OCEAN CITY – The new paid parking areas added this summer were bagged Tuesday after the Mayor and Council decided to repeal the ordinance, leading Mayor Rick Meehan to promise to oppose paid parking on city streets in the future.
Several months ago, the City Council voted 5-2 to approve Ordinance 2013-10 that enacted new areas of paid parking to bring in additional revenue and help close a budget gap. Councilmembers Dennis Dare, Doug Cymek, Lloyd Martin, Mary Knight and Joe Mitrecic voted in favor of the parking ordinance and Brent Ashley and Margaret Pillas were opposed.
After several studies, the selected locations included a chunk of the east side of the Public Safety Parking Lot between 65th and 66th streets, City Hall Parking Lot, on the west side of Philadelphia Avenue between North Division St. and South First St., 49th Street ocean block, 131st Street from Coastal Hwy. to Sinepuxent Ave., and 146th Street ocean block.
For months, the ordinance met opposition from Ocean Place Condominium owners on 146th Street as well as from Nolen Graves, the owner of the Crab Bag on 131st Street. Those in opposition came together with the recently organized group of Ocean City Taxpayers for Social Justice (OCTSJ), along with former Councilman Vince Gisriel, and began petition efforts to place a referendum on a ballet on the new areas of paid parking.
On Tuesday afternoon, Board of Elections Chair Mary Adeline Bradford presented the results of the petition for referendum of Ordinance 2013-10.
On Tuesday, July 30, the Clerk’s Office received a 1,770-signature petition for referendum of Ordinance 2013-10. The Board of Elections convened Wednesday, Aug. 21, and Thursday, Aug. 22, to review the petition signatures.
According to Bradford, the board found 86 signatures of non-registered voters, five rejected signatures and 32 duplicate signatures. There were 1,648 valid signatures.
Bradford explained there were 3,064 voters in the November 2012 Municipal Election. The charter of the Town of Ocean City requires a petition acquire 40 percent, or 1,226 signatures, of the number of voters in the most recent general election for the petition to be valid.
“The petition is successful,” Bradford said.
Mitrecic made a motion to ratify the results of the petition. The motion was seconded by Cymek and the council council voted unanimously to approve.
Last week a few Ocean Place Condominium owners challenged the Mayor and City Council and Board of Elections over the length of time that had passed for the Board to review the petition results.
This week Bradford took the time to clear the air.
“We are an independent board and the members that serve on that board feel very strongly. Wars have been fought and people have died for the right to vote and sign petitions. My grandfather was killed fighting,” she said. “The question of any member of the Board of Elections would either slow down or speed up a petition for personal gain or political gain is absolutely unconscionable.”
Bradford furthered petitions are not scheduled and the independent board of seven members have to work their schedules out to find a time to meet.
“We have two goals. Number one, the petition is accurate. The verification process is accurate. The second is it stands the test should the petition be questioned and litigated. We want to make sure that it is a valid petition and no short cuts were taken in the process,” she said.
Bradford had asked City Clerk Kelly Allmond to conduct research on the amount of time it has taken the city as well as Worcester County to verify petitions in the past.
In 2012, Ocean City received a petition for general employees to gain collective bargaining and it took 12 days to be processed. In 2004, there was a petition that took 18 days to verify. The parking petition took 19 days between Allmond’s input process and the Board of Elections verification process.
Worcester County Board of Supervisors of Elections received a petition on May 28 and the results were certified on June 30. The Board of Supervisors of Election has seven employees that reviewed a petition of 1,600 signatures. The Ocean City Board of Elections is a board of seven citizens that reviewed 1,771 signatures.
“I assure the citizens of Ocean City that we do our very best to give you the results of a petition in a timely fashion but also in an accurate fashion, and so we have exercised the due diligence to give you these results in an independent manner and to give you the best that we can offer,”
Mitrecic stated he has been paying close attention to parking habits of visitors and condominium owners alike this year and has observed for a lack of a better term, a parking game.
“I have seen people out early in the morning moving their cars from dedicated spaces to street spaces, people standing in spaces while waiting for someone’s arrival, moving cars from one or two streets away to a spot in front of where they are staying, and a myriad of other parking maneuvers,” he said. “What I have come to realize is this game has been going on forever, and it is a way of life for our owners on the ocean block especially … Families are far too diverse to come on vacation in one car or even three cars anymore and need those parking spaces on the streets for their grandparents, kids, boyfriends, aunts and uncles and so on.”
