OCEAN CITY — An elected official’s 13-minute phone conversation with a leading candidate to fill the city manager vacancy has called into question the integrity of the search process in its final days.
The Ocean City Mayor and Council will most likely decide next week between two candidates, who were unanimously supported by the council for a final interview that took place earlier this month.
According to Council President Jim Hall, the process is currently awaiting the completion of background checks on the two candidates. Those are expected to be delivered to the council no later than Monday, and Jim Hall said the council could vote as early as Tuesday on the next city manager if the background checks reveal no issues.
However, on Wednesday, April 11, two days prior to when council members were to speak in person with the two finalists, Councilman Joe Hall telephoned who he believed to be the “front runner” and had a 13-minute conversation with that individual, who will remain anonymous for this article as the person is presently employed with another government body.
Joe Hall’s call and conversation directly violated specific guidance from the city’s hired consulting firm, Springsted, which has engineered the search process to find a replacement for long-time City Manager Dennis Dare, who was removed from his post seven months ago. The consultant reportedly specifically advised all council members to refrain from any personal contact with any of the candidates to keep the process clean.
“I called one of the candidates who was at the top of my list personally and had a conversation. I felt that I needed to have a one-on-one conversation with the candidate, and the scope of that conversation involved, did [the candidate] understand the manager-council format that we have by charter,” Joe Hall said. “I also talked briefly about the area, fishing and some of the common likes we had. I felt I needed to have that one-on-one talk for me to make the best decision for the taxpayers of the city. I was comfortable with that and did it for the voters of the town.”
Prior to making that phone call, which sparked at least two members of the council calling for the process to begin anew with another advertising period and a new round of interviews, Joe Hall emailed Human Resources Director Wayne Evans on April 4 a “position paper” that he drafted before the October 2010 election where he encouraged voters to bring a new direction to the city and offered his suggestions that Councilwoman Margaret Pillas be re-elected and that then-newcomer Brent Ashley be voted into office. That happened and Pillas and Ashley joined Joe Hall and Jim Hall to form the new council majority, which sought Dare’s removal.
The “position paper” was not permitted to be forwarded to the candidates.
In a closed session meeting last week, Joe Hall admitted to calling one of the city manager candidates after the issue was broached by Councilwoman Mary Knight, who reportedly had concerns that a colleague had reached out at some point to a candidate.
“[In the last interview] the way the candidate responded and directed answers made me suspicious,” she said. “It almost seemed like inside information. I knew the candidate had watched our meetings and did Internet research, but there were bits and pieces that could not be known unless a conversation with a council member was held. Insider information was known and that made me suspicious.”
Knight then asked her fellow council members in closed session if anyone had contacted this certain candidate. Joe Hall admitted he made the call, which he does not believe should be blamed for skewing the process.
“I do in hindsight find it to be a mistake because it has brought questions to the process,” he said. “Unfortunately for some of my colleagues, this phone call has altered their opinion on moving forward. I don’t agree with that. I don’t think what I did diminishes this candidate’s ability to bring forward positive management to the town. My gut tells me it’s politics, and I don’t think it’s responsible. Until my phone call was brought to light, they were speaking very positive about this individual. All of a sudden now my 13-minute conversation should disqualify the candidate. That’s not right and unfortunate. The effort to abandon the current process is a political move, not the right move.”
Councilman Doug Cymek adamantly disagreed that the looming October election, which will see the seats occupied by himself, Joe Hall, Knight and Jim Hall up for grabs, is the motivation for his position that the process must begin again because of Joe Hall’s phone call.
“Obviously, Joe Hall and I have a different perspective on the integrity of the process,” Cymek said. “This was strictly poor judgment on his part. The human resources director and the consultant both warned the council not to make direct contact, which is exactly what he did. It’s a shame it has derailed the process. I’m in favor of redoing the process and trying to find additional candidates. We have no choice but to simply start the process again because we are going to get a whole new group of candidates.”
Councilman Brent Ashley, who was troubled by closed session personnel matters being discussed in the first place with the media, agreed the basis of the complaints over the phone call are rooted in town politics.
