OCEAN CITY — By nature of his former post with the city and his candidacy for the City Council, former City Manager Dennis Dare has been a central figure during this year’s election season, but he said this week in an interview he wants to look forward rather than rehashing the details of the recent past.
In the interview, Dare reiterated the importance of discussing the future. He said he wants to specifically see the town return to reinvesting in itself, revisiting projects like the new fire station in north Ocean City, a revamping of the skate park and the proposed bayside park on 3rd Street, among others.
Dare retired from the city after 21 years as city manager in September of 2011 after being given an ultimatum to retire or be terminated by the council majority. He served eight years as city engineer previously.
Dare has been sharply criticized in recent weeks in council majority candidate interviews, and this week the council candidate addressed some of the allegations made by Councilmen Jim Hall and Joe Hall in recent interviews as well as a paid ad from Councilman Brent Ashley.
Here’s a look at that conversation:
Q. Back in December, after you and the city signed a severance agreement stipulating your retirement, you were noncommittal on a run for council, joking that bringing stress into your retirement did not interest you at the time. What made you file?
A. I think I still have a lot to offer. My experience and background after 29 years is unique and I have seen it before with [former Ocean City Police Chief and Councilman] Lee Duggan and [former OCPD spokesman and Councilman] Jay Hancock. I worked with both of them and I saw an insight that they could bring with the discussions because they knew not only a lot about police work, but also about town processes and the employees. I think I can bring those capabilities to a different level as a policy maker rather than just an administrator.
Q. Would you have run for office eventually once you retired or did the way you were forced into retirement play a role in why you decided to run?
A. Yes and no.
Yes, I have always contemplated after retirement coming back to give back to the town. And no, the way it happened and how it happened has nothing to do with it.
I don’t have revenge and that’s one of the reasons I gave you the answer I did back last year. I wanted to make sure if I did run for office it was for all the right reasons and not to retaliate, which is just not the case.
Q. At your press conference last month, a motto “The Right Direction” was put forward. Now we see bumper stickers and signs with that message. What do you mean by that?
A. My guiding light through 29 years of service was to do things that I thought were right. Instead of trying to guess what other people thought, I used my judgment in what I thought was the right thing to do for the town of Ocean City.
When I retired last year and the council majority talked about going in a new direction, there were a lot of people who had comments on that. So when I decided I wanted to seek elected office, that same concept that I used in the past — doing what I thought was right — was how I was going to approach not just the campaign but hopefully my service. I will do things that I think are right for the town of Ocean City.
Q. In earlier interviews, Jim Hall and Joe Hall said there is a clear choice. If the voters want to revert back to the “big spenders,” they should vote for you and your team of Rick Meehan, Doug Cymek, Mary Knight and Joe Mitrecic. If the voters want to keep a lid on spending and stay conservative, they should vote for Jim Hall and Joe Hall. That’s the picture the majority members up for election are painting. What are your thoughts on being called a big spender?
A. It’s interesting. I have never voted on one budget. In a council-manager form of government, the city manager’s responsibility is to present a balanced budget. Then the council spends weeks, months going over the budget to whatever degree they want and then they make their changes and the council votes on the budget.
Council President Jim Hall has voted on 20-some budgets favorably and Councilman Joe Hall has voted on at least eight favorably. The council sets the spending and it’s up to the city manager to operate the city within those constraints.
I have never been one to approve or manage the spending. It’s rhetoric that I’m sure plays with some people, but I trust the public sees through some of these buzz words that keep floating out. Just to say you are conservative and cut the tax rate, you know you can talk the talk but you have to walk the walk. I think the proof is in what you have done.
Q. You were the subject of an ad two weeks ago purchased by Councilman Brent Ashley, who explained in his words why the city manager change was made last year. He detailed the growth of the budget from around $40 million in 1989 to $112 million in 2010, while the year-round population remained stable and tourism was stagnant, according to him. Can you explain why the budget did go up to that degree over that time?
A. Well, I can’t explain why Councilman Ashley has to take a paid advertisement out when he’s not even running this time. I can’t explain why he just wants to cherry pick some facts and figures and spin them so it’s negative.
