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Take-home cars at turning point

(May 15, 2015) How far is too far?

City Hall is currently struggling with that question both figuratively and literally when it comes to tightening the city’s take-home vehicle policy. That is especially so when it comes to the Ocean City Police Department, whose unclear parameters for taxpayer-funded vehicles have reportedly been causing issues.

The core feature of the city’s vehicle policy is the requirement that employees live no further than 15 miles from the city limits in order to qualify for the use of a take-home vehicle. But the gulf between policy and reality is apparently quite large.

Despite interest in changing the requirement to a time-based radius –employees would have to live within a certain number of minutes of driving time from the city  – the city council voted six-to-one this week to uphold the current distance requirement and apply it to all take-home vehicles, including those assigned to law enforcement.

“I think we should stick with 15 miles,” Councilman Tony DeLuca said at the council’s Tuesday work session. “It means a distance that can’t change. If we tell someone ‘you can have the vehicle if you can make it [into town] in this time,’ that seems dangerous … this isn’t the Domino’s Delivery Guarantee.”

The policy decision was made in anticipation of further dialogue with the OCPD’s internal committee on take-home vehicles, formed as part of the last round of negotiations with the police union, the Fraternal Order of Police.

The new draft of the vehicle policy, as presented to the council, initially included language that assigned a time/distance policy with the “exception of certain police officers,” thus continuing the previous trend of allowing OCPD personnel to exceed the distance limit.

However, it was City Manager David Recor’s recommendation, and the council’s ultimate mandate, to eliminate the wording.

“I don’t think we should call out an exception for the police department in what is intended as a general policy,” Recor said. “You have another issue that is going to come before you specifically for the police department. If you review that matter, and want to hold the police department to the same standard you have established here, that is your prerogative.”

It was his desire, Recor said, for the council to create a consistent policy that did not put staff in the position of adjudicating constant exceptions from the rule, a problem that was not lost on officials.

“We have to draw a line in the sand somewhere,” said Council President Lloyd Martin. “We have to have a set of standards that we use as a barometer … it has to be written in stone, at least to start.”

According to Recor, the police working group had reached a compromise suggestion of a one-hour radius of response time for police take-home vehicles. Recor found this unacceptable and recommended to the council a 30-minute requirement, if it was the council’s desire to change from the previous 15-mile radius to a time-based rule.

“I believe a 30-minute response time is reasonable and expected of all employees,” Recor said.

However, FOP President Shawn Jones said that the union’s own recommendation to the department was to actually keep a mileage radius, but loosen it to 40 miles from the city.

“[The policy] has caused us problems,” Jones said. “You can’t get a 15-mile radius of places for officers to live around Ocean City, because it’s all water to the east. You simply run out of places to live.”

What was not immediately clear was how it came about that several of the OCPD’s 32 take-home vehicles are being used outside of the 15-mile limit. According to Jones, the FOP has always been under the impression that these exceptions are routine.

“For certain officers, based on their duties and responsibilities and assignments, there has always been an exception,” Jones said. “That 15-mile rule came into effect in 2009, it’s nothing new.”

However, the existing vehicle policy – established in the spring of 2009 – does not contain an explicit exception for police. According to records from City Hall, a number of non-police employees who previously had take-home cars, but lived outside the 15-mile limit, gave them up in 2009 as part of budget tightening. For whatever reason, this was not applied to police.

The council requested Tuesday that a grandfathering clause be included for police who are currently non-compliant, a somewhat confusing move given that the 15-mile distance is not actually going to change.

“We’ve had this policy for a long time,” said Councilman and former City Manager Dennis Dare. “If somebody got grandfathered in before [2009], then it’s history. If we’re not changing the policy, what’s the effect of grandfathering?”

Under the existing policy, take-home vehicles can be assigned to employees who are “routinely called out,” are “required to monitor a situation in town,” or who “perform a one-of-a-kind function or have specialized equipment in their vehicles.”

In addition to the 32 police vehicles, the remaining city agencies have 25 take-home automobiles. Of these, Recor said, seven are assigned full-time to department heads or managers, and another three to fire command staff. The remaining 15 are assigned to employees on a temporary or seasonal basis for specific job duties, such as work trucks that electricians or sewer repairmen take home on nights they are on-call, or the SUVs that are issued for the summer to Beach Patrol commanders.

Both Recor and Jones said that the most contentious issue over the past several years has been with police who are applying to be K-9 officers. The position mandates that one have a take-home vehicle, since the dog lives in the officer’s home, and must be transported in a specially equipped vehicle.

“What happens if we have a candidate for a K-9 position who lives 17 miles away and is highly qualified, and another who lives 14 miles away but is less qualified? Would we have to accept the less-qualified candidate?” Jones asked.

This has come up before and Recor’s attempt to enforce the 15-mile policy resulted in the FOP filing a grievance, Jones said.

According to several sources in City Hall, the controversy will also be coming up again, as an officer with a take-home vehicle has recently purchased a home outside of the 15-mile radius.

“I’m aware of a circumstance in the organization where that mileage has been a determining factor in whether an employee can apply for an advancement,” Recor said.

Critically, the city has struggled to make a distinction between jobs that require taking a vehicle home, such as K-9 officers or undercover officers, and those for which a vehicle is offered as a convenience.

“I think we need to clarify that we’re talking about a vehicle policy,” DeLuca said. “We’re not talking about a promotion and we’re not talking about a person’s livelihood. We’re talking about whether or not you get a vehicle.”

Jones also noted that, in many cases, the rationale for having take-home vehicles was not simply response time.

“Watching the council’s floor debate, I heard them talk a lot about response times,” Jones said. “With the police department, we’ve always got people working to respond to incidents. That’s less of the goal [of take-home vehicle]. With the police, it’s more about security of equipment and operational efficiency.”

For instance, he said, detectives frequently drive directly from their homes to various locations to interview victims and suspects. Undercover drug enforcement officers must take the vehicle they use during operations home with them, lest they been seen parking it at the police station and revealed as a cop.

The question for these vehicles, then, would be less of what distance is acceptable for fast response, and more a question of what distance is acceptable in terms of cost to the taxpayer.

The council agreed that a mileage-based limit, rather than a time limit, created less of a gray area when it came to justifying the take-home vehicle fleet.

“Are we talking about a 30-minute response time in the summer, or in the winter when there’s no traffic? Does that even matter?” asked Councilman Matt James. “At what point do we draw the line? Mileage stays the same year-round and is a hard number. Time isn’t.”

The revised vehicle policy, although not changing the distance eligibility requirement, adds a number of provisions, such as a ban on using cell phones, transporting alcohol, or making personal stops that are outside of the employee’s direct route from home to their work.

Only Councilman Doug Cymek voted against the measure, favoring greater “grandfathering” protection for current police.

“Everyone who currently has a vehicle would be protected,” Cymek proposed.

Recor clarified that, while it was not his intent to strip vehicles from current personnel, it was important that the council not allow the situation of police non-compliance to worsen.

“If officer ‘A’ buys a new house and it’s 16 miles away, he will no longer be eligible for a vehicle,” Recor said. “Nor should we allow anyone to extend their distance should they already exceed it.”

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