Thoughts From The Publisher’s Desk

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It must be campaign season if local media outlets are receiving unsigned, poison pen emails and letters about candidates running for office. While we carry a general disdain for these types of unsubstantiated communications, there was one presented this week that an investigation determined to at least have some merit.

Two knowledgeable sources, speaking on the condition of anonymity, confirmed Ocean City Police Chief Bernadette DiPino, through her attorney, decided not to follow through with her intent to file a sexual discrimination lawsuit against the town. In exchange, the town reportedly paid approximately $5,000 to the chief’s attorney for costs accrued in the filing of the intention to sue. The timing of all this is unclear, but it’s suspected to have taken place within the last year.

The chief’s threat reportedly stemmed from a disturbing meeting with the town’s Police Commission where sharp words were exchanged and tempers reportedly flared. Insiders say the brouhaha sparked during a discussion of the commission’s intent to draft a letter of reprimand to place in the chief’s folder for her handling of the White’s International taxicab fiasco that later resulted in litigation being filed against the town. Without rehashing the entire three-year legal battle, the bottom line is the town settled the ordeal last spring out of court by paying the company a whopping $250,000.

The commission felt DiPino mishandled the situation and that it should be officially noted in her file. A discourse ensued and apparently some harsh words were exchanged between the chief and Councilman Jay Hancock, a retired Ocean City cop and unabashed DiPino critic. The exchange escalated to the point that Hancock reportedly criticized the chief’s management of the department and sources contend he lobbed some harsh, personal insults and observations her way. Exactly what terms were used is unclear, but sources say it was not pretty. As a result of the incident, the city was ultimately informed by the chief’s attorney the town should expect a lawsuit.

Attorney Kathleen Pontone of Miles & Stockbridge, which represented Ocean City, did not return phone calls this week for comment, but we have it on good authority she advised the town to settle this case before it escalated to something more and that’s why the council agreed to pay DiPino’s attorney fees to avoid the high-profile lawsuit. Pontone, sources say, scolded Hancock specifically for his comments.

In the interest of full disclosure, The Dispatch, along with other media, was tipped off to this situation by an anonymous email, a fact not lost on city officials who largely refused to comment on the record or even confirm its existence, due to the manner in which we discovered the information.

Reached this week, Hancock, who has no problem filling anyone’s ear with his complaints about the way DiPino manages the department, would only say on the record, “I do not want to comment on an anonymous comment or allegation.” It’s of course no coincidence that Hancock, who was shown the email by a member of the media this week, is currently campaigning for a second term in office.

DiPino was called for comment on this story. She did not return a call. Instead, Ocean City Police spokesman Mike Levy referred all calls on litigious matters to City Solicitor Guy Ayres, who echoed Hancock’s thoughts when reached yesterday morning.

“I have seen the anonymous email. I don’t respond to anonymous letters or emails. To the extent the information deals with personnel issues, I don’t respond to personnel issues. If there was any such thing, I was not involved in it,” Ayres said.

When asked why Miles & Stockbridge would be representing the town in this case, Ayres would only comment on a hypothetical, reiterating he has no knowledge of the situation this reporter inquired about.

“For the purposes of this hypothetical, as the town attorney, I represent the Mayor and Council and provide them legal advice, but also represent and give advice to the various department heads and/or employees of the town,” Ayres said. “So that to the extent there might become an issue between a department head and Mayor and Council, I would probably abstain. I would be saying I think there’s a conflict and I would not want to get involved and we would then typically hire outside counsel.”

It’s obvious this anonymous email was a campaign ploy to try and sabotage Hancock’s bid for re-election. We dislike being manipulated for someone’s gain or detriment, but the fact taxpayer money was reportedly used to settle a dispute involving inappropriate behavior is noteworthy. Whether what Hancock, or any other official, said to the chief was sexual discrimination or harassment is unknown, but the fact the city spent tax money to make this go away makes it worthy of publication.

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