(Aug. 30, 2013) If there was ever an argument in favor of the philosophy that “the ends justify the means,” this week’s City Council episode wasn’t it.
Despite deciding to eliminate the resort’s new paid parking areas, the fight over meters played out at City Hall Tuesday in a way that seemed to satisfy neither the plans of the meters’ opponents, nor the council majority that voted to install them.
Shortly after the city’s Board of Elections Supervisors announced that the petition against the parking ordinance was successful, the council voted to proceed with an ordinance to repeal the paid parking measure before it could be taken to referendum.
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.
Further, if the ordinance was put on ice until a referendum next fall, the city would have been barred in the interim from passing any legislation toward additional paid parking. But with the ordinance now scheduled to be nullified, other parking additions could be introduced.
“I think it speaks against the public and it does try to give them an opportunity to do it again,” Pillas said.
However, the council’s five-member majority, as well as the mayor, took the opposite stance.
“I believe we’ve done what the voters have asked for,” said Mayor Rick Meehan. “Can I see future discussion about [metering] the city-owned lots? I can see that. But I don’t see any more discussion about meters on the streets. As long as I’m mayor, I wouldn’t support that.”
But adding even sharper political overtones to the debate was the pressure the council received from residents of the Ocean Place condominium, many of whom were instrumental in organizing the petition. One of the streets that would have been metered, 146th Street, is adjacent to the condominium, which owners say would’ve unfairly hampered their ability to use and market their units.
Per the 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 would also go into the municipal lots at City Hall and the 65th Street Public Safety Building.
During the public comments portion at the beginning of Tuesday’s meeting, Ocean Place unit owner Michael Feen asked council members if they were considering a repeal of the ordinance in response to the petition. The council, however, repeatedly declined to answer.
“Let’s wait until we actually get the results,” said Mayor Rick Meehan.
“I think we have the right to know what you’re planning and to have input on it when you do it,” said Feen, who also objected to the council policy that prohibits citizens from speaking on specific agenda items and limits their comments to the beginning of the meeting.
“I think you really ought to work this out with the public, when they get to speak, how long, things like that,” Ocean Place owner Mac Balkcom protested.
“The council hasn’t heard the result yet,” said Council President Lloyd Martin. “We don’t know anything more than you do.”
But when the time came, election board chair Mary Adeline Bradford submitted a letter to council reporting that the petition was indeed successful. The board found 1,648 valid signatures, far more than the 1,226 needed to meet the threshold. According to the city charter, petitions must garner 40 percent of the number of voters who participated in the last municipal election in order to force legislation to referendum.
Immediately thereafter, Councilman Joe Mitrecic read a prepared statement requesting the repeal of the ordinance. He also moved that the city cease to collect the parking fees in question immediately, ahead of the finalization of the repeal ordinance.
“So the answer is yes, they did think about it,” Pillas said to the audience.
With the policy recanted, a referendum would not be held, and the issue dropped.
“If the council passes an ordinance repealing it, there’s nothing to hold a referendum about,” said City Solicitor Guy Ayres.
In his defense, Mitrecic said he would’ve made the same statement even if Bradford had announced that the petition was found invalid.
“My comments were going to be read today regardless, because I think this has become a divisive enough issue in this town that it needs to be settled,” Mitrecic said.
“Whether you believe the signatures were obtained by twisting the truth or not, 1,648 voters signed this,” Mitrecic said. “The last council did not listen and we do not want to be compared to them.”
At least within council chambers, the debate over parking meters has been in part a proxy battle between two factions in city government. The mayor and council majority maintained that petitioners were spreading hyperbolic information about future paid parking in an attempt to grind down the current voting bloc, which was elected to office this past November.
“If you’re looking to start a war … that’s a different matter than if this battle is about one specific thing [parking],” Meehan said.
The streets 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 use 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.
Pillas maintained that her colleagues were simply trying to save face with the repeal measure, and questioned why Meehan had declined to veto the ordinance earlier when it was already clear that public sentiment was against paid parking, but the petition had not yet been circulated.
Meehan said he had proposed a compromise with only limited meter additions, but it had received no response from either side. Because of this, he had neither vetoed nor signed the ordinance, meaning it defaulted to law after two weeks.
“I think it was better that it went that way,” Meehan said. “If you [Pillas] want to continue this battle, then so be it.”
At least one aspect of the battle did carry over to another part of the council session. When the Ocean City Development Corporation was allowed to speak regarding the city’s capital improvement plan and proposed new beach patrol headquarters, Ashley said the council was creating a double standard.
“I’m not saying I don’t want to hear from OCDC,” Ashley said. “I’m just pointing out that you’re allowing them to speak unscheduled, but not the folks from 146th Street.”
“But these [OCDC board members] are our partners,” objected Councilman Dennis Dare.
“The taxpayers [on 146th Street] aren’t our partners?” Ashley replied.
There had also been a number of conspiracy theories, offered by the petition’s supporters, as to why the ratification process took as long as it did. Bradford, however, stressed that this was completely unfounded.
“We are an independent board and feel very strongly about that,” she said. “To question that any member [of the Board of Elections Supervisors] would either slow down or speed up a petition for personal or political gain is absolutely unconscionable.”
The board met last Wednesday and Thursday to go through the signatures, the earliest possible time that all of its members were available simultaneously.
“The real frustration everyone has is that petitions are unscheduled events,” Bradford said. “If we keep that in perspective, we have to realize that this is summertime in Ocean City and we are all citizens who have to make a living.”