(Oct. 11, 2013) The Ocean City Council spent the better part of Monday’s session arguing, on rather predictable party lines, over the incident last month in which City Hall regular Ellie Diegelmann was expelled from a meeting.
Although the consensus seemed to be that Diegelmann was removed in error, the opportunity for a continued attack over the incident, and the compulsion by others to defend it, proved fodder enough for a lengthy debate.
In the end, one of the few definitive words of the night came from City Solicitor Guy Ayres who, when asked, said that he “hadn’t heard anything that, in my opinion, would justify her removal from the meeting.”
“You have to understand that the basic precept of democratic government is that the people have the right to submit grievances to the government, which can be expressed in a number of ways,” Ayres said. “Those who want to aggrieve their government should be offered a wide berth to express their feelings.”
Diegelmann, a frequent participant in the public commentary at council meetings, was asked to leave the Sept. 16 meeting by the attending police officer, after applauding in response to criticisms made by another citizen to the council.
Diegelmann clapped her hands for only a few seconds before ceasing. However, the Ocean City Police Department officer who was detailed to monitor the council meeting then approached Diegelmann’s seat.
According to Diegelmann, she was told by the officer that Council President Lloyd Martin had asked that she be removed. They then went into the hallway to discuss the matter.
She then came back into the council chambers to get her notes, which she had left on her chair. Diegelmann then began to waive her arms in the air, the intent of which was to get the council’s attention and possibly have them ask the officer to allow her to stay.
However, the officer allegedly then told Diegelmann she would be arrested if she made inappropriate gestures a third time.
As he did last week, Martin on Monday confirmed that he had motioned to the officer to approach Diegelmann after she started clapping, but that anything that happened past that was out of his control.
“I have no idea what took place between Ellie and the officer,” Martin said. “That somebody was put out [of the meeting] was not an act of this council. We don’t want that to happen. We want to run a meeting that is fair to all.”
But Diegelmann remained skeptical, as did Councilman Brent Ashley, a frequent political opponent of Martin’s who had attempted to intervene at the time on Diegelmann’s behalf.
“I would like to know why you had me removed from the meeting,” Diegelmann asked Martin. “Why would the officer make up a statement like that [if it were not the case]?”
“Maybe the police officer thought you were back there doing … whatever. I don’t know,” Martin replied.
Individual OCPD officers do not typically provide details to the press. However, the department’s public affairs office said in September that the same protocol “applies to any public building.”
“If a person is disrupting normal business operations and preventing productivity, then our officers can remove that person so that productivity can return to normalcy,” wrote OCPD Public Affairs Specialist Lindsay O’Neal. “It is a worst-case scenario that a person can be arrested and that would typically come after numerous warnings. If it did escalate to that point, that person would be charged with disorderly conduct.”
At the September meeting, Ashley had asked if Diegelmann could be issued a warning or something to that effect as he saw her leave the room.
“We’re not going to have it anymore,” Martin said at that time. “I’m tired of some of the arrogance, the clapping, the booing, the heckling. Get over it.”
But Ashley made it clear this week that he did not find that to be enough ground for expulsion either.
“Quite frankly, I was embarrassed and am still embarrassed at what happened,” he said. “I would hope the council could issue an apology for that.”
“By the time you wanted me to intervene, things were done,” Martin said. “I had no idea what was going on. Ellie’s questions are welcome, and will always be welcome.”
Councilwoman Margaret Pillas also recounted that she had confronted Martin immediately after the meeting, having been unaware at the time it occurred that Diegelmann was not leaving on her own volition.
“I came back very excited and upset, because I didn’t see it and didn’t believe it,” Pillas said.
She also claimed that, in the ensuing conversation, Martin tacitly acknowledged that he had known Diegelmann was being thrown out.
“You can say the police officer did this or that, but you admitted it,” Pillas said. “My words to you were, ‘Who the hell do you think you are?’ Your words were, ‘Because I have had it. I will not take any more of that … people being rude to us.’”
Martin denied that that was how the conversation went.
“I tried to talk to you and you wouldn’t have it. I was trying to say something to you and you were fired up,” he said.
However, as Martin came under scrutiny, a number of his colleagues came to his defense, citing what they view as the intentionally disruptive and unnecessarily confrontational behavior of a number of frequent council audience members.
“It seems like, to some people here, things have deteriorated somewhat,” said Councilman Dennis Dare. “The freedom of speech doesn’t necessarily give you the freedom to be insulting, disrespectful, accusatory, and arrogant.”
“It at least gives you the right to clap,” Ashley quipped.
“I don’t agree that they have the right to come up here and attack,” said Charlie Barrett, a local businessman who has been an electoral supporter of Martin and his political faction. “That happens week after week by the same people.”
Barrett also objected to the constant questioning, by Diegelmann and others, of the information presented by the city’s staff, who Barrett noted were highly qualified to provide the data.
“Week after week I see them attacked by people who I don’t know what their pedigree is,” Barrett said.
Council Secretary Mary Knight took a similar tone.
“When Mr. Barrett says accusatory … I sat up here and was told I was part of a herd, or that I needed to be ‘cattle-prodded.’ That’s not a debate, that’s name-calling,” Knight said. “I sat in a meeting, with my business degree and my masters, and was told that I didn’t know how to read a financial statement.”
But Ashley and Pillas continue to press that this was a matter of opinion.
“I don’t witness attacking going on. It’s an open forum,” Pillas said. “I’ve been told several times ‘I don’t like you’ or ‘I don’t think you do a good job.’ That’s not an attack, that’s someone’s opinion.”
While Pillas was speaking, Barrett repeatedly interrupted, yelling, “Of course you think that.” He was not asked to leave the session.
Ashley related the incident with Diegelmann to the recent incident in Baltimore County, where a man was expelled from a school board meeting for ranting against the Common Core curriculum change.
“One of the papers in Baltimore, that did not support him being removed, wrote ‘sometimes civility and efficiency get in the way of open, challenging, and edifying debate,’” Ashley said. “I think that applies to the Baltimore man and I think it applies to Ellie as well.”
But in Ocean City, it appeared that this newspaper’s report on Diegelmann’s allegations regarding her expulsion had rubbed some the wrong way.
“I find it interesting that there were two reporters in the room at the time [of Diegelmann’s expulsion],” said Councilman Doug Cymek. “One paper chose not to report on the incident … while the other chose to report things that were not factual.”
Cymek declined to provide further details as to what he found inaccurate in any previous reports on the matter.
Although he also rationalized the incident in light of the recent antics of some attendees, Mayor Rick Meehan was more conciliatory.
“Ellie, I’m sorry that it happened and that it got to that point, and I think we all take a little responsibility for that,” Meehan said. “It’s unfortunate that, as we talk back and forth this evening and we hear comments from the public, I think we all realize that something’s not working as it should. But I think the council president has made it clear that everyone has the right to be heard.”