“I think they want to stretch it out till October. These people we are interviewing are very qualified people. Where’s the foul?,” Ashley said. “We’ve got good candidates. I think it’s a total shame. We have qualified individuals here. The three people involved here [Doug Cymek, Joe Hall and Mary Knight] are up for re-election and it’s clearly political.”
On the topic of the consultant advising the council not to reach out to candidates, Ashley said, “Whose position is it to tell an elected official he can and cannot do something? Joe works for the taxpayers, not the search company. I can’t fault somebody for doing something they think is best, and Joe thought it was for the good of the town.”
When asked his opinion by Joe Hall on whether the telephone call violated any law or ethics code, City Solicitor Guy Ayres wrote in a letter to the Mayor and Council no violation took place.
“In my opinion, the actions of council member, Joe Hall, do not constitute a violation of any statute of federal, state or local law including but not limited to conflicts of interest and public ethics,” Ayres wrote. “In my opinion, Joe Hall’s actions do not violate either of the feasance trilogy [nonfeasance, misfeasance and malfeasance].”
Where all this fallout leaves the city’s immediate future is the big question heading into next week. As of yesterday, Knight and Cymek are adamant that the process must begin anew because it has been compromised, but it’s unlikely the votes are there for restarting the search process, understanding the vote would likely fall on majority-minority lines.
Knight said she will not participate in the process if the council refuses to abandon the current course in favor of a vote. She also encouraged Joe Hall to abstain from voting on the matter if it were to get that far. Knight also refused to participate in an earlier interview involving Public Works Director Hal Adkins, who was being weighed as a possible replacement to Dare. Adkins later withdrew his name from consideration. To Knight, the phone call’s impact is meaningful.
“If that’s their candidate, I am out of the process. I will not be a part of it,” Knight said. “It’s sad because we were very close to a decision. We are here again without a city manager because of somebody’s stupidity. I don’t know where we stand now, but I know I’m not going to be involved. Unfortunately, this is so unfair to the candidate.”
Cymek said he too would not participate and made it clear he would not “abstain,” however. He said Thursday he will not leave the room when the discussion takes place but will simply note vote on the candidate.
“[City Solicitor] Guy [Ayres] made it clear if you abstain you cannot comment further on the issue. I’m just not going to be a part of it. A line has been drawn through the middle of the process, and I’m not going to be a part of it,” Cymek said. “If there are enough votes for this candidate in question, it would be a mistake in judgment. I feel the process has been tainted and this particular candidate has been given an unfair advantage.”
Councilman Lloyd Martin, a member of the minority who did not plan to vote for the candidate in question even before the phone call revelation, is hoping next week the entire council can discuss this matter further.
“[The candidate] was not my top pick, but [the individual] is not a bad [person]. I thought the other [person] was better, but we have two candidates we can probably work with,” Martin said. “What I’d like to do hopefully is get everybody back in the process. Everybody’s opinion is important … I would hope we can get everyone back in the room again to discuss this rationally. I would hate to be the city manager hired on a 4-3 vote … there’s not much job security there, particularly with an election near. I would rather have us agree on somebody and tell that person the support was there. I’m hoping I can sway everyone back into the room.”
Reached yesterday, Council President Jim Hall plans to move forward with the process as if the phone call did not take place. He views the candidate called by Joe Hall is the top choice and that the conversation did not taint the search process.
“We have a worker bee and a politician to choose from and I want the [individual] who is going to get in there and work for our city,” Jim Hall said. “The bottom line is the majority of us like one over the other. We have a work session scheduled for Tuesday, and unless something crazy comes back with the background checks, that day we will talk about it and take a vote. As far as them walking out, it’s going to be a 4-something vote anyway. Joe obviously called the person, but so what? It’s not that [candidate’s] fault that Joe called. It would be a shame to knock the candidate out because of that. I’m hoping Tuesday the process moves on … If they walk out of the room, it’s going to be a 4-something vote.”
Although not willing to go so far as to back a redo of the process, Mayor and Acting City Manager Rick Meehan, who does not have a vote on the city manager, finds the phone call inconsistent with the stated transparency goals of the council majority.
“The one thing I have a problem with is it’s continuously stated by the so-called empowered majority that they want everything done in the open and everybody there at the same time and all information given to everyone at the same time. This action seems to contradict that entirely,” Meehan said. “That I think is what has really upset some members of the council.”