Civil Suit Raises Social Media, First Amendment Issues; Wicomico Official Was Terminated For Facebook Page

SALISBURY — In what appears to be one of the first real tests of social media and First Amendment rights, at least locally, a former Wicomico County employee filed suit this week against the county asserting he was wrongfully terminated for starting a Facebook page to open a discussion on Wicomico’s proposed employee handbook revisions.

Former Wicomico County Emergency Management Coordinator David Inkrote filed suit in U.S. District Court against Wicomico County and three of his supervisors claiming his First Amendment rights to free speech were violated when he created a Facebook page in March to provide a forum for discussion on the county’s proposed new employee handbook. The suit seeks an undetermined amount in compensatory and punitive damages and could be a test case for an employee’s use of Facebook and other social media.

In March, the Wicomico County Council reviewed during a publicly televised session on PAC-14 a draft of the new county employee handbook. According to the suit filed on Tuesday, the proposed employee handbook would make substantial revisions to the existing handbook, which has been in effect since 2003.

For example, the new employee handbook would appear to replace tenurial employment, under which county employees could be terminated only for cause at the discretion of the employer, with at-will termination. In addition, the proposed employee handbook would make significant reductions in the employee benefits available to county employees, particularly with regard to health insurance and the availability of accrued paid time off.

According to the suit filed this week, the proposed revisions to the employee handbook set off a storm of public commentary on local blog sites and other media outlets. Supporters of the proposed revisions applauded the new handbook for saving the county money and reducing its administrative burden. Detractors claimed it was unfair to employees while making employment with the county less desirable and making it more difficult to attract qualified candidates.

Inkrote found himself in the middle of the discussion with several fellow county employees asking him questions about what the changes would mean. According to the suit, Inkrote shared those concerns with Councilman Larry Dodd, who suggested in an email that Inkrote should start a Facebook page to facilitate the discussion of the new employee handbook.

On March 21, acting on Dodd’s suggestion, Inkrote established a private Facebook account, on his own time and using his own computer to promote the discussion of the proposed employee handbook. Participation in the Facebook page was by invitation only and Inkrote invited several current county employees along with retirees to openly discuss the changes in the handbook. By the next day, there were 88 members and discourse on the Facebook account, which was civil, courteous and focused on the pertinent issues, according to the complaint filed this week. Eventually, 176 county employees participated in the Facebook discussions including the Deputy Director of Emergency Services, who posted the PAC-14 video of the council meeting when it was introduced.

“Mr. Inkrote participated in Facebook discussions only on his own time, and apparently, so did the other Facebook participants,” the complaint reads. “Facebook activity was subject to written ground rules imposed by Mr. Inkrote requiring participation to be civil, courteous and appropriate and virtually all participants complied. The Facebook account engendered no interference with participants’ workplace activities and did not disrupt operations in the workplace in any fashion.”

Nonetheless, less than a week after establishing the Facebook page, Inkrote was informed by his supervisors that he was being terminated. The correspondence attached to the termination acknowledged “the employee has a First Amendment right to Facebook for personal use, but the county does not condone behavior that subjects county employees to anti-county government behavior,” and that “the county cannot support a website that isolates or criticizes management and its practices.”

Inkrote, through counsel, then filed an formal grievance challenging his termination, asserting among other things he had not engaged in on-the-job activities, made no use of any official information not available to the public and that he had done nothing that “might reasonably be deemed as malicious, coercive, discourteous, inconsiderate or unprofessional,” and that his actions were “protected by the First Amendment in that they were undertaken on his own time and using his own computer and simply promoted appropriate discussion of matters of general public interest.”

In May, the county’s Personnel Board held a hearing on Inkrote’s formal grievance and ultimately upheld his termination. Left with no other recourse, Inkrote through his attorney filed suit this week in U.S. District Court claiming free speech retaliation under the First Amendment. The suit seeks relