OCEAN CITY – Councilman Joe Hall reached out to his colleagues this week over concerns regarding the bus and what he perceives as an overabundance of rowdy crowds this time of the year.
“The bus drivers aren’t the highest paid city employees but for the next three weeks they have one of the most challenging jobs in town to move a large amount of people having a very good time,” Joe Hall said. “I felt for their safety and for their sanity that some form of security on the bus would help temper the negative behavior that could cause a safety problem that could distract the driver or unruly things happening on the bus.”
The three weeks he referred to are Memorial Day through the third week in June when the Maryland State Fireman’s Convention hits town. During this time, Ocean City is flooded with high school graduates along with their family and friends.
Joe Hall suggested that the town contract a specialized security firm to place security guards “of large stature”, uniformed in bright yellow shirts labeled as security, on Ocean City’s buses. He added that the security could be paid for out of the transportation department’s funds’, pointing out that the bus fare was recently raised and the extra revenue could be used.
“I would look at this as a large special event, a three-week event. We don’t need to hire a new staff for us or utilize our current resources of police officers who are overburdened now,” he said. “If we had extra police officers, we could use them in more productive areas of public safety than riding the bus.”
Also, if an incident were to occur on the bus and a security guard would need assistance, then the bus could pull over and call for the help of police officers whom are positioned all along Coastal Highway.
Mayor/Interim City Manager Rick Meehan responded to Joe Hall’s concerns reminding him that a portion of the bus riders at this time are Play It Safe participants, referring to the high school graduate program that offers free and safe activities and events as well as wristbands for participants to ride the bus for free.
Joe Hall said the Play It Safe participants play a little part in the crowds on the buses at this time. He added that to date there has been 3,000 Play It Safe wristbands given out compared to the tens of thousands of bus riders.
Joe Hall said he plans on bringing the matter up during next week’s Mayor and Council meeting and hopes to institute security on the buses this summer.
“A lot will have to do with what we experience this weekend whether the council makes action but these firms are available to have the staff available. It can be done as quickly as we say we need it to be done,” he said. “I think it is a good investment for the town, and I think it will be proven to be effective.”
Councilman Doug Cymek and City Manager David Recor, who assumed his post next week, also responded to Joe Hall’s concerns.
“Fundamentally, I believe an off-duty officer in full uniform would be the most effective deterrent,” Recor wrote in an email. “There are certainly bargaining unit contract implications that must be considered. If data for wristband users is available, I can provide the council with several alternatives for comparison and to evaluate which option would be the most expedient and cost-effective manner to address this concern.”
Cymek respectfully disagreed with Joe Hall on placing security on the buses.
“If our OCPD officers, wearing an official uniform and armed are challenged and often assaulted by unruly bus riders, undoubtedly an individual ‘wearing bright yellow shirt stating security’ would likely fall victim to them as well,” he wrote.
Cymek was in favor of Meehan’s suggestion to charge Play It Safe participants $5 for a wristband, which is still a deal compared to the $1 per ride or $3 all-day-pass bus fare.
Upon receiving Joe Hall’s concerns, Mayor Rick Meehan responded as well as immediately set up a meeting with Police Chief Bernadette DiPino and Jim Parsons and George Thornes of the transportation department.
As a result of that meeting, it was determined that there has not been an overabundance of Play It Safe participants riding the bus, and that the crowds are mostly riders paying the $1 per ride fare.
“We looked at the comparison of events that happened the same week last year compared to the same week this year and really buses have been quiet as far as incidents are concerned,” the mayor said. “There haven’t really been a lot of problems. I think it looks that way because they are so crowded that it gives the impression that it could be more problems than have actually been occurring.”
The deployment of police officers was also reviewed. The police department is currently positioning officers on the buses. In the current year’s budget, $26,000 has been allocated to pay the police department overtime for officers who ride the bus.
“We do have police officers riding the buses, and they haven’t witnessed any significant problems to date so we have had a few minor events but nothing that is excessive at all to this point,” Meehan said. “They are going to continue to add officers as needed to the buses and continue to add additional buses to relieve some of the congestion and continue to monitor.” Meehan added that Chief Bernadette DiPino is not in favor of hiring security for the buses because they are not familiar with the ins and outs of Ocean City.
“She would rather stick with the deployment as it is right now and if in fact there needs to be additional officers we would allocate them,” he said.
As far as the charging $5 for Play it Safe wristbands, the mayor said he has proposed the idea in the past and is hoping for the same discussion in the future. He explained that if 10,000 wristbands were distributed that would be $50,000 to allocate toward additional police enforcement and overtime costs to ensure safety on the bus system.
“I strongly support it [Play It Safe] and strongly support everything we do,” the mayor said. “I just want to make sure that if the kids are allowed to ride the bus and we give it to them free, or a good deal, that the buses are safe and we are able to have the additional security and the additional man power we need to make sure that it is a safe environment.”