Council Majority Questioned Over Lengthy Phone Talks

OCEAN CITY – Questions were raised and accusations hurled this week at the City Council majority after cell phone records revealed hundreds of minutes of communications between them outside City Hall.

Councilman Doug Cymek, a private investigator by trade, recently underwent an extensive review of the cell phone records of the council majority – Brent Ashley, Jim Hall, Joe Hall and Margaret Pillas. Cymek obtained the records from a resident, who obtained the usage breakdowns from the city under the Freedom of Information Act.

What Cymek discovered was 17 hours of direct communication between the council majority from Nov. 20-Dec. 19, according to city cell phone records. Although Ashley rejected a city cell phone, numerous phone calls were made to and from his home phone.

In this billing cycle, cell phone usage shows Joe Hall used 974 minutes of his plan communicating between himself and Ashley, Jim Hall and Pillas. Pillas used 927 minutes talking among the new majority, while Jim Hall used 709 minutes between Joe Hall, Ashley and Pillas.

Records point to a number of phone conversations on Nov. 29, 2010, the day before a work session when a host of ordinances were introduced calling for major changes to new employee pay and compensations as well as reductions in current employee vacation time as well as an overhaul of the town’s retirement system.

Specifically, on Nov. 29, Joe Hall had a 103-minute phone conversation with Pillas followed by a number of shorter talks, including one that was 51 minutes in duration. Additionally, on the same day, Joe Hall spoke to Ashley on the new councilman’s home phone for 37 minutes and Jim Hall for 23 minutes.

Similar phone conversations took place among the various members of the majority at different times of the month, including a 65-minute talk between Jim Hall and Margaret Pillas on Dec. 4 and a 117-minute talk between the two on Dec. 2. On the same day, Jim Hall and Joe Hall spoke for 33 minutes.

Cymek said these long talks confirm decisions are being hashed out away from City Hall. Cymek has accused the council majority of “ram rodding” the sweeping ordinances through and this week he said the cell phone records explain there are “private meetings being held without the public’s knowledge”.

“I think the public has the right to know what’s behind these decisions. Granted, it’s done in segments between them individually on their cell phones, … but it has the appearance that they are systematically discussing topics and preparing for meetings,” Cymek said. “I’m very upset that they have been harping on transparency and then go do something like this. This explains why they would not answer the public at the meeting two weeks ago when they were being attacked.”

Councilman Jim Hall said he does answer to the public and represents the taxpayers. He said Cymek’s review of phone records reveals nothing.

“We are going to continue to talk and I hope they call me and give me their thoughts as well. We answer to the taxpayers and we have done our homework individually,” Jim Hall said. “We do answer to the public. I don’t have to defend me helping the taxpayers. This is sour grapes and it’s a shame.”

Hall reiterated his stance that there is nothing wrong with discussing city business with his colleagues.

“Yes we’re talking and we’re talking to a lot of taxpayers, too. I’m happy that the council calls me and discusses things with me. I would hope all of them would call me. We discuss a lot of things. We’ve never had a conference call. We’ve never sat down together as a group to discuss things, but they call me and tell me what they’re thinking and ask me what I’m thinking,” he said. “It’s general conversation to council meetings and it’s what I’ve always done. I’m sure they [the minority] are talking as well, but it’s really none of my business.”

Councilwoman Mary Knight said yesterday she is “very suspicious” of these long talks and disagreed that these sorts of discussions are commonplace among the council.

“The public should know how long they are spending on the phone. This is not about sour grapes. These decisions are going to be huge. It’s going to affect a lot of people and families. We are hurting people, there’s no question about it. We need to talk more about it in public,” she said. “I’m always suspicious when people start using words like ‘sour grapes.’ That’s a personal attack and we need to deal with the facts. Before, it was never this divisive.”

Cymek and Knight are not alone in their opinions. At last week’s meeting, Glen McIntyre, president of the resort lodge of the Fraternal Order of Police, asked the council to explain its stance on the changes to the city’s pay and benefit structure.

“We’re here because it’s not like the council reaches out to us and says we’re in dire straits and we need to make some changes, and we need to talk to you guys,” McIntyre said. “You guys go behind that door, you talk amongst yourselves, and you get that 4-3 vote, and then push comes to shove you come up here and ram rod it down our throats.”

At that meeting, Cymek said he was astounded to see the council majority not address these valid concerns.

“The public has been so outspoken about all of this, and they made some excellent arguments. It was like, “thank you, bam, 4-3 vote,’ and that was it,” Cymek said. “It was very clear their minds were made up and it was obvious to any reasonable person that without any discussion at the meeting that discussion had taken place somewhere else. There’s nothing that can change my mind on that. It’s rehearsed and discussed.”

