which display his Ocean City address. Ufholz also showed tax returns listing Ocean City as his permanent address.
“I’ve voted here in every election here since 2008,” Ufholz said. “This whole thing is absurd.”
Questions regarding Hall’s qualifications likely stem from his recent stint working in North Carolina, although again, Philips declined to elaborate on the specific allegations.
Some months after his 2012 loss, Hall took a catering job in the Charlotte, N.C., area, he said. His ex-wife and children live there as well.
“I took the opportunity, because of an employment change, to take advantage of something I unfortunately have no control over, which is that my kids now live in Charlotte,” Hall said on Tuesday.
However, the arrangement was never intended to be permanent, Hall said. His time in North Carolina ended and he moved back to the apartment above his family’s restaurant on 59th Street this past August.
According the Maryland’s legal definition, which is printed on the city’s candidacy affidavits, establishing domicile entails “the intent to reside either permanently or indefinitely at the new residence … temporary absence from one’s residence without the intent to abandon completely the former domicile will not create a new domicile.”
Thus, Hall’s assertion that he never intended to stay in Charlotte would meet the state’s definition.
“Your domicile is where you intend it to be, not where the council thinks it should be,” said City Solicitor Guy Ayres.
Demonstrating intent is a tricky matter, Ayres said. Proof of intent of establishing a domicile depends on a number of factors, although courts typically find that voter registration is the foremost component, Ayres noted.
“There is no perfect line that says, ‘If you have these,’ then you qualify,” he said.
Hall said he maintained his bank account, mailing address, tax status, voter registration and other such functions in Ocean City during his time in North Carolina.
“I’ve maintained my domicile in Ocean City. I’ve also lived in Charlotte. There’s a difference between the two,” Hall said. “It’s no different than a person who goes to Florida for the winter, comes back, and decides they’re going to run for office.”
Hall served on the Council for 10 years prior to his ouster in 2012. He was a key player in pushing through the 2011 salary and pension reforms, along with Ashley, Pillas, and former Council President Jim Hall.
“I’m running again for the same reason I’ve run in every election, since I was in my 30s,” Joe Hall said. “I enjoy serving Ocean City and I have something to offer with my depth of knowledge of all the city’s government functions.”
Bolt is the owner of the Greenhouse Deli on 15th Street, and also owns a general contracting business where she offers construction management services.
“I fully understand the city’s building codes, requirements, everything related to construction,” she said. “I’m actually really looking forward to that, when the city has projects coming up, I can read and evaluate the blueprints myself.”
Bolt has lived in the resort for 14 years, and raised her 20-year-old daughter here. One of the major concerns she is looking to address is the flight of younger residents and employees off the island, to West Ocean City or elsewhere in the county.
“I’m so afraid that in another 20 years, we’re going to wake up and there’s going to be nobody here, there’ll be no families and no kids that were actually raised in town,” Bolt said.