BERLIN — The former city manager of Ocean City broke his silence this week, three months after being forced to retire by a majority of the City Council and a week after his severance agreement with the city was made official.
Dennis Dare retired in early September after the City Council voted 4-3 in closed session to terminate him if he did not submit his resignation. He resigned on Sept. 9, 2011. Council members Brent Ashley, Joe Hall, Jim Hall and Margaret Pillas supported the move, while Doug Cymek, Mary Knight and Lloyd Martin opposed as well as Mayor Rick Meehan, who does not have a vote on the matter.
Last week, a severance agreement between the city and Dare was approved in a closed session meeting by the council in a 5-2 vote (Ashley and Pillas opposed). Dare has reserved comment on his controversial resignation and the circumstances surrounding it until the accord was inked. Dare served as the town’s city manager for 21 years and previously as the city engineer for eight years.
In an exclusive interview on Wednesday, Dare, emotional at times, discussed the ultimatum that led to his resignation, his uncertainty to this day as to why he was removed, the importance of the date Sept. 9, 2011 in his life, his future plans and what he will miss the most and what he will not miss at all about being the resort’s chief executive officer.
The following is a transcription of the conversation.
Q. On the afternoon of Thursday, Sept. 8, I saw you in the City Hall foyer and you were on your way to the Inlet to survey wave conditions that led to it being closed. At that time, the Mayor and Council was meeting in closed session about you. Were you aware at that time what was taking place? Did you know you were the subject of the meeting?
A. Yes I did. [Council President] Jim Hall told me the night before. He had called and told my secretary he wanted to have a closed session the next day. I called him to see what it was about and what I needed to be prepared for. He said, “nothing, you don’t need to be there.” He went on to say it was personnel and that it was about me and others.
Prior to that, some of the council had talked about some people in the city, and they asked me, ‘what do they do?.’ They said they wanted to have a discussion about them sometime and that occurred last winter and then we got into changing the benefits and so forth …
After speaking with Jim Hall, I thought to myself I guess I was on the hit list. That’s what I knew when I saw you on Sept. 8.
Q. How were you told you were no longer going to be the city manager?
A. Jim Hall came into my office and said the council decided to go in a different direction. They had voted to request my resignation or I would be fired. I asked him if I could have some time to get some proper guidance from an attorney. He said he would give me till 5 p.m. tomorrow (Sept. 9).
At that time, I had to think what should I do. I knew what I wanted to do, but I felt it would be best for the city actually for me to retire with some stipulations. I was able to secure an attorney and put a letter together that laid out some of that.
Q. When was that letter given to the council?
A. Well, around 4:30 on that Friday, Sept. 9, Jim Hall and [City Solicitor] Guy Ayres came into my office.
Jim had told me the day before that the council voted to give me my pension in full, and I told him that isn’t going to be the simplest thing to work out. The simplest thing is to just keep me on the payroll and he said that’s not going to happen.
So my letter that I gave them said I would resign pending an agreement on how to make my pension whole. They had voted to have my severance go through the end of the year and I asked that it go through March 31, 2012, basically six months.
Jim Hall, who’s been on the council 24 years, didn’t know I had a contract, which isn’t anything spectacular but it automatically rolled over every April 1, basically. They were to give me notice and severance, and they chose to not go that route.
To be perfectly clear, they had every right to do what they did. I don’t argue that at all. That’s what city managers do, they serve at the pleasure of the elected officials.
Q. In the weeks after you resigned, members of the community were outraged, seeking reasons why.
On the morning of Sept. 9, Jim Hall told a crowd of agitated citizens at City Hall you had done a “wonderful, wonderful job” but there was a need for a change in management direction.
Later, members of the council majority commented to the media it was financially rooted as well as insubordination because information was not being provided in a timely fashion.
A couple weeks later, Jim Hall said at a community rally, “This is all about an administration that fought us all the way, whether it was pay and benefits, whether it was tax rates, whether it was getting the streets paved. It was the administration that said we can’t do it, and guess what we did it but we did it with a hard push.”
Can you directly respond to these claims?
A. One of the things in my employment contract was that I was to be evaluated on an annual basis. For years, I had been. For the last several years, the council recently hasn’t done that with me. That’s a time when we sit down and take a comprehensive look at what we’re doing and look at goals for the coming years. This council never did that. I assumed I was doing the job satisfactorily. There was never any indication that I wasn’t and never an evaluation.
