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YEAR IN REVIEW: Past year sees upheaval at City Hall; council factions further divided

(Dec. 28, 2012) If there was one common refrain this year in City Hall – and on the election stump leading up to it – it likely had something to do with the fear that the resort’s elected leadership is beginning to mirror the same kind of fractionalization found at the national level.

This fear has proven to be not unfounded, as 2012 will likely be remembered as the year that solidified Ocean City’s own system of political polarization.

The city began the year in the midst of what is probably best described as a coup. The 2010 City Council elections saw newcomer Brent Ashley unseat then-Council President Joe Mitrecic, enabling the formation of what both proponents and detractors have often referred to as the “new majority.”

Along with council members Joe Hall, Margaret Pillas and Jim Hall, who was elected council president in Mitrecic’s stead, Ashley went on to create a four-member voting bloc that openly bucked the administrative norms. Beginning with a vote to eliminate the council’s subcommittees, the new majority developed a relationship of mutual antagonism with Dennis Dare, who at the time was employed as the town’s paid chief executive, in the position of city manager, and Mayor Rick Meehan.

Of particularly virulent contention during the first year of political insurrection were fiscal matters, with the new majority pledging to take a stance of financial conservatism against what they saw as excess municipal spending, largely the result of city government obliging itself to roles it ought not be taking on.

Detractors of those policies – namely Meehan and council members Lloyd Martin, Doug Cymek, and Mary Knight – maintained that the majority was simply creating policies that pandered to voters’ fiscal fears, without considering what the long-term ramifications would be. For much of 2012, City Hall remained locked in an irresolvable debate over what could or would happen to the city’s wallet, and it’s employees’ and citizens’ wallets.

The most sensational fall-out, however, happened before 2012, when in October 2011 the four majority members of council voted not to renew Dare’s employment, forcing him into retirement. Although the specific details of the dispute with Dare are bound by legal orders of silence, the core issue at hand was Dare’s alleged reluctance to comply with several cost-cutting measures, particularly those which he believed would unduly affect the base of employees which he had built up over his 22 years as the city’s top hired official.

As a result, 2012 began as a clear-cut fight between those who supported Dare and those who did not. With the 2012 municipal election in sight, Joe Hall became a particular object of scandal, particularly after it was leaked that he had made an unsolicited phone call to David Recor, the former city manager of Fort Pierce, Fla. who was eventually hired – in a four-to-three vote – as Dare’s successor.

The issue that brought political divisions to a boil, however, was one that council ironically had little control over, but which became a conveniently unaccountable basis for blame. In May, it was revealed that a group of city employees would be petitioning to have collective bargaining rights put on the ballot. While the city has previously given unionization rights to the police and fire departments, the city charter still prohibits collective bargaining on the behalf of the general employees.

What followed were repeated volleys of mud slinging, with those opposed to the council majority alleging that ill-advised scale backs of the pension structure for municipal workers had sown discontent. Joe Hall, in particular, was a target of criticism for comments he made about eliminating post-employment benefits, which were seen as being insensitive.

But the majority maintained that their changes were necessary for the city’s long-term health, and that Dare himself had poisoned the well against a positive reception of the compensation changes. Ultimately, only a handful of employees spoke publicly about their dissatisfaction, with varying degrees of blame being placed on the majority’s financial policy. Allegations – sans verifiable dollar amounts or large-scale employee input – were rampant.

In September, both Mitrecic and the now-unemployed Dare announced that they would be running for council, and made it clear that they viewed their main opponents as Jim and Joe Hall, whose terms were up along with those of Knight and Cymek. Meehan endorsed Knight, Cymek, Mitrecic and Dare as a bloc. The city’s chapters of the International Association of Fire Fighters, and the Fraternal Order of Police, did the same, citing their dissatisfaction with what they saw as wasteful divestments by the majority from the public safety employees’ pension funds.

The 2012 elections – moved to November to increase voter turnout – saw a massive showing in favor of the counter-majority bloc, all of whom received nearly twice the number of votes as did any other contenders. Hall and Hall were unseated and Martin was nominated as the new council president.

As of yet, however, none of the major policy changes of the past two years have been overturned, although some of the victorious members of council have hinted that they would like to revisit the subcommittee issue as well as pension finances.

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