For example, Cymek cites the Nov. 30 work session where Pillas, Joe Hall and Ashley were reportedly reading from a memo when making motions.

“Absolutely, I saw it. They were all reading from the exact same printout,” Cymek said. “The part that hurts me the most is the two years I was part of the majority we never did this … You can go back and randomly pull the minutes. The majority were unanimous or 6-1, all with a lot of conversation. That’s all gone. Their minds are made up when we talk about tourism, hiring, wages or benefits. They dig their heels in and that’s it. I believe there is an individual influencing one council member who is then influencing the majority, and I think you can see that.”

Ashley and Pillas said that was not the case at all. Ashley did not recall any kind of memo, and Pillas said the only document she remembers having in front of her at that moment was a summary of the ordinances prepared by City Clerk Kathy Mathias. Cymek said that’s not true.

“They each had a typed memo. Each one of the options was typed out and they went down the line. The public should watch the video of the Nov. 30 meeting and the public is going to clearly see them reading the script. This is the part that’s truly pitiful. We can see from the tape they were reading from the memo and myself and other council members saw that.”

Knight confirmed Cymek’s accusations, saying, “There’s no question it was done. I saw it, too.”

For his part, Cymek acknowledged talking occasionally to his colleagues on the council, and a review of his cell phone minutes confirm that.

“Most of my conversations are with Councilman Lloyd Martin. He and I end up fielding a lot of police-related issues or complaints that are construction related,” Cymek said. “That’s what the substance of our talks are, and they are always five, six, seven, eight-minute calls. Maybe a couple times a month, I call the mayor to meet him at a social event, but that’s why I’m open and provided you my bill. I have nothing to hide. I can look you in the eyes and tell you me, the mayor, Lloyd and Mary have never done what they are doing.”

Ashley said he’s open to talking to anyone about city matters. He said he had a four-hour lunch with Councilman Lloyd Martin shortly after being elected.

“To me, it’s a non-issue. From my perspective, there’s really no discussion of any importance,” Ashley said. “Cymek is making allegations because he can’t get his own way. He’s starting the fire and he did it on his Facebook page last weekend with the ‘burn baby burn’ thing, trying to make something where there’s nothing. I don’t see anything wrong with people talking. I do call and try to get background from the other three on issues. I’m the new guy, they have more background on things like the wind turbine issue this week. How do you learn if you don’t ask?”

Ashley adamantly denied any sort of votes being hashed out privately.

“I can’t speak to what the others talk about, but this is not being done with me,” Ashley said. “We are not discussing votes. There’s no collusion. I’m wide open … It’s pitiful that we have public officials playing games and trying to minimize the issues through personal attacks. We shouldn’t be playing these games, it’s about the taxpayers.”

Pillas was equally frustrated by Cymek’s accusations.

“I am transparent. I walk the talk. We didn’t go somewhere to not be on public record. By using our phones, we were being transparent and on public record,” Pillas said. “I have nothing to hide. I don’t get the confusion. Everything I’m doing is in the public’s eye. This is so frustrating … I’m just conservative and I’m trying to change things. It’s what the people want. That’s very clear. That’s why I was elected. I’m on record. That’s transparency to me. … This is incredible. It’s public record. … We are not talking about anything that we have not said in public. Everything’s been disclosed.”

Knight took exception with Pillas’ claims.

“They are not being transparent. I’m incensed by it. The real issues are not being focused on,” she said.

Joe Hall acknowledged conversing with his colleagues often and does not believe it’s “improper.”

“Sure, we network. I think that’s normal. I do communicate with them. I have a better relationship with them than I do the others. I don’t think it’s improper. I’ve never purposely not talked to Doug, Lloyd or Mary. I’ve never suggested to any of them not to call me,” Joe Hall said. “I don’t think there’s any collusion. We share views and have discussions about topics individually. I don’t believe we have jointly ever communicated through a conference call or anything like that. We have never used our talks to come to any pre-determination of a topic, I can assure you.”

About The Author: Steven Green

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The writer has been with The Dispatch in various capacities since 1995, including serving as editor and publisher since 2004. His previous titles were managing editor, staff writer, sports editor, sales account manager and copy editor. Growing up in Salisbury before moving to Berlin, Green graduated from Worcester Preparatory School in 1993 and graduated from Loyola University Baltimore in 1997 with degrees in Communications (journalism concentration) and Political Science.