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Petition against paid parking approved as meters installed

(June 28, 2013) The city’s much-maligned new parking meters were finally installed this week, but with a petition already circulating to pull them back out, the controversy over paid parking in Ocean City is already shaping up to be as factionalized as the debate over whose fault Dunkirk was.

Late last week, City Solicitor Guy Ayres approved the language of a petition that, if successful, would stay the city ordinance to expand paid parking and put the decision to the voters.

Although the initiative was announced last week by a group calling itself OC Taxpayers for Social Justice, headed by local landlord and frequent council critic Tony Christ, the filing of the petition itself was done by former City Councilman and widely-acknowledged master of referendums Vince Gisriel.

“I have a few [petitions] under my belt, you could say,” Gisriel said this week. “I’ve been down this road a few times.”

Despite the clear political implications of a petition against what is widely seen as the current council majority’s most vulnerable policy move, Gisriel said this week that his involvement is a matter of necessity.

“Are there people involved in it for political reasons? Perhaps. But I’m here because people seem to want this,” Gisriel said. “In the past, when I was involved, it was a small nucleus of concerned citizens but this has broad-based support.”

Mayor Rick Meehan said this week that he was still “disappointed that there’s a referendum on the issue.”

“I think there was a commitment by the council that they’re not going to go with any further meters without some kind of a study or public input,” Meehan said. “It leads me to believe that those interested in pursuing the petition are politically motivated…with the intent of causing disruption for the new council.”

The city has added or will soon 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 discourage visitors and make it more difficult for property owners to fully utilize their units.

City Council’s proponents of the additions, however, submit that hourly parking will encourage turnover and provide more readily available spaces, while at the same time collecting revenue from “day-trippers.”

As a result of the controversy, Meehan proposed a compromise that would see only portions of the streets in question receive metered parking, and the city’s revenue boost reduced from around $150,000 to $125,000. The council majority rejected the idea and went ahead with the full implementation.

Last week, Meehan allowed the deadline for his approval or veto of the ordinance to go by without his signature one way or the other, an act which he said was a protest to the unwillingness of either side of the issue to reach compromise, although the ordinance defaulted to enactment after 15 days without mayoral approval.

However, Meehan said he feared that the petition to overturn the ordinance was being used as a political vendetta.

“Don’t think that I’m all for everything in the ordinance, because I’m not,” Meehan said. “But I’m also practical, and I realize what the political intent [of the opposition] is.”

Frequent council dissident and mayoral critic Brent Ashley maintained last week he was working with the petition drive only from a distance.

“This is a grassroots effort, and you have to pay more than lip service to it,” Ashley said.

Gisriel maintained this week that his involvement does not fall on a political fault line between Meehan, Ashley, or any other officials.

“I don’t’ see it that way. If the Mayor or anyone else truly believe that, they’re off-base,” he said. “I wasn’t approached by anybody associated with a political camp until later on [in my involvement]. This is an issue that’s much broader and has much more significant implications than the Mayor and the elected body have given it.”

The petition has 40 days from its approval to gather the needed signatures, which by Gisriel’s calculation is July 31. The petition must gain signatures equivalent to 40 percent of those who voted in the last election, which saw a total turnout of 3,064, requiring 1,226 signatures for the petition.

“Before the law was changed, we used to have to get 20 percent of all the voters on the rolls,” Gisriel noted. “We were being charged against deceased people and people who had moved way but were still on the rolls and hadn’t voted in years. Now you have a fixed number to work with.”

“I really think [this petition] is doable,” Gisriel added. “It’s a hot-button issue. People are out there, they’re getting signatures, and it’s widespread support.”

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