Mitrecic continued the council has been accused of being unfair, greedy, not listening and a host of other non-flattering terms over paid parking this summer.
“I can promise you we have been listening and I have been watching,” he said. “I applaud the efforts of the petition. From someone who has campaigned door-to-door many times, I realize how much work it takes to reach 3,000 voters. Whether you believe the signatures were obtained by twisting the truth or not, 1,648 voters had felt compelled enough to sign that petition.”
Mitrecic spoke for all the council members who voted in favor of the parking ordinance in that it was not done to be capricious but to look at another revenue source to wipe the burden off taxpayers.
“We are listening to the majority of Ocean City voters who signed this petition. The last time there was this much division in our town was about two years ago and the then sitting council refused to listen. We do not want to be compared to them,” he said.
Mitrecic made a motion to have the city solicitor prepare an ordinance to repeal Ordinance 2013-10. The motion would immediately put a halt to paid parking listed in the ordinance and prevent the town from having to hold a special election to poll the taxpayers of their opinion on paid parking or place the referendum question in the next scheduled municipal election. Cymek seconded the motion.
Before a vote was taken, Council Secretary Mary Knight gave a brief history of the action that led the council to approving the parking ordinance in the first place.
Early this spring, the council was presented a budget for Fiscal Year 2014 that had a $1.2 million shortfall, which equates to about a penny and half on the property tax rate, Knight explained. This was after six months of every department head making continuous cuts. Realizing with City Manager David Recor that raising taxes was not an option the council, worked over three weeks to make further budget cuts.
The council kept in mind universal health care for city part-time employees, lowered assessments, increasing fund balance and funding infrastructure.
“What we did was proactively reduced the hours of some of our part-time employees, which hurt them, so that we would not have to pay health care. We reduced the hours of our bus service, again hurting our some of my constituents, your neighbors, taxpayers and non-resident taxpayers. We increased rates for Park n’ Ride patrons. We increased rates for business programs. What was the next step? We investigated user fees, such as parking, trash pickup, stormwater management fees, and increases in bus fees. After much consideration as you well know, we implemented parking fees in our city-owned lots and on a few streets,” she said. “My point is this whole process worked. We have heard you … and we appreciate your grassroots effort.”
Councilwoman Margaret Pillas interjected repealing the parking ordinance would not accomplish what the petition requested, and that is a referendum to be placed on a ballot questioning taxpayer’s opinions over paid parking. Furthermore, the motion on the table would not prevent the council from implementing new areas of paid parking in the future.
“You would think the 1,648 valid signatures were enough to tell you that it is more than half of the people that voted last year do not want parking, not just on these streets but also on some of the city lots,” she said.
Council President Lloyd Martin responded the democratic process has been followed and the public’s request to be given more time to be heard on such decisions as paid parking has been made clear.
The council voted 5-2 with Ashley and Pillas in opposition to repeal Ordinance 2013-10 to be brought before the council at the next legislative session on Tuesday evening. Pillas stated her opposition is due to the motion speaking against the public asking for a referendum.
Following the vote, Meehan expressed his support for the action to repeal the parking ordinance.
“By repealing the ordinance, you have done what I believe the voters, those who signed the petition, have asked for and that is to remove the meters,” the mayor said.
Meehan reminded the room that has sat through many discussions over paid parking since he joined the council in 1985.
“As long as I am the mayor of Ocean City, I am going to object to any more parking meters on city streets … unless there is six votes to override a mayoral veto, I don’t think you are going to see parking meters on the streets,” he said. “I hope we continue to look at our city lots, and other ways, not just parking meters to reduce costs and to increase revenues where they are palatable and where they are necessary.”
Pillas asserted the mayor had the chance to veto the parking ordinance months ago before it became law.
Meehan reminded Pillas he had offered a compromise to install paid parking in only the 16 parking spaces closest to the beach on 146th Street, only install paid parking on half of 131st Street and install paid parking on the west side of Philadelphia Ave. south of Division St. but to allow property owners with spaces contiguous to their property to request to have those spaces remain as free parking.
“I offered a compromise and nobody wanted to talk about the compromise, not the people who were in opposition or those in favor,” the mayor responded. “I certainly think it went better this way, the petition has happened and now we have taken action. We have received a clear message that this isn’t the way the citizens want to go and we have taken the appropriate action. Like I said, if you just want to continue it as a battle so be it.”
Immediately following the discussion Public Works Director Hal Adkins reported the Cale machines in the areas listed in Ordinance 2013-10 were already being covered and taken out of operation.