Thoughts From The Publisher’s Desk

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Silly Hall in Ocean City continued its downward spiral into complete dysfunction this week, as paranoia and conspiracy theories surfaced over the reason for the recent election date change.

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The most significant aspect of this week’s meeting, and there were many to choose from, was the challenge posed to City Solicitor Guy Ayres, who had his integrity questioned regarding former City Manager Dennis Dare’s possible City Council candidacy.

Based on the line of questioning, Council President Jim Hall made it clear he thinks Ayres advised someone the election date needed to be changed for Dare to run for council because he is a current employee, despite having been removed from office 10 months ago. He even accused Ayres of purposely withholding contents of a conversation he had with Dare’s attorney.

Jim Hall, a council member since 1987, said, “You were contacted by the lawyer representing the candidate and had a conversation, and suggested to him that the candidate not run unless the date of the election was changed because he was still a city employee.”

Ayres empathically denied that charge, saying, “There was never a discussion of the election date, never. … 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. That was the end of it.”

Mayor Rick Meehan was not in the room during some of this discussion and came back to council chambers when the 4-3 vote was taken to authorize a charter change for the requisite organizational meeting, held traditionally the Thursday after the election.

After learning later what had transpired, Meehan, who has been on the council since 1985 and mayor since 2006, was surprised to hear Ayres was questioned in that matter and “absolutely” believed Ayres was telling the truth.

“I know Guy knows what his position is and who he represents and he represents the Mayor and Council. He would never go outside of those lines and if he tells you that’s what transpired that’s what transpired. He is very deliberate in how he answers something, and I do not believe he would ever cross that line. Guy has given opinions that I don’t like. I question it and questioned him, but he says simply, ‘that’s the opinion’. He’s a rock and knows the boundaries,” Meehan said. “I think this is another example of council people pointing fingers. It’s very unfortunate and a continuation of what’s been going on for the last 18 months.”

For what it’s worth, I choose to believe Ayres when he says there was no funny business involved and no talk of a date change being required to allow for Dare to run.

By his very position of giving counsel on legal matters to the city, Ayres is involved in local politics, but I believe he wants to stay as far out of the situation as possible and would not go beyond the scope of his responsibilities. I think he has earned the right to be trusted at his word and deserves an apology.

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If Dare does file, one thing is clear — the council majority is going to come after him and explain in detail why they gave him the ultimatum to retire or be fired.

In a private off-the-record exchange, Joe Hall said the decision the majority made to not air the specific grievances against Dare during the dismissal process would be voided if he files for council. He said he would then thoroughly outline what led to his removal.

During the council meeting, Jim Hall went further, saying that Dare was “let go” for as many as 10 specific reasons.

“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.”

Whenever or even if this all comes out, I don’t expect it to be a huge revelation. Clearly, the council majority felt Dare, as well as his administrators most likely, was not being forthcoming enough, opposed many of the majority’s stated initiatives and was insubordinate on some level. The council majority wanted to break up the Dare-Meehan administration and go in a “new direction”. Other than specifics to demonstrate why that needed to be done, I don’t foresee any sort of bombshell. Time will tell if I am wrong.

The problem all along was the process and the manner in which it was handled. It was not an organized coup. There was no plan in place beyond perhaps having Public Works Director Hal Adkins ascend to the city manager’s office. When Adkins said no thanks, an expensive mess ensued, and it took nine months for the new city manager to be sworn in.

How much the situation cost the city is a debatable point among many. It will soon be in black and white, as The Dispatch filed a Freedom of Information Act request Monday, seeking all the expenses the city incurred as a result of Dare’s removal. I expect this will prove this move has cost taxpayers a tremendous amount of money, contradicting the conservative, cost-saving mantra being extolled by those blowing the winds of change.

Certain costs are easy to tabulate, such as the fact Dare received $101,152 in salary for not working after his removal in September through March and is currently receiving $6,665 per month through Oct. 31 as part of his severance accord. He will not be officially retired until Halloween, nearly 14 months after his excusal. That’s a total of $147,812 in wages alone that could have been avoided if the situation was handled differently, but that’s just the beginning.

I’m predicting it has cost the city an easy $220,000 when you include the search firm expenses, background checks on city manager candidates, travel expenses for candidate interviews, relocation expenses for City Manager David Recor and attorney and accountant fees to negotiate Dare’s exit.

And that’s not to mention the fact the general employees would have most likely not have sought to organize if Dare was not removed. That’s up for legitimate debate but the money this move cost the city is not.

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It’s interesting to me that a phone call from Dare’s attorney to Ayres stirred up all this controversy and conspiracy theories in the first place.

Suspect phone calls have been in the news a lot of late. Remember it was just a few months ago when Joe Hall stirred up a controversy by calling one of the two leading city manager candidates while he was employed in Fort Pierce, Fla. That candidate was David Recor, who began his new job in Ocean City last month and by all accounts has acclimated well to his new digs.

That phone call was brought up this week indirectly when Councilman Brent Ashley called out Councilman Doug Cymek for being inconsistent. Cymek had said back in April Joe Hall’s call to Recor fouled the integrity of the process.

Ashley maintained Dare’s attorney’s call to Ayres muddied the election date situation, but he did not feel Joe Hall’s call to Recor was significant in tainting the city manager search process. When challenged, Cymek did not agree with Ashley’s point and maintained he would not be changing his vote. Cymek said Dare had nothing to do with his mind being changed, referring instead to strong citizen support for the election change.

Ashley agreed with colleague Councilwoman Margaret Pillas the election date change would be best decided by a referendum, but the vote had already been taken to change the charter to reflect the date change last week and the vote was 4-3 to move the customary organizational meeting to the Thursday after the election in November.

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