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OC commissions to return amidst efficiency, transparency fears

(Feb. 1, 2013) The Ocean City Council’s current majority definitively ended the legislative interregnum of its predecessors Tuesday, by voting to reinstate the sub-committee system that had been eliminated by the then-insurgent council in 2010.

Unlike a previous restoration, however, no one was disinterred and beheaded. But things did get rather heated.

“The innuendo that [the commission system] was cronyism or secrecy … I take exception to that,” said Councilman Joe Mitrecic, who supported the return to the commission structure along with Dennis Dare, Lloyd Martin, Mary Knight, and Doug Cymek.

But despite the evident dominance of the present majority, the extant members of the 2010 coup continued to voice their objection.

“I think, every chance you got, you kept undermining the whole opportunity [to operate without commissions],” said Councilwoman Margaret Pillas.

The dissolution of the council’s standing committees was the first action taken by the four-member majority that came to be in 2010 after Mitrecic lost his re-election bid to Councilman Brent Ashley. Mitrecic’s ouster allowed Ashley – along with Joe Hall, Pillas, and Jim Hall – to create a four-member voting bloc that openly bucked the previous administrative norms. The oft-called “new majority” developed a relationship of mutual antagonism with Dennis Dare, then the city manager, and Mayor Rick Meehan.

In November 2010, the victors’ first act was to dissolve the council’s commission system, whereby separate sub-committees of three council members heard reports from city staff or interested parties and presented the information back to the full council for any decision necessary. All reports were subsequently presented in open session, before the entire body.

Despite the removal of the dominant faction in the 2012 polls – in which Hall and Hall lost to Dare, now running as an elected official and not a paid executive, and a returning Mitrecic – the remaining members still contend that the commission system reduces transparency by developing policy in ad-hoc legislative groups rather than before the empowered body.

But proponents of the system’s return argue that it makes for smoother legislative action, when groups of citizens and employees, who also sit on the sub-committees, are allowed free input into any suggestions that will be brought before the full council.

“I’ve worked under both [a commission and non-commission system], and what I can tell you is that I think the council is much more productive under the committee and commission system,” said Mayor Rick Meehan.

“They allow us to break into smaller groups and work on each other’s behalf … it’s about trust [amongst council members],” Meehan said. “If something was a good idea, the discussion would then turn to say, ‘How can you make it amenable to everybody.’”

Non-council city commissions, such as those dealing with building and zoning, have continued to exist. The council also provides liaisons to governing boards of organizations outside the city, as well as some internal city boards such as those for noise violations and beach franchises.

Whether the council had maintained its contact with such boards – under the control of any majority – seemed to be an inconclusive quagmire, as Ashley and Martin argued for some time over whether Martin had actually showed up to the Noise Board hearings when he was the council liaison and Ashley was the board’s chairman, before he was elected to council.

But what were at the core of the debate were the standing, three-member sub-commissions for tourism, parks and recreation, and police. Of these, only the police commission’s existence is defined by the city’s charter, since it has independent policy-making powers.

“The commissions were never dissolved, abolished, or done away with,” Pillas said. “It was a change made to bring the full council to the meeting, and bring the public to the meeting. The business of the town has always been done.”

However, council’s current majority contested that the previous dominant body had failed to raise the same issues before council that would be raised in committee, and instead used the committee-less system to domineer policy without other input.

“If it was your intent to invite the public to the meeting, it was also your responsibility to schedule meetings and set agendas and bring those things before the council and the public — but you didn’t,” Cymek countered.

Accusations of undue interference were frequently turned back at their accusers, however, as Pillas maintained that the committees and commissions had a history of unilateral decision-making.

“In an ideal world, it’s best to have them. But we’re not in an ideal world. We have a lot of micro-managing going on,” she said.

“In the eight years that I was here before, I do not remember a time where all the information did not come back to council for its entire vote,” Mitrecic maintained.

One of the major issues was the question of how transparent the commissions would be, if and when they were reinstated. State and federal open meetings laws would only apply to committees in which the municipal government held dominant, legislative power over budgetary matters.

For instance, said City Solicitor Guy Ayres, although no quorum of the Salisbury City Council sat on the board of the Salisbury Zoo, “the court held that because the city exercised so much control over their budget … that all meetings involving the zoo are subject to the open meetings acts.”

“The public is always welcome to these meetings,” Martin said. “The only time we closed commission meetings was when we discussed [police] deployment or personnel matters.”

Although the council moved to go ahead with the return of the sub-committee system, the details of the procedures involved will be further ironed out in upcoming strategic planning sessions.

“We can make standing committees of the council an effective way of doing business, but there has to be some structure to that,” said City Manager David Recor. “You need to establish rules of procedure … how the information flows back up to the committee of the whole.”

“We can make this work, there’s no need to disagree,” Recor said. “We can come back with a structure that will work and address everyone’s concerns. I can guarantee that.”

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