ZACK HOOPES ¦ Staff Writer
(Oct. 19, 2012) Although the turnout was remarkably strong – nearly 200 people packed the upper-floor meeting room at the 137th Street Elks Lodge – Tuesday night’s municipal candidate debate seemed to do less to differentiate the contenders in the minds of audience members than it did to allow them to hear what is already being said.
At one juncture, a question about citizen input in government devolved into listing capital improvements, with each candidate trying to outdo the other in volume of knowledge about public service facilities.
“No parking garage!” yelled incumbent candidate Joe Hall as he ran out of time. It was unclear if Hall was arguing against the construction of such a downtown facility, which has been debated for some years, or if he was bemoaning the fact that it has not yet been built.
His colleagues fared little better, however, especially since the size of the candidate field – Tuesday evening sported a field of 11 — limited the extent of any actual back-and-forth between the participants.
Mayor Rick Meehan was joined by mayoral challenger Nick Campagnoli, as well as all four incumbent council members – Joe Hall, Mary Knight, Doug Cymek and Council President Jim Hall. Also in attendance were council challengers Dennis Dare, Sean Rox, Bob Baker, John “Frank” Adkins and Joe Mitrecic.
The debate was sponsored by Chapter 1917 of the American Association of Retired Persons, and, although all town voters were invited to atten, the audience definitely reflected the organization’s base, with the average age being well over 65. As was pointed out by more than one candidate, 90 percent o the city’s voting population lives north of 94th Street, making the location apt as well.
Moderator Greg Bassett of the Daily Times gave each candidate one minute to make opening remarks. Answers to specific questions, provided both by Bassett and via handwritten cards from the audience, were allotted two minutes. Closing remarks were given two minutes as well.
When each candidate had 30 seconds left to speak, Bassett’s assistant – seated to the candidates’ extreme right – held up a yellow card. When time was up, she displayed a red card. While effective in keeping order, most of the participants were rapidly glancing back and forth between the audience and the timekeeper.
The first question – on how redevelopment of the city’s vacant spaces would be best approached – resulted in some concrete ideas. Dare and Mitrecic both endorsed the idea of extending the geographic authority of the Ocean City Development Corporation, the group that serves as the town-sponsored seed company for economic revitalization.
“I feel as if they also have the talent to look at the balance of town,” Dare said. “I would give OCDC a new challenge.”
But Bassett’s second question introduced the city’s current electoral Death Star, unionization, the risks of which Bassett himself seemed keenly aware.
“I don’t want you to say whether you’re for or against unionization,” Bassett cautioned. “I’d like you to give one positive, and one negative, about collective bargaining.”
However, with the exception of Adkins, the only openly pro-union candidate, each participant took the opportunity to explain that the negative of a union would be having a union, and that the positive has been that the collective bargaining push showed that their opponents caused it.
Because responses were given in seating order, with the starting end alternating between questions, Knight spoke after Joe Hall on half of the topics. For the other half, Mitrecic followed.
“I don’t remember … that that’s quite how it happened,” he said after another of Joe Hall’s answers.
The argument of the past also meant that, when confronted with questions about the city’s future, candidates were often left referencing nonspecific accomplishments that may or may not have happened in an undefined period of time.
“A lot of us are saying the same things, so I guess that’s good,” observed Baker during a question on what the city’s biggest challenges would be in the next two to three years.
“I don’t want to be redundant,” prefaced Cymek, who, due to the ordering system, was next-to-last on that question.
The audience remained quite sedate throughout, with the only palpable reactions from those in attendance coming from remarks by Rox, whose radical ideas for eco-friendly development elicited a few quizzical rumblings from the gallery.
Also contributing to Rox’s performance was the fact that his microphone seemed to be the only one that maintained a consistent volume, resulting in his comments often being frighteningly loud, while other candidates were forced to put down their microphones and yell.
“The microphones worked great in rehearsal, I swear,” said Bassett during one particularly awkward pause.