The Town of Ocean City should not do another major search for its soon to be vacant director of Planning and Community Development.
The city did that in 2012 after long-time department head Jesse Houston retired and the national search reportedly attracted dozens of qualified candidates. It was the right decision then to test the market to fill a long-tenured individual’s post. The process resulted in Matt Margotta being hired. While his qualifications were solid, having served in a similar capacity for six years in Fort Pierce, Fla., he essentially got the job based on City Manager David Recor’s recommendation. Margotta worked for Recor in Fort Pierce, Fla. and the city manager’s familiarity gave him the advantage.
That’s why Margotta’s quick departure and unsuccessful tenure in Ocean City should carry a particular sting for Recor, who advocated on his behalf and reportedly defended him on several fronts in the face of criticism in recent months.
Officially, Margotta’s resignation this week was for “personal reasons,” but there is clearly more to it than that. Margotta was going to go one way or the other, and when that’s evident, most career-minded professionals take the resignation route rather than have a dismissal in their background. A change was needed and this week’s spin was the city wishes “him nothing but the very best in all of his future endeavors,” according to Ocean City Communications Manager Jessica Waters.
The city is looking to move forward and standing by its policy not to talk specifics about personnel. That’s appropriate, but the city needs to think long and hard about how to fill the department head vacancy. Since a national search was just conducted two years ago, the city should not go that route again.
Instead, since the department needs stability at a time when the comprehensive plan is under review as well as other initiatives like designated smoking areas on the beach, the city should either promote Zoning Administrator Blaine Smith, who made the short list to be Houston’s replacement in late 2012, to the post or simply allow Recor, who has seven years of planning and community development experience from his days in Hilton Head, S.C. and Fairfax, Va., to assume more leadership and oversight of the department.
There is no question the city needs to improve its planning department on two fronts.
First, its general involvement with the public has been strained. There have been numerous complaints over the last year from building contractors about phone calls not being returned, a lack of professionalism on some dealings, lengthy waits for permits and questionable code interpretations. Some of these will always be present in the planning business, but clearly there are problems.
Secondly, there is a need for some moral improvements at the top of the department. It’s difficult for employees to respect a superior when he is clearly inebriated on the job. That happened at least once, resulting in a suspension for the violation, but those in the know maintain it was not an isolated incident. The resulting impact on morale is considerable.
Stability is needed within the department and the city would be wise in this case to affect that change through internal controls, whether an in-house promotion of Smith or appointing Recor as acting director. While taking the internal approach for the short term, the city’s Human Resources can further review the previous search applicants and reconsider some of the favorites from the process.