The fact is when I started in 1982 as city engineer to 2011 when I retired the size of government did grow, but so did its responsibilities. There’s probably a third more dwelling units in town. The permanent population doubled and the summer population has grown in that time. The number of streets and paving increased. We acquired the wastewater facility and there’s 40 to 50 people there. We tripled the size of the convention center, which required more people. We doubled the size of Northside Park. Everything that was done over those 20 or 30 years improved the town of Ocean City and yes there is a price to those improvements. There’s more people, more money. That’s what was voted on most of the time by the council and by Councilman Jim Hall. That’s what it took to do it.
Q. Last month, Joe Hall said you, him and Ashley had lunch in the summer of 2011. He said, “We tried to get Dennis to work with us … we told Dennis to stop fighting us and just work for everybody. He looked me in the eye and said I don’t agree with you.” How did that conversation go from your perspective?
A. First of all, the city manager works for the seven council people, not one or two. Throw in the mayor and that’s eight. So I work for the majority. If a council member comes to me and says, ‘Dennis, I wonder how many grains of sand there are on the beach.’ I’m going to say, ‘that’s a great question, I wonder, too.’ But if that council person goes into a council meeting and makes a motion to that effect and that motion passes, then I will be out the next day counting the grains of sand.
I work for the majority and for one or two council people to sit down and dictate, that should have been done at the council level, just like interviewing a potential replacement for the city manager should be done by the entire council, not by one council person calling and interviewing the candidate.
My contract, that Council President Jim Hall didn’t remember after 25 years, provided that I have an annual performance evaluation. Under Council President Mitrecic and Council President Meehan, we would sit down and go over my performance for the last year. If I met the goals that were set, then we would set new goals for the coming year. That was something done for all the city employees as well.
Under Council President Jim Hall, I was never evaluated. I didn’t have goals set, for whatever reason. If I wasn’t performing to the majority’s desire, it’s because they never made their goals known as a group where they could have been discussed by everybody and agreed upon, even if it was a 4-3 agreement.
Q. Along those lines, insubordination has been continuously alleged from the top down during the year after the council majority change. It was specifically alleged by Joe Hall and Jim Hall during our interviews that you at some point told staff members during a meeting that they had to wait two years to the next election and deal with the new majority’s decisions. Can you explain that?
A. There was a situation similar to that that happened. It was after the council majority had introduced 11 motions to affect salaries and benefits. Those initial motions were for employees, it didn’t say full-, part-time or new employees. It was several meetings later when they introduced the concept of only doing it for new hires. The method in which all that was done and the comments, like Councilman Joe Hall’s ‘we are done with you comment’, as their direct supervisor under the council, I needed to keep employees focused on what they needed to do to provide the services.
They were all very, very concerned. These were the department heads, and they set the tone for their departments. I don’t see a problem with telling them, ‘look you can’t affect what’s going on, it needs to work itself out, do what’s right and let this progress. If it’s going to go to the next election before it’s resolved, that’s what it’s going to take.’
Q. Ok, this is something that has been debated a lot. You seem to think those 11 motions were initially intended for all employees. Is that right?
A. Yes, no question.
I will tell you none of the council majority members came to me to talk to me about those pay and benefits changes. None of them. I heard it for the first time at the Monday meeting back then.
The council president is basically a liaison between the council and the city manager. The council president sets the agenda and runs the meeting. Again, under Council Presidents Mitrecic and Meehan, we would often meet and discuss ongoing issues or plans or initiatives and go over the agenda.
Under Council President Jim Hall, I didn’t have that. Some emails back and forth and he would talk to my secretary, maybe came in my office a handful of times. These far-reaching issues they wanted to bring up were not discussed ahead of time with me.
One of the things I have been alleged to have been insubordinate about was they would ask for information and I wouldn’t provide it. Well, the information was given to them, but I don’t know it was always read or comprehended, particularly I suspect when it didn’t match the results they wanted.
Q. Jim Hall said he approached the administration, meaning you, numerous times about these pay/benefits changes, saying make it your idea, you will be the hero. Do you recall that?A. I do not remember that.
Q. Jim Hall last week brought up the fire company issue from six years ago as another of the reasons for your removal. He alleged the administration wanted to get rid of the volunteers altogether and start a paid company. He said that was when he really lost confidence in you. How do you respond?
A. It’s just a shame to bring the volunteer fire company up as a political issue, six years later. They don’t deserve it.
