OCEAN CITY – City Council members squared off this week over last month’s incident involving an Ocean City resident being ejected from council chambers with some members apologizing while others stood behind the decision.
At the conclusion of a Mayor and City Council meeting last month, while Ocean City resident Herb Pawlukewicz was at the podium addressing the Mayor and City Council, a citizen in the audience, Ellie Diegelmann, was asked to leave council chambers by a police officer after clapping in response to a comment and was accused of disorderly conduct.
The majority of the council claims they were all focused on Pawlukewicz and did not recognize the discourse between Diegelmann and the officer until she was already packing up her belongings and leaving the building. At that point, Councilman Brent Ashley asked Council President Lloyd Martin if Diegelmann could be given a warning and be allowed to stay. Martin replied, “No.”
This week a long-time former council member, Vince Gisriel, approached the Mayor and City Council during the citizen comments portion of the meeting to express his disappointment in the council over the incident.
“I have known Ellie Diegelmann for 15 years plus. I would see her come to this podium, I have seen her on TV over the years, I have seen her at these meetings, and pound for pound you can’t find one single civilian in this town that is more prepared, and does as much research, and asks the various questions as Ellie Diegelmann, and for her to be asked to leave these council chambers, I don’t know how far we have dipped,” Gisriel said. “In an era where a lot of people feel our rights are being infringed upon, we are losing our rights gradually day-by-day, if we lose the right to freedom of speech and the freedom of expression at a public setting we are all doomed.”
Councilwoman Margaret Pillas, who said she did not see what had transpired at last month’s meeting, took the opportunity to apologize to Diegelmann.
“If I would have seen it, I would have absolutely stood up for your rights,” Pillas said.
Ashley followed with an apology of his own as he is still embarrassed over the matter.
“I would hope the entire council would issue you an apology,” he said.
Martin claimed he was not aware of the discourse that took place between Diegelmann and the officer.
“By the time you [Ashley] wanted me to intervene, it was already over. I could not question why she was leaving. It would have not been right of me because the officer had already made a decision … to say I knew what was going on is wrong,” Martin said. “We try to conduct these meetings in a fair and equitable way so that we can address everyone’s concerns while being respectful to everyone’s feelings. We want to make sure the public knows we are listening to them and we want to answer their questions.”
Pillas then accused Martin of knowing exactly what happened because when she found out what had occurred at the conclusion of the meeting she approached Martin and said, “Who the hell do you think you are?”, to which Martin responded, “I have had enough.”
Ashley agreed with Pillas and added he witnessed Martin give the officer a gesture when Diegelmann clapped.
Diegelmann said she is not surprised Martin denied that he gestured to the officer to have Diegelmann removed.
“This is not acceptable,” she said. “This is against our First Amendment rights in the constitution, the freedom of speech.”
Ocean City resident Charlie Barrett was the lone voice Monday in support of the council president.
“I agree the public has the right to speak but I don’t agree they have the right to come up here and attack, and that happens week after week with the same people, and if you did react to it, I would pardon you for it,” Barrett said.
Councilman Dennis Dare reiterated decorum is appropriate in council chambers.
“Over the last several months I have been on this council, it seems like things have deteriorated somewhat when people come up to the council and the council has tried to remain very respectful of them,” Dare said. “Freedom of speech doesn’t necessarily give you the freedom to be insulting, disrespectful, accusatory and arrogant.”
Council Secretary Mary Knight agreed with Dare, pointing out several occasions she has been accused of being a member of a herd and needed to be cattle prodded, or when she attended a meeting of the Ocean City Taxpayers for Social Justice and was told despite her formal education background and degrees, that she was unable to read a financial statement.
Ashley interjected as he felt the council majority was going off on a tangent, stating Diegelmann was not being disrespectful when all she did was clap her hands.
“I wasn’t going to chime in on this but Ms. Diegelmann knows what she did,” Councilman Doug Cymek said.
Cymek explained what had occurred from what he had witnessed. The police officer approached Diegelmann after she had been waving papers in the air and clapping. She and the officer stepped out into the hall to have a discussion, and when she returned to gather her belongings she continued to wave papers in the air to receive acknowledgement from the council.
“She was disruptive. It was not just clapping. You are focusing in on a little bit of the beat. I watched the whole thing,” Cymek said.
Pillas asked City Solicitor Guy Ayres if it was his opinion that Diegelmann acted out in such a way to lawfully have her removed from council chambers that evening.
“In my opinion, that would not be disruptive of a meeting. Therefore, it would not justify removal,” Ayres said. “You have to understand the basic precept of a democratic government is that the people have the right to submit grievances against the government. Those grievances can be expressed in a number of ways … I haven’t heard anything that would justify her removal from the meeting.”
Mayor Rick Meehan concluded the incident was an unfortunate event but also a lesson learned in moving forward as he too apologized to Diegelmann.
“We all have a little responsibility that we should take for that, but we can all also take responsibility to make sure that it doesn’t happen again, and work to continue to have communication,” the mayor said. “If everybody uses the proper decorum, conversation is better and ideas are better shared in that matter. The council president has made it clear he wants everybody to have the right to be heard. Hopefully, we will handle that a little better.”
Meehan added it is true disrespectful exchanges take place in council chambers on a weekly basis and has had members of the public state to him they no longer attend council meetings because of certain people’s behavior.
“If we have the proper decorum and we all treat each other respectfully, I think we will have more of the public come to enjoy our meetings and join in on public comment,” he said.