NEW FOR WEDNESDAY: City’s Hurricane Irene Transaction With Councilman Questioned

OCEAN CITY — A city councilman denied this week any abuse of power when he served more than $3,300 in meals to emergency responders during Hurricane Irene a year ago.

Earlier this month, this publication received a letter alleging Hall’s Restaurant conducted business during Hurricane Irene when all other operators did not have the benefit of making money. The letter contains allegations that at least are partially true.

To determine the validity of the charges, specifically whether Hall’s Restaurant completed a business transaction with the city during Hurricane Irene, this newspaper filed a Freedom of Information Act request and obtained city receipts and credit card transactions confirming the charge.

An M&T Bank credit card statement shows a $3,300 transaction on Ocean City Fire Chief Chris Larmore’s “P-Card,” the term used for a city-issued credit card.

A hand-written guest check from Hall’s Restaurant, provided by the city as a result of the FOIA request, shows 110 lunches at a cost of $10 apiece were provided as well as 110 dinners charged at $20 each. The food was picked up by members of the fire company at Hall’s during the storm. Additionally, a credit card receipt from Hall’s Restaurant dated Tuesday, Aug. 30 was provided in city documents.

The order to close Ocean City to visitors and non-essential personnel was issued on Thursday, Aug. 25 and Hurricane Irene began truly influencing the weather in the resort late Friday, Aug. 26 and through Saturday, Aug. 27. Ocean City re-opened on Sunday, Aug. 28 after the storm quickly headed north.

The transaction in question occurred on Saturday of that weekend when nearly every other Ocean City business was shuttered based on the city ordering a mandatory evacuation that essentially required all businesses to close.

Joe Hall said the council never voted to have all businesses close in Ocean City, as alleged in the letter that was read to him by this reporter, and specifically mentioned fellow Councilman Lloyd Martin’s 7-Eleven store being open after the city issued an evacuation order. Martin did confirm last year he allowed motorists to fill up their gasoline tanks prior to the storm.

Joe Hall, who was weathering the storm at the restaurant with employees and family members, said he could not specifically recall when the meals were provided but he said the weather was getting “nasty out” at the point when personnel picked up the food at the backdoor of his restaurant.

The fire department, according to Hall, had underestimated the number of meals needed during the storm due to extra personnel reporting to town fire stations in preparation of a response.

Larmore confirmed that in a phone interview Wednesday afternoon. The fire chief, currently in his fifth season at the helm, said it’s important to know how this desperate transaction transpired and that the city had made several other purchases in advance of the storm from at least four local businesses, including the Plim Plaza on the Boardwalk, Crab Alley in West Ocean City and Harpoon Hanna’s in Fenwick Island, specifically. Food was also donated by at least one business.

On the Saturday morning of Hurricane Irene weekend, Larmore said he was startled to learn from command staff members the food situation was not as adequate as expected at several fire stations that did not have any commercial-type kitchen facilities. Larmore said that was at least partially a result of a major influx of emergency personnel that exceeded initial expectations.

“I literally had a meltdown and said to them, ‘wait a minute, I have asked this question for three days, been told we were fine and verified it last night. What’s the problem?’”, Larmore said. “By Saturday morning, I was getting calls saying we are really jammed up for food. So right away we contacted some of the larger restaurants with freezer and generator capability to see if we can have access to their freezers and keep an inventory for reimbursement purposes.”

The problem, according to Larmore, was many restaurants staff contacted had their supplies retrieved by Sysco and returned inland out of fear of losing their products in a power outage. While at the Public Safety Building for a storm briefing, Larmore said he was standing in a hallway near the elevator when he learned about the dire food situation and noticed Joe Hall nearby along with other elected officials.

“I said to Joe Hall, ‘hey you own a restaurant, do you have any food in your freezer?’ and I explained what was going on,” Larmore said. “He told me, ‘give me the go-ahead and we will cook and prepare the meals.’ I thought that was great … He was not picked out … I don’t regret that decision. No, it was not ‘hey Joe Hall opened his restaurant to make money and it happened to be a city department.’ I appreciate the fact that he did it. If [Council members] Jimmy Hall or Mary Knight owned a restaurant, I would have asked them the exact same thing. I would be the first to admit a mistake on the record, but in this case I feel I can look to the public and justify this decision. Yes, in the 11th hour with the total number of people we had and at least one-third of them volunteer in nature, the one thing we have to provide for them is the ability to eat and drink. We had to take care of our people.”

Former City Manager Dennis Dare, who was the city’s chief executive at the time of Irene last August, said he was not aware of the transaction beforehand, but he said whether the city manager gave permission under those emergency circumstances was “irrelevant.”

“The decision on whether he wanted to do it as a council person was up to him. I would not have denied it because if the volunteer fire company needed food, then they needed food, and in an emergency like that, you make decisions and you move on,” Dare said. “Whether Councilman Hall took advantage of the situation or not, that’s for somebody else to decide, not for the city manager to decide.”

Joe Hall said it gave him great pride to be able to help the city’s emergency responders during what was expected to be a major storm, which ended up resulting in only minor damage for the Ocean City.

“Serving 220 meals to emergency personnel protecting our town during a hurricane, all while being separated from their families, ranks as the all-time top meal served by Hall’s Restaurant. This would have never gotten a second look except that I’m an elected person …,” Joe Hall said. “I’m surprised they [political opponents] didn’t hold off and try to pop this out in October.”

When asked about a variety of high-end seafood being prepared and sold by Hall’s compared to chicken fingers and salads from other restaurants that sold goods to the city, Joe Hall said he stands behind the decision.

“They got a great meal and anything extra because the coolers were full and we were anticipating a great weekend. I don’t think you could find anyone who would tell you the meal was not worth what we charged,” Joe Hall said. “What we provided came down to we had a cooler full of food. Chief Larmore would have been happy with turkey sandwiches. The fact we had crab salads, crab legs and shrimp and other items already prepared and we didn’t know when we would be able to open or even if that storm was going to put us out of business for some time. What better way to utilize the food that was in our coolers than to make sure we gave the very best to the personnel protecting the town,” Joe Hall said. “The order was for 110 lunches and 110 dinners. … Being an elected official doesn’t exempt you from being a business person. I can’t see anybody questioning the amount charged. It would be one thing if we charged $25 for lunches and $50 for the dinners, then you could say Joe Hall took advantage of the situation.”

About The Author: Steven Green

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(The writer has been with The Dispatch in various capacities since 1995, including serving as editor and publisher since 2004.)