Relations Not Healed In One Meeting

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The Mayor and Council assured the leadership of the Ocean City Volunteer Fire Company (OCVFC) last week it will continue to be the authority over fire service in the resort, despite a conceptual plan that indicates the opposite could be true in the near future.

The issue here is complex, but OCVFC officials and the Mayor and Council hashed out some uncertainties at a public meeting at City Hall last week. The OCVFC will continue to be the lead agency over fire service in the town for now, but it could eventually relent some of its role to a broader emergency services contingency, a result of the blending of the resources of the OCVFC with the Emergency Services Department to improve fire services in the town. That’s down the road, but what really rankled OCVFC officials was a brainstorming plan drafted by City Manager Dennis Dare. It calls for much control over the fire company to be given to the Emergency Services Department; assigning “first do” to all West Ocean City fire calls to the OCVFC; creating a new Fire and Rescue Services division within Emergency Services; the town buying land, buildings and equipment from the OCVFC needed for a career company and the OCVFC using the proceeds to build a fire station on Keyser Point Road; transferring responsibility of fire service and ownership of all vehicles and equipment to the town; and more.

It was said last week the city manager is charged with coming up with these types of ideas and plans. Whether they are accepted or denied, it’s part of the city manager’s job of reporting to the Mayor and Council. That’s true. It’s important to remember how Ocean City’s government is set up. In terms of how government is run, it’s essentially a corporation. The Mayor and Council are the Board of Directors and the chief executive officer is Dare, who works at the pleasure of the council, which determines his employment.

On paper, that’s how the government was organized to work when city leaders transformed the government to a council-manager form because it saw the problems with a strong mayoral type of government under then-Mayor Harry Kelley. The reality is Dare, who has been in his position since 1990, runs the town’s daily business and makes many decisions along with the department heads.

For example, in recent years, Dare’s budget proposal has for the most part been accepted as is with minor alterations. The city manager’s budget proposal is supposed to be chopped up and refined through numerous budget meetings similar to the way the Board of Education’s budget is dissected by the commissioners on the county level. In recent history, Dare’s budget has sailed through with the council on occasion cutting some expenditures to lower the tax rate, but what’s been approved is generally what the city manager and department heads want.

While the City Council has the ultimate say in how the town is operated, many decisions or plans, in this case, do not come across the council members’ desk. In most cases, it’s due to efficiency reasons and that’s understandable. However, this situation with the fire company demonstrates what happens when business is not conducted in the open the way it should, and the result is strained relations and a fire company that has lost faith and trust in government officials. That may not be said publicly, but it’s true.

Mayor Rick Meehan last week called the controversial conceptual plan “radical,” reporting it was quickly dismissed by officials as unrealistic and impractical. Nonetheless, it’s understandable for a little paranoia to surface as a result because this was discussed privately and secretly among certain elected officials and the city manager and without the knowledge of fire company officials and the entire City Council.

There may be merit to some of the suggestions outlined in the document dated Dec. 19, 2006 that suggests a number of drastic changes within the fire company and emergency services. However, none of them should be explored without the fire company, all elected officials and the public being privy to them. To do otherwise is to give an impression of deceit. 

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