OCEAN CITY – With the Mayor and City Council having voted to move Ocean City’s Election Day to November, the majority block of the council alleged this week it was done to assist former City Manager Dennis Dare’s potential aspirations for elected office.
It all started on June 18 when the council voted 4-3, Council members Joe Hall, Doug Cymek, Mary Knight, and Lloyd Martin in favor and Brent Ashley, Jim Hall and Margaret Pillas opposed, to have City Solicitor Guy Ayres draft a charter amendment to change the town’s municipal election day from its independent date in October to join national election day in November. The vote took place after Cymek placed the discussion on the table saying that he had recently been contacted by citizens who wanted the change.
The question to consolidate election days has been brought up in the past by Councilman Joe Hall, who has always advocated for the change in hopes of attracting a larger voter turnout as well as save on election costs. The council has taken two other votes in recent years to consolidate election days and the motion has never passed by a 6-1 vote with Joe Hall only in favor.
Last Monday City Hall was crammed with citizens in support of the change in the date and once their voices were heard the council voted 5-2, with Cymek, Jim Hall, Mary Knight, Margaret Pillas and Lloyd Martin in favor and Ashley and Joe Hall opposed.
Joe Hall did not support that motion because it entailed Ocean City having its election on the same day as the general election but on a separate ballot in a separate room of the convention center, which results in no costs being saved.
Following the passage of the charter amendment to move Ocean City’s election to November, Ayres presented a second charter amendment this week to change the City Council’s organizational meeting date to the Thursday in November immediately following the election. The charter currently states the organizational meeting is held the Thursday in October immediately following the election
Council President Jim Hall immediately began questioning Ayres on his interaction with Dare and his attorney. Dare has not confirmed but is mulling a run for council in the upcoming election.
Dare was forced to resign from his position last year and reasons why were never specified besides the majority of the council had decided to go in a different direction. Dare was offered a severance package that included, among many other things, remaining on the city payroll up until Oct. 31 when his contract expires.
Jim Hall asked Ayres if he had advised Dare or his attorney not to run for council unless the election date was changed because in October he would still be considered a city employee still being on the city payroll.
“There was never a discussion of the election date, never,” Ayres said.
Ayres explained that at first he was approached by a citizen who supported Dare to run for council and he said he told the resident, “well, Dennis better check with his attorney because there could be some potential problems with his pension the way it was set up because he would still be on the payroll of the town.”
Next he was approached by Dare, and Ayres said he refused to discuss the matter with him and told Dare to contact his own attorney.
In return, Dare’s attorney contacted Ayres and he said they discussed two items involving Dare, constitutional prohibition against holding two offices of profit and whether Dare being on the city’s payroll was considered an office of profit, and the docket of incompatible positions, which had to do with if Dare was on the payroll of the town whether it would be incompatible for him to be elected to serve on the council.
“There was no discussion about changing the election date and I never offered him an opinion one way or the other if Dennis filed for election would violate either one of those provisions,” Ayres said. “That was the end of it. … I don’t know anything about a plan to do it because of Dennis, that has never been the discussion …”
Jim Hall hesitantly accepted Ayres’ explanation, saying that a friend of Dare’s had tipped him that the plan was to change the date so that Dare was in the clear to run for council.
“It was certainly a wholesale change in the last month and I agreed with it,” he said. “If Dennis has an interest in running, and that is certainly his business and his prerogative, it is curious to me that all of a sudden there was a rush to get this done and change this date while simultaneously Dennis has decided he wants to run for council.”
Jim Hall furthered that Dare was “let go” for a number reasons, 10 to be exact, but they were never released.
“I have never really brought up the entire reason why Dennis was dismissed or why we asked for his resignation. I didn’t want to have to do that, although I am prepared to do it,” he said. “I think to have a candidate come back, it is certainly his prerogative to run for council, but I think it is disruptive and I think there are reasons he was let go … and as we run for council it will be made very clear as to why he was let go and I think it would be a shame to bring him back here in any capacity once he was let go.”
Councilwoman Margaret Pillas also believes in the conspiracy that the election change was orchestrated and refused to vote on the charter amendment to alter the organization meeting date, saying that the date change should go to a referendum question to be placed on the ballot in this year’s election.
“We need to get some clarification because I am very uncomfortable with somebody who is reaching back into government and deciding to manipulate the election,” she said.
Pillas asserted that the people in attendance for last week’s meeting to voice their support for the date change were told to show up as well as the calls she had received from those in favor of the change were “friends of Dennis.”
“I am not sure that this is not Dennis trying to confuse the issue and trying to get back into politics for revenge. That is the way I see it,” she said. “I am very uncomfortable here and I think the best thing to do for clarity … go to referendum. That way we keep the integrity, let the voters make the decision for 2014.”
Councilman Brent Ashley, who has consistently voted against the date change, also found the sequence of events to be unbelievable and began to furiously question Cymek for bringing the matter up after voting against it in the past.
“The people in the audience, they’re the ones we answer to,” Cymek said. “You can’t turn your eyes on the public. The public came here, they sat before us, they raised their hands that they wanted it done … it was an overwhelming majority of people that wanted it moved.”
Martin and Knight also stood by their votes to consolidate the election days.
“I looked at it before and I was worried about being buried in the ballot … what we are doing now is we changed the date because it makes it easier,” Martin said. “My vote wasn’t to make the change whether Dennis could run or not. My vote was to change because it makes sense to have it on the same day. … I don’t care if Dennis runs or not to be honest. I am not running in this election, some people may worry about Dennis running, I am not worried about Dennis running whether he wants to run or not and I think he still can run. My vote wasn’t to make the change whether Dennis could run or not, my vote was to change because it makes sense to have it on the same day, one day, but not bury us as well and that is why I voted.”
Knight said such a conspiracy theory would be impossible to have amongst so many people.
“I just don’t think that can happen,” she said. “When I looked at the audience and they said what they said, that was the feeling I got and it was time for me to say yes.”
Ayres interjected that it is still an open question on whether an active employee, or a person on the city payroll, can run for council or not. He added that if the charter amendment on the table does not pass the council would have to wait 11 months to hold an organizational meeting following the election.
“It certainly does complicate matters,” he said.
Joe Hall set the motion to approve the charter change to have the council’s organizational meeting held on the Thursday following the election.
“Quite frankly the questions that are here can be decided by the public, out there … let the voters decide the leadership of Ocean City. What is clear is the fact that we changed the date and now that the election is in November. It is a moot point with Dennis … he is open and free to be on board; it will be a good election,” Joe Hall said.
The council voted 4-3 to approve the charter amendment, with Brent Ashley, Jim Hall and Margaret Pillas in opposition.