The city manager works for the majority on every issue. It’s hard enough having eight bosses and then when you have it so fractured like we did it’s extremely challenging. A lot of times what I guess led to people thinking I was picking sides was they wouldn’t do a motion. For example, say a council member says I would really like to know how many grains of sand there are on the beach. If they make a motion for that and it gets seconded and it passes 4-3, I will go count the grains of sand on the beach and report back as soon as I can. There were lots of things said, but nothing was made official through motions.
There were things I believe that transpired in the past year where some people thought things in their mind that they wanted to do and it didn’t get done, and they blame me for it. When they asked for information, I did my best to bring them what they asked for. Sometimes, I suspect, the information didn’t match what they may have had a pre-conceived notion about. So it wasn’t the proper information because it didn’t support perhaps what their ambition was.
I will say this. We sat there on a Monday night in January and there were something like 13 motions made to reduce vacation, do away with pension, everything. As far as I know, there wasn’t any discussion with me or anyone on the staff about these issues. I sat there amazed that at breakfast that morning they decided to do 13 different things and go on.
What did we do? We changed several things, but the mayor vetoed a bunch of them that never came back. It was like let’s throw this up against the wall and whatever sticks, sticks and we get what we wanted to begin with.
There were things I thought the council wanted to do that was ill-advised from a legal standpoint, let alone from a morale standpoint.
As the city manager, I’m dealing with 520 employees, everything from low skill to highly-trained and educated professionals. Is this one size fits all? It was the complete wrong way to go about it, in my opinion, and this was on the heels of what we were going through for the last three years at this time with the recession.
We instituted hundreds of cost-saving ideas, and these ideas came from the employees. They didn’t come from the council. Some came from the city manager, but most came from the department heads and the rank and file throughout the city. As a team, we were able to reduce spending by $6 million. I felt like we had been staying ahead of things and from a tourism standpoint we were holding our own compared to Virginia Beach and Orlando. Tourism is only industry and our numbers were staying about the same, despite what others were experiencing.
We had so much working in the right direction here and last spring all of a sudden it got turned upside down.
Q. Were you vocal in your opposition to these employee benefit changes? I’m still trying to specifically get to the bottom of why the council majority felt this change was necessary.
A. Let’s just pick one item — the pension. When we tried to give them the information, the council majority said, “no, we just want to do it.” I said you really ought to get an actuary to study it and tell you the economics of it.
From reading about others, I knew we had a very economical defined benefit program and that if we closed that with no new people coming in that it was going to get more and more expensive. They didn’t want to listen to that. Finally after months, they agreed to get an actuary and the actuary told them it’s going to cost you a million dollars more next year if you close this plan. They said, ‘Yeah, well, that’s was what we want to do in the long run.’
Well, it’s going to be 12 to 15 years before any money is saved on this, and there’s going to be a lot of us that are not going to be around then to save money.
Q. What’s your personal opinion of why you aren’t city manager today?
A. I really don’t know to be honest with you.
Q. Did you feel blindsided?
A. Yeah to some degree but not completely.
I knew when [former Councilman] Joe Mitrecic lost by 20-some votes [in October of 2010] that it was going to be a long two years. That became pretty apparent pretty quickly in January when they made the 13 motions to turn everything upside down. It was very difficult to try and provide them the information and frankly I don’t think it was being consumed properly.
But, they never came to me saying we would like to do an evaluation on your performance and try and fix this. That’s what I would have expected from a rational perspective, as opposed to terminating me.
Q. What’s life like now for you after doing the same thing every day for 21 years?
A. Yeah, and it was every day. As city manager, you were on call every day, all day. I worked evenings, weekends, holidays, and when something happened, I was there. A lot of things were expected of you. It was like going 60 mph to a dead stop. I guess some people, I have observed in the past, have a hard time dealing with that. Well, three months later, I enjoy it. I got up this morning went to the gym, came home and got ready and went to Grace Parker for breakfast and popped over here and tonight is Christmas caroling in Caine Woods.
To go from all the stress and responsibility to none has been pretty nice.
