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Council sets priorities in last phases of strategic planning process

(Dec. 21, 2012) Although it has become a highly valued and respected project at City Hall, city government’s strategic planning process – a five, 10- and 15-year incremental vision for the city’s growth – may have appeared to outsiders during its fine-tuning this week as some sort of bizarre Powerball drawing.

The city’s top staffers – department heads, police captains, directors, and managers – sat at long tables that faced another semi-circle of tables. At these sat the city’s elected officials, their backs mostly to their audience.

At the center of the semi-circle sat planning consultant Lyle Sumek. At his bidding, each member of council took turns announcing a series of numbers.

“One, two, four, five, six, nine, eleven.”

“One, two, three, five, seven, nine, eleven.”

“I’m going to need a tie-breaker. Everyone give me one more,” was a frequent refrain of Sumek’s.

The staff noted each outcome in thick binders with color-coding that would make a box of Froot Loops look drab.

A good two and a half hours of such a process occurred Monday afternoon, as Sumek – contracted by City Manager David Recor to facilitate the strategic planning process – sought to gain a consensus from council as to which specific goals where its highest priority in fulfilling each of the city’s mission statements, which had been agreed upon earlier.

City staff generated the goals, although councilmembers were free to add their own as they saw fit. The city staff in attendance stayed largely quiet, only observing and chiming in when questions were raised about specific items.

For instance, why did two groups of city staff vote to remove “recognizing that the customer is number one” as a goal for the mission to ‘provide a personal and caring service to visitors?’

“At least in my department, what the customer wants is not always what is safe for the customer,” said City Clerk Kelly Allmond. “There are some things we just can’t do for them.”

Although no one from the Ocean City Police Department was present at the time, staffers recalled that the police were the other group that found the notion misguided.

“They’re not really in a ‘customer comes first’ situation” said newly appointed Planning and Community Development Director Matt Margotta.

“It was recognized that sometimes, you just have to say no,” Sumek said. “It doesn’t mean you don’t do it in a personal and caring manner, but sometimes it’s just ‘no.’”

“So should we put ‘saying no, but with an explanation,’ instead?” suggested Councilwoman Mary Knight.

“As employees, we all know exactly what we have to say no to,” Allmond said. “Maybe it’s just a matter of uniform response.”

Many of the goals, however, were both less esoteric and less immediate. Some ideas – an IMAX theater or an aquarium on the island, for instance – were innovative but admittedly far off.

Others were easier to implement, but more problematic. Multiple times – for both the missions of having the eastern seaboard’s best beach, and providing a safe and clean environment – Knight suggested that a beach smoking ban be added as a goal.

“Like, 100 percent banned?” asked Councilman Doug Cymek.

“It’s for 15 years from now, Doug. It’s a topic of discussion,” Knight said.

And in some instances, the discussion stalled on what goals were already achieved, prompting Sumek to ask rhetorical questions as if leading a college seminar gone stagnant.

“Your Boardwalk is what? Everyone has to give me a word,” he posed.

A long silence followed before Councilman Dennis Dare offered a response: “Honkey-Tonk?”

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