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Council goes ahead with emergency repeal of new paid parking

(Sept. 6, 2013) Despite continued criticism, the Ocean City Mayor and City Council used the emergency ordinance clause of the city’s charter Tuesday night to push through the repeal of the resort’s paid parking additions.

Just what the emergency aspect was remains unclear, although the inference from the opposition is that the council just wants a politically inconvenient situation to go away as soon as possible.

“If you repeal the ordinance, the citizens can’t weigh in on the issue,” said former City Councilman Vince Gisriel, who was one of the organizers of a petition that would have successfully brought the paid parking additions to referendum had the council not headed off the ballot question this week by repealing the original ordinance.

“I think the time to repeal it was back before the turn-in [of the petition] and probably before the process of approving the language with Guy [Ayres, City Solicitor] and getting a campaign together to take it to the streets,” Gisriel said.

But the council’s majority, along with Mayor Rick Meehan, defended the quick passage of an ordinance repealing the prior ordinance that added paid parking. An ordinance may be passed as an emergency measure if it has the mayor’s immediate consent, bypassing the customary two readings and two affirmative votes of council.

“The goal of the council is to put this to rest and move forward…and to send a clear message,” said Meehan, reiterating his pledge from last week to oppose any further charges for street parking in the resort.

Paradoxically, the two members of council who had not supported the additions – Brent Ashley and Margaret Pillas – voted against the repeal, saying they would rather see the issue go before the voters, as intended.

“It wasn’t the point that [those who signed the petition] were for or against it,” Pillas said. “They were for taking it to the ballot box. After thinking about it, maybe they did want paid parking on their streets. But they would’ve had a chance to decide for themselves.”

Last week, the city’s Board of Election Supervisors verified the results of the petition, showing that 1,648 people had signed the petition, far more than the 1,226 needed to meet the threshold. Petitions must garner 40 percent of the number of voters who participated in the last municipal election to force legislation to referendum.

Immediately after the petition was declared a success, the mayor and council introduced a repeal ordinance.

Per the original ordinance, the city added Cale-brand electronic meters to the ocean block of 146th and 49th streets, the stretch of 131st Street between Coastal Highway and Sinepuxent Avenue, and the west side of Philadelphia Avenue below the Route 50 Bridge. Meters also went into the municipal lots at City Hall and the 65th Street Public Safety Building.

Those meters have now been covered with plastic sheets and will soon be removed. The meters could be sold, although they will likely be kept as spares for existing metered parking areas.

Gisriel gave a number of explanations, which he said were strong public suspicions, as to why the council was acting as it was.

“Some say [the repeal] is so that you can meter the city lots later on. Some say it’s to avoid a hot-button issue in the election of 2014. If that’s the case, be candid and say that to the public,” Gisriel said.

“The reason I voted to repeal was that I want to have the option to have it on our publicly-owned lots later on,” Council Secretary Mary Knight said. “You asked us to be honest, so that’s honestly what I’m thinking.”

However, Knight said that, like Meehan, she would no longer support any additional paid street parking.

“There’s been question as to why the council decided to do [the repeal],” Councilman Joe Mitrecic said. “We saw the [petition] process went to the end, and that the people of the town did not want paid parking on their streets…and we wanted to listen to the people.”

“There wasn’t a huge conspiracy or anything else that went along with it,” Mitrecic said.

The street selected for metering were initially identified by the city as “low-hanging fruit” where paid parking could be implemented with the least impact on the neighborhood’s street usage due to what is believed to be a heavy rotation of non-overnight or commercial visitors.

But residents and business owners have objected to the town’s attempt to reap more revenue from day-vacationers, as has been the rationale. They also contested that the limited selection of streets was arbitrary and had more to do with politics and appearance than with an actual need for revenue.

“We’re trying to lower the burden on the taxpayer,” Meehan said. “Cutting expenses is the most favorable way to do that, but adding revenue is good as well. But this wasn’t a good idea, and it didn’t work out, and we’re listening to what the public wants.”

The meters in question were estimated to bring in an additional $115,000 in revenue for the city. The meters were in effect during July and August before the petition process was complete, so the majority of that revenue has already been collected and the repeal will likely have little effect on the city’s coffers.

But Gisriel said that he and the petition’s backers, which included residents and business owners on whose streets the meters went, were opposed to the repeal in principle.

“What you’re essentially doing is repealing the right of referendum,” Gisriel said. “You’ve said you’re not going to do any more paid parking, but that’s not binding. What is binding is a referendum vote, either for or against.”

Gisriel noted that, theoretically, the ordinance repealing the original parking ordinance could itself be petitioned, creating a referendum on a referendum.

“Is that going to happen? I don’t think so,” Gisriel said. “I don’t want to see that go on and on. It reminds me of the movie ‘Groundhog Day.’”

However, Gisriel said, the city was not above a court challenge being made as to its determination of an emergency ordinance.

“I don’t think this ordinance, by any means, meets what I would call test of an emergency ordinance,” Gisriel said. “I think it would probably have some standing in court.”

“Our charter doesn’t provide a test as to what is an emergency and what isn’t,” City Solicitor Guy Ayres said. “If it’s the vote of the council and the mayor to put this into effect without further advertisement [then they may do so].”

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