Q. As you have watched matters unfold over the last three months in the city, what was your take on Public Works Director Hal Adkins turning down the council majority’s offer to be your successor as city manager? Were you surprised?
A. Well, I hadn’t spoken to Hal, but no, I wasn’t surprised. It’s pretty much a no-win situation for him, so I wasn’t surprised. From my perspective, this whole thing has not been very well thought through. So them not having a plan B didn’t surprise me either.
Q. This week the council announced a firm has been selected to carry out the national search for the next city manager. As city manager, you were involved in processes like this in the past. Do you think it’s going to be someone internally promoted, someone in the local private sector or an external pick?
A. Undoubtedly, there is more than one person on the city staff who could step in and do the job.
There’s a big difference between running a hotel and running a city. I won’t say there aren’t people in the private sector who have a good skill set and could come in and do this job, but it would be very difficult to learn things like public safety, public works, etc. Sitting in a meeting and what the public sees is just the tip of the iceberg. There’s so much under the water that goes on that people don’t see.
By going outside on a national search, you are going to have people who have been trained and educated and experienced in operating municipal government. You just don’t learn that in a hotel.
Even for internal candidates, it’s a lot different, but they have the knowledge of Ocean City. After eight years as city engineer, I thought I knew the town pretty well, but what I didn’t realize was all the personnel issues and the politics and all that get mixed into it. I was more of a nuts and bolts person and all of a sudden there’s all this other stuff that you don’t learn in engineering school.
I think an external candidate would bring a set of fresh eyes to Ocean City and that could be a good thing.
Q. What do you miss about being city manager?
A. Oh, the people. The 500 employees that are very dedicated and they all want to do a good job. I’ve missed that.
Also, the sense of accomplishing so many things over 29 years. When you walk in any building in Ocean City, there’s a bronze plaque at the entrance. My name is either on there as city engineer or city manager and to be able to basically in 29 years rebuild this town is tremendous — the infrastructure, the convention center, the public safety building, City Hall, the Art League and the performing arts center.
So I will miss the people and I suspect I’m going to miss the fulfillment aspect of seeing projects and bringing them along.
Q. What will you not miss?
A. [Laughing] This is one of those times when I need to exercise some common sense, but let’s just say I’m not going to miss the stress.
Q. People have approached you about running for City Council next fall. Are you giving it much thought?
A. [Laughing] Sounds like stress to me. I have had people mention that. I had not made plans to retire. I didn’t see anything coming to this magnitude so I’m just trying to get life in order and I don’t have any plans to look for other work. I like being retired at this time and I just don’t know what the future holds.
Q. You recently became president of the Caine Woods Association. Do you see yourself in Ocean City for the near future?
A. I love the town and that’s one of the reasons when I was given the choice to retire or be fired I did what I did. My issue is with four people or so, not with the Town of Ocean City. To go into some kind of legal battle or things like that was not what I wanted. I love the town, I love the people of this city. I love the feel of this city. The four seasons have nothing to do with the weather here. It’s the pace of life here and I enjoy it. This is my home.
Q. The date, “9-9-11,” is significant to you for a number of reasons. It was your last day working in Ocean City, of course, as you submitted your resignation, but what else happened?
A. Yeah, that morning, my daughter-in-law went into labor and delivered a little baby girl about mid-day. I was getting texts with pictures and all and there was part of me that just wanted to drop everything and go to Beebe hospital to be with them, but I couldn’t and that was not going to be and I needed to finish things up with the city.
Also, when I went to leave work on that last day, there were about 50 employees in the parking lot. So that was really emotional for me.
On the way home, I said to [my wife] Liz, ‘I don’t know if I’m going to go to the [OC Chamber of Commerce] Grand Ball tonight’ as we had planned. She said, ‘I think you ought to go.’ I thought to myself I didn’t do anything wrong I shouldn’t hold my head low.
By the time we got to the Gala, everyone was sitting down and getting ready to eat. Liz and I walked in and [Chamber Executive Director] Melanie Pursel saw me and announced it, and next thing I know I got a standing ovation.
The emotions that day were just running the gamut. I have my 29-year career coming to an end, the birth of my first grandchild and then I walk into a banquet honoring Kathy Mathias as Citizen of Year and you get the standing ovation. I didn’t expect all this and I told the Mathias family I didn’t want to take anything away from honoring Kathy. They understood.