ZACK HOOPES ¦ Staff Writer
(Sept. 28, 2012) The city’s golf pass saga appears to be at an end, although it is highly likely that the increasing politicization of the city-owned Eagle’s Landing course will make it a topic of debate again in the near future.
Two week ago, Councilman Brent Ashley traded barbs with Mayor Rick Meehan over accountability measures for the city’s complimentary play system at Eagle’s Landing, the municipal course in West Ocean City. While the purpose of the passes – to promote the city’s golf tourism base by offering free rounds as giveaways for charities and official events – didn’t seem to be in question, Ashley seemed to be concerned how the city was vetting to whom and for what the cards were being given.
“There’s no accountability with these cards,” Ashley said last week. He went on to cite the practice as another example “of the loosey-goosey accounting of taxpayers’ money” and the “country club attitude that has permeated city spending.”
But Meehan sought to reassure the council that the system had actually improved under his tenure. The unrestricted Gold Card passes had been cut off, and new Silver Card passes, which allow play only during off-peak hours and require the payment of a cart fee, have been phased in.
Meehan had also consolidated the issuance of passes, which had previously been available through the offices of the mayor, the city manager, and Parks and Recreation, into a single record sheet that was done out of his office.
“This past year, I changed the pass program,” Meehan, who was not present at Tuesday’s meeting due to a back injury, said two weeks ago. “I thought they needed to be focused in one office. The reason for that is that I had been to a couple events … and I realized they [promoters] had gone to all three offices and asked for golf passes and no one knew they had already been given.”
This week, City Manager David Recor presented a new policy that would codify the changes Meehan had already introduced. Most importantly, it would require all requests to be received in writing and for a formal response to be issued from the mayor’s office stating that the passes had been granted.
Councilwoman Margaret Pillas questioned if the mayor’s office was the best location.
“I’d be more comfortable of it coming out of the city manager’s office,” she said. “The city manager is responsible for the budget … he has to be accountable for the money spent or not spent.”
“I’d like to see it in the City Manager’s office. It should not be a political issue,” Councilman Brent Ashley agreed.
Council President Jim Hall, however, said that the mayor’s role as the city’s public face made that office the default for contact by charities and other public officials who would want to play golf.
“I spoke with Fish Powell [former Ocean City Mayor Roland E. “Fish” Powell] this morning,” Hall said, “and he said it was actually a unanimous approval of council way back when to send the passes over to the mayor’s office … because the initial contact usually comes through the mayor’s office, the thought being that he’s the ceremonial head, I think that’s what David and Rick were thinking.”
The number of passes issued but still unused had also been a point of contention.
“I would just say that those passes that were given out were given in good faith … if council members have them in their possession and want to turn them back in, that’s their prerogative,” Councilman Doug Cymek said.
Pillas was also concerned about the fact that golf course employees are offered free play. Although Parks and Recreation head Tom Shuster and Eagle’s Landing Golf Pro Bob Croll said this is a common perk to attract good employees and keep them knowledgeable of the course, Pillas worried that the perk would be seen as unfair.
“It does give a special perk to some and not others … the Public Works employees build parking lots, but they don’t get free parking,” she said.
“I’m not trying to be combative, I’m trying to be fair to all the employees,” she said, sensing some frustration.
Pillas also tied the golf pass issue to the larger, ongoing debate about the roots of employee desire for unionization.
“This is why the general employees are going out here for a union … every department has something that they do for whatever reason, and some get it and some don’t,” she said.
“Let’s just accept the policy [as is] because that’s what it’s been, but at budget time, to be fair to all employees, look into offering a reduced rate [on golf for everyone],” Hall suggested.
Councilman Joe Hall also asked Recor to ensure that the criteria for giving passes were not subjective.
“There should be some qualifying reasons if we’re picking and choosing,” Joe Hall said. “If they meet all that criteria, do they always get them? Nobody is denied if they meet the criteria?”
The new golf policy, with the suggested caveats, was approved unanimously.