(Dec. 28, 2012) Turnover at the top was a recurring matter of concern for the Ocean City government this year, as four of its department head-level positions, as well as the top spot of city manager, saw the departure and or arrival of a new public official.
Three vacancies were filled with an out-of-town hire, one with an internal candidate, and the other – yet to be filled – will likely be a toss-up between what officials have said is a considerable response from external candidates and the presence of strong internal ones as well.
City Manager: City Hall began the year in the midst of upheaval, as government’s city manager of 22 years, Dennis Dare, was ousted in October of 2011 by a 4-to-3 vote of the City Council not to renew his contract. With the position of the city’s chief executive vacant, Mayor Rick Meehan assumed the responsibilities of the post until a replacement could be hired.
Corporate recruiter Springsted Inc. was hired to conduct a national search on the city’s behalf for a new city manager but even with that seeming resolution, the political fallout from Dare’s firing lingered. The four-person council majority that had voted to let Dare go also pioneered a number of fiscal and service changes that Dare had allegedly opposed.
In April, it was revealed that the search for a new city manager had come down to two candidates. But shortly thereafter, allegations surfaced that majority-member councilman Joe Hall had placed a phone call to the leading candidate, against the advice of the city’s Human Resources department and the process ground-rules suggested by Springsted. Hall’s political opponents then called for the hiring process to be scrapped, saying that his actions had biased the pool and possibly given one candidate an advantage.
The candidate who received the call was revealed to be David Recor, who was at the time the city manager of Fort Pierce, Fla. and was engaged in a battle with elected officials there over certain fiscal and personnel policies. These were similar to the issues Dare had allegedly had with the then council majority in Ocean City. Meanwhile, Hall maintained that his conversation with Recor centered on the idea that the city manager executes policy, but does not set it, and is not a political figure.
Recor was hired in May on a predictably divisive 4-to-3 vote, although the faction of council that objected to his hiring later stated that they did so not because of any failing of Recor’s personal qualifications, but out of objection to a process that they felt Hall had denigrated.
However, since then – according to a number of City Hall employees – Recor has become a somewhat unifying figure for staff worried about how the city’s questionable political and economic climate will affect them. This fall, Recor embarked upon what he had identified, even prior to his arrival, as his signature initiative – strategic planning.
Extensive sessions with staff and elected officials are aimed at developing a consensus on goals and action items for the coming five, 10 and 15 years. Such a program, Recor has said, will serve to keep the city on track with a mission it has already committed to, thereby creating an apolitical agenda for the town.
Chief of Police: In October, the City of Sarasota, Fla. announced that it had selected current Ocean City Police Department Chief Bernadette DiPino as the successor to retiring SPD head Mikel Holloway. DiPino will assume the post effective Jan. 1, 2013.
A fourth-generation law enforcement officer, DiPino began her career with the Baltimore County Police Department in 1985. She moved to the OCPD in 1988,and advanced through the ranks to private first class in 1993, sergeant in 1995, lieutenant in 1998, and then to major and shortly thereafter chief of police in 2003.
However, DiPino was already committed to retire in the fall of 2013 under the OCPD’s Deferred Retirement Option Program (DROP), which serves as a cost-saving incentive to turn over senior officers.
Although the SPD has a larger full- time force and operating budget than its Ocean City counterpart, the fact that the OCPD more than doubles in size during the summer makes the scale of operations similar. The SPD, according to the Sarasota Herald-Tribune, has about 175 officers and a budget of $27 million.
The OCPD has 105 full-time officers, but hires 110 seasonal officers each summer, and has a budget of around $19.5 million. DiPino’s salary with the OCPD is $144,676.89, versus Holloway’s current salary of $132,000.
Earlier this month, the City Council voted to approve City Manager David Recor’s suggestion that the OCPD’s three division captains rotate the duties of interim chief on a 45-day basis until a replacement is found. The most senior captain, Kevin Kirstein, will take the post for the first 45 days, followed by Captains Michael Colbert and Greg Guiton.
Tourism Director: Following the departure of former city tourism head Deb Turk in February 2012, former Communications Manager Donna Abbot was named interim tourism director and, in May of this year, appointed to the position permanently.
An employee of the town since 1997, Abbot was heavily involved as communications manager with the city’s public relations as they pertained to its myriad of marketing and tourism promotion campaigns. City officials said it was a natural step to have Abbott fill in for Turk since she was already intimately familiar with the work.
The subsequent vacancy of communications manager was filled by Jessica Waters, who had been employed by the city as the OCPD’s civilian public affairs officer.
Convention Center Director: Larry Noccolino was hired in April to take the reins at the city’s Roland E. Powell Convention Center, after former convention center Director Rick Hamilton left to assume the same post in Tampa, Fla.
Noccolino’s turn in Ocean City has been somewhat of a departure for him in terms of corporate management. His previous charge, the Valley Forge Convention Center, was run as a private, for-profit enterprise, while the Ocean City center is a shared venture between the town’s municipal government and the Maryland Stadium Authority. It also consistently had a bottom line in the red. But the center is highly valued in its ability to bring visitors to the resort, as evidenced by the recent ballroom expansion and the $14 million theater construction that is currently being planned.
Planning Director: Matthew Margotta was named last month as Ocean City’s new director of Planning and Community Development, replacing Jesse Houston, who retired in September.
Margotta was hired away from the same municipality, Fort Pierce, Fla., that current City Manager David Recor came from in May.