OCEAN CITY — For two hours on Tuesday, the eight seats reserved for the Mayor and City Council sat empty as they debated about the Ocean City Air Show behind closed doors, but the council remains mum about the details of that conversation.
As per usual, council members are supposed to be tight-lipped about the information deliberated on during executive closed sessions, but this week, several members of the council said that there has been a proliferation of leaked information or “loose lips” if you will, that is becoming an issue.
After a two-hour closed session on Tuesday, the voting seven came out of the back room at City Hall looking noticeably flustered after what Council President Joe Mitrecic called a “heated discussion.”
What is known is that the members of council and Mayor Rick Meehan were dealing with “contractual issues” with Air Show organizer Brian Lilley, but what isn’t known, is the specifics of that conversation.
“I don’t know why some members of the council thought it was such a big debate,” said Councilwoman Margaret Pillas. “I just thought it was a thorough discussion and that’s what we are supposed to do back there. I enjoyed it, actually.”
It could be assumed that the “contractual issue” that was being discussed was the Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) between the town of Ocean City and the event planners, which includes the town’s investment of $50,000 in seed money.
Although no word has ever been given concerning the fate of the Air Show’s seed money, one could deduce that the $50,000 in seed money may have been a topic of discussion. Another topic of discussion may have been the amount of revenue that Lilley reported.
In July, when Lilley came before the council to report the $39,390 net profit, several council members called for a review of his calculations to ensure that all the numbers checked out.
The town got back almost $15,000 of its $50,000 in seed money, but it should be noted that the prior year, there was no profit.
“I can’t tell you much about what went on back there, but we were going over every line item in the contract and I think at times, the conversation did get spirited,” said Councilman Joe Hall, “but what I can go on record is to say that the Air Show is going to happen again this year, and by no means is it in jeopardy.”
Still, Tuesday’s closed door battle aside, there are several members of the council who are concerned with alleged “information leaks” before the information can be safely divulged to the public.
“There are some people on this council who believe that the public should know everything that is going on at all times,” said Councilman Doug Cymek. “There is a reason that things are talked about in closed session and believe me, when the time is right, the information is released, but just since I’ve been on the council, there has been a lot of information that has gotten out and if it doesn’t stop, it is going to become an embarrassment for local government.”
Some on the council point to the situation involving Jeff Thaler, the soon-to-be former chair of the Board of Zoning Appeals, as a perfect example of alleged leaked information.
According to Thaler, who spoke with The Dispatch last week, he had asked Mayor Rick Meehan to inform the council of his decision to step down from the board, but asked for his decision to be kept quiet so he could tell his board personally at next week’s meeting and not have them learn about it in the media.
When news of Thaler’s planned resignation broke last week, several members of the council started pointing fingers at one another as the source of the leak, according to one anonymous council member. One of the members who got a finger pointed at them was 22-year Councilman Jim Hall.
“Look, there has always been leaked information from time to time in this town, but if they accuse me of something, what am I going to say, because they accuse me of a lot of things, but I’m usually the last to know about stuff,” said Hall. “I will tell you that more people follow what Jeff Thaler is doing a lot closer than Jim Hall.”
Hall said that there is a misconception that what goes on in executive closed session is suspect to public suspicion, but he emphasized that what goes on back there is cut and dry and often “boring.”
“People know what’s going on in this town, and so when stuff gets out, they start pointing at us, but there is no super secrets and there is no mystery back there,” said Hall. “It’s just business.”
Other issues that council members say were leaked about include the top 100 town salary list, take-home vehicles, and the recent reconfiguration of the public works division, causing some on the council to want to get a handle on the way information is divulged in the town.
“There has been conversation about not handing out hard copies of documents to ensure that the information does not get released until the right time,” said Cymek, “In Salisbury, they mark classified documents and if the integrity of those documents are violated, it would be prudent, in my opinion, to go through an ethics board hearing for possible impeachment of a council member. That’s how strongly I feel about this situation.”
Mitrecic said that closed session items are hard to plan for as sometimes an issue that one would think would take 10 minutes, takes much longer and vice versa.
“There are certain things like contracts that we need to talk about legally in closed session, but I have noticed that there have been things that I have said behind closed doors that has come out almost verbatim,” said Mitrecic. “Sometimes I say certain things just to see if they get out, and they almost always do.”