We had a transition going on at that time in how the fire service was able to provide protection necessary for the town. It was a gradual thing over the years and started before I even became city manager. We used to have ambulance drivers that were volunteers, then they became paid EMTs and then paramedics. So this transition had been going on for 30 years probably.
In fact, when he talks about 2006, there was a direction given to me by the council to try and resolve this. We came up with a number of ideas, some of which were radical. We called the command structure in and we sat down in the conference room. Nobody wanted to venture out and explore solutions, and I offered a list of items that were talking points and I said if you like one of them, we will pursue it. If you don’t, it’s off the table. They were just talking points, thinking we were all adults and could have a discussion to see if there’s something they like.
Some apparently took offense I found out later, not to my face. I asked for the talking points back and all but one person gave them back. Some months later, the talking points showed up again and way out of context. Evidently, Council President Jim Hall remembers that, not necessarily how we got to that.
Q. We are asking each candidate to weigh in on the general employees’ union efforts. What’s your feeling on the union referendum?
A. I think back to the FOP’s successful referendum. I was somewhat surprised the public voted for it. I was even more surprised the largest business owner in Ocean City supported it with urges to vote for it on his marquees. As city manager, I worked with the FOP on at least three contract negotiations, and I came to respect them in the process. The framework of the contract was very fair. They were concerned about wages and benefits but they were equally concerned about working conditions. So when the firefighters came to the council to ask for their collective bargaining, the council said, ‘we will give it to you if you want it without binding arbitration. If you want binding arbitration, you have to go knock on doors.’ The firemen took collective bargaining without it and I have worked on at least two contracts with them.
In the meantime, in between contracts, if day-to-day situations arose, we worked together on them. So I can work with the unions in a respectful fashion, and if on Nov. 6, the voters of Ocean City pass the referendum and give the employees collective bargaining, I can work with them as a council person. The employees know I will be honest with them and respectful.
The referendum only allows for the general employees to collectively bargain. It doesn’t dictate that they do it, and I don’t know that it’s given that over 50% of the employees want collective bargaining. So even if the citizens say yes, the employees may not vote to do that.
While I was city manager, I held focus groups with employees from each department, a good cross section. I got great feedback from them and they would ask questions and sometimes the answers were not what they wanted to hear, but they appreciated an honest answer to their concerns.
About 2009-2010, I was told by the council not to meet anymore with the employee focus group for some reason. Between that and the change in attitude of the council, it stirred some of the union interest back up.
Q. Did you sign the union petition?
Q. Will you vote yes or no for the union?
A. I am not going to answer the question because I think it’s an unfair question.
When the employees came to the Mayor and Council and asked for collective bargaining, that was the time for the council to say, ‘we don’t support it or we do support it.’ But they passed that on to the voters. So now it’s up to the voters to decide the question and to ask the council to give an opinion, as Councilman Joe Hall did, that’s unfair. He had his chance to make his feelings known and for whatever reason he didn’t.
If there was not a referendum and you wanted to know how Dennis Dare the candidate thought about collective bargaining, then it’s a fair question. It’s not a fair question when the jury won’t be heard until Nov. 6.
Q. You are in a voting block with the mayor, Cymek, Knight and Mitrecic. Is that fair to say?
A. It’s fair to say Dennis Dare has always done what Dennis Dare thought was right, and very often historically what Mary Knight, Doug Cymek, Joe Mitrecic and Rick Meehan have done, I have felt personally was the right thing to do.
Q. When you speak with voters, what are you talking about?
A. I’m looking to the future. I see a lot of good days ahead in Ocean City. As I spoke about on the day I announced, I want us to return to those capital projects we had to put on the shelf due to the economy. The new 130th Street firehouse plans, I hope we can revisit. Instead of talking about what happened in 2006 as Council President Jim Hall wants to do, we need to talk about what’s going to happen in 2013.
Another thing is the skate park needs a lot of work. I like the bayside park concept off 3rd Street that was presented years ago. The OCDC’s model block program, I think that deserves a more thorough look.
All of those were designed and put on the shelf and I think it’s time to take another look at those. With construction costs at a low and bargaining rates at a low, I think it’s worth a discussion with the council whether it’s time to move on to not just the Boardwalk restrooms but perhaps to the skate park, a facility that’s dated and flawed.
Maybe that’s being a big spender to some people, but that’s what has made this town successful.