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Parking petition checked

(Aug. 23, 2013) Despite seemingly widespread conspiracy theories about the delay of the process, the city’s Board of Election Supervisors met Wednesday to verify the petition against paid parking in what will likely be a referendum question on the 2014 ballot.

City Clerk Kelly Allmond confirmed that the petition will be presented to the City Council at the upcoming Tuesday session for ratification.

Given the preliminary signature count of 1,770, it is highly unlikely that the board would have disqualified – due to inaccuracies or inconsistency with the active voter roll – enough signatures to bring the petition below the 1,226 needed to force a referendum.

Per the city’s charter, 40 percent of the number of voters who participated in the last municipal election must sign a petition in order to bring a city ordinance – in this case, the one passed earlier this year to add additional parking meters to selected lots and streets around the resort – to a popular vote

At this week’s council session, however, petition organizers and supporters voiced heavy skepticism that the city was making its best effort to expedite the process.

“We counted them over and over and it didn’t take four weeks,” said Mac Balkcom, a resident of the Ocean Place condominium on 146th Street who would be affected by the new paid parking. Balkcom was one of the leaders of the petition drive.

“I think the people in Ocean City know what’s going on here. It’s the council dragging their feet,” Balkcom said.

However, the council’s five-member majority, who approved the paid marking measure, defended their separation from the process.

“We have nothing to do with it until it’s certified and brought to us by the clerk,” Councilman Joe Mitrecic said. “For you to insinuate that we’ve been dragging our feet is wrong.”

“The mayor and council stay out of this for the exact reasons you’re alluding to,” Mayor Rick Meehan told Balkcom.

As Balkcom noted, however, the city charter does not specifically mandate that the Board of Election Supervisors be the ones who review the petition, only that the petition be “approved.” Further, the charter states that the ordinance in question be stayed “upon the receipt of such a petition,” leaving some question as to when the city must stop collecting parking fees and if, when the petition is verified, whether the suspension of new parking charges would be retroactive to the date of the petition’s submission in July.

City Solicitor Guy Ayres said the city was perfectly secure in proceeding as it has, at least legally.

“The Board of Election Supervisors is the board that does [the verification],” Ayres said. “I can’t explain why it takes the board so long to meet to accomplish that task, but there’s no time period in the charter requiring it to be done in a certain time or in a certain way.”

The two members of the council who voted against the original ordinance – Brent Ashley and Margaret Pillas – said they sympathized with Balkcom and other petitioners.

“I think they have a legitimate gripe,” Pillas said. “I don’t know why the board is not meeting.”

As a gesture of good will, Ashley motioned that the city go ahead and cease to collect parking fees this week, ahead of the presentation next week of the election board’s final word. Such a gesture, he said, would show that city officials were less concerned with eking out a last few days of parking revenue by delaying the verification.

The motion was defeated, with only Pillas and Ashley in favor.

“I’ve learned a lot about parking and we’ll talk about that after the petition is validated,” Meehan said. “I’m sure it will be, but it has to be done properly.”

The ordinance authorized the city to add 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.

Metering of the latter two lots has caused little disturbance, but there has been considerable public outcry about the metering of street parking, especially from adjacent property owners who claim the move will be counter-productive.

The selected streets 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 city’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.

The meters are projected to bring in $115,540 this fiscal year, although the majority of that money has already been collected over the past seven weeks of prime season that the meters have been in effect, and the petition will likely have next to no budgetary impact.

Ron Deacon, head of the Ocean Place Condominium Association, continued to press the city that any addition of paid parking should be done more equitably rather than on a few isolated streets.

“I understand that you may need parking for revenue,” Deacon said. “It can be done, but you have to think it through.”

According to a tabulation done by the Ocean Place condo board, several other streets in North Ocean City – such as 142nd – have a considerably lower ratio of residential units to street parking spaces than 146th Street.

“If you’re going to do paid parking at all on the streets, do it on the streets where the residents who pay taxes won’t have to pay extra taxes through parking,” Deacon said.

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