OCEAN CITY – Elected officials got into a heated debate during this week’s Mayor and City Council meeting over the urgency to lift the hiring freeze in the town’s public safety departments.
While the council was discussing the town’s health benefits and how it needed to decide on what course of action to take in order to lift a hiring freeze that has been placed for quite some time now, Councilman Joe Hall pointed out there were two department heads in the audience that need to hire people to fill out their staffs.
Mayor Rick Meehan addressed those two department heads specifically and they were Chief of Police Bernadette DiPino and Fire Chief Chris Larmore.
The police and fire department are each down six positions.
“Were down 12 positions in public safety, which is a number one priority in the town of Ocean City,” Meehan said.
The mayor pushed the significance on filling the positions as soon as possible because the candidates will have to enter training in order to begin work by next year.
“I think we need to listen to what they [chiefs] have to say and the importance of what we offer [benefits] to these people to have them become employees of the town of Ocean City,” Meehan said.
Meehan also asserted that the town is under contract with the public safety departments. The current contract with the police department remains until summer and the town will be in contract with the fire department for another two years. The contracts included the departments forfeiting pay raises and cost of living adjustments for the last two years.
“We need to hear from the chiefs and their departments and how this is going to effect them, and what they need to do now moving forward and not be held hostage because we’re trying to take the time to do the right thing and take the time to do it right,” Meehan said.
Council President Jim Hall asserted that neither of the chiefs was listed on the agenda for the Mayor and City Council meeting.
“If you’re here to make a case to hire your employees, we’ve been crying for two years to get on this [benefits], and it seems like to me that now we’re trying to do it quickly because we have to hire somebody right away,” he said. “I’m not agreeing to that. I know you need the employees…but we’re just now with the new council getting on this.”
City Manager Dennis Dare said the impact of the empty positions in the safety department is having an impact on the city staff.
Jim Hall agreed on the urgency to get the chiefs the employees they need but the benefits still need to be decided first.
“Well, there’s a consequence for that,” Dare said. “It’s getting harder to cover all the shifts, with the people we have.”
There is a possibility that by the time the council decides what the benefits are going to be, the concluding benefits will still need to negotiate with the departments’ union, and if the union is agreeable with that then the departments can institute the hiring procedure.
DiPino had been given permission in the past to select six candidates to attend the police academy. Those six candidates have been selected, and the academy begins in January.
“We need to know now if we send those candidates to the academy,” Dare said.
Dare also asserted that by the time the new candidates exit the academy, there will another half a dozen safety employees retiring, resulting in the department being in need of additional coverage.
Councilman Doug Cymek asked to hear from both of the chiefs.
“I think the public has the right to hear if their safety is in jeopardy,” Cymek said.
Jim Hall said that for two years the council has been talking about changing the town’s benefits package, now that this urgency has erupted he isn’t willing to hire new employees for the safety department to fall under the old benefit package.
“It is not right for the public to be held hostage,” Cymek said. “Let the critical people be hired.”
“Were scaring the tourists and the residents,” Jim Hall responded.
Cymek said that by allowing the chiefs to come forward they could address the need to fill the department positions, and they can let the public know whether it is an urgency or not.
“Each time we’re not able to make a decision and move forward,” Joe Hall said. “We know what their desires are, it is a unscheduled thing.”
Councilwoman Mary Knight said she would like to hear from the chiefs as well.
“I don’t want to have the reputation that when people come to a meeting they aren’t allowed to speak,” she said. “I totally believe in transparency.”
Jim Hall felt that the dispute had become “ridiculous” and he did not approve of how the council was arguing in front of the chiefs and the public.
“I respect both of the chiefs very much but I think this is a dog and pony show to get us moving quickly to do something we don’t want to do,” Jim Hall said.
Councilman Lloyd Martin continues the notion that the council has already given the go ahead for the six candidates to be selected in the police department to attend the academy in January and that has already been figured into this year’s budget.
Martin also stated that the town has union negotiations to go through, and whether the council allows the departments to hire now or later, the negations are going to still happen.
“Get these people hired, get the town moving…this is public safety we’re talking about,” he said.
Cymek continued to urge the council president to allow the chiefs to speak. He wanted to hear from them on what type of positions specifically needed to be filled, it wasn’t even clear whether they were positions in the field or administrative.
“We don’t even know what we’re going to pay them yet,” Jim Hall said. “We got at least 11 points [previously passed motions] here we need to pass with ordinances yet.”
Dare pointed out that through the union contracts the departments pay range is already set.
Jim Hall responded that the council might decide to re-negotiate that contract.
“Budgets are different now,” Jim Hall said.
Toward the end of the meeting, the council passed on a motion to accept the proposed health benefit changes, but still have yet to decide on a retirement benefit.
The council decided to enter into a closed session to speak with the chiefs, DePino and Larmore.
“I’m hoping to come to a conclusion on this in the near future, as I think everybody is, so we can move forward,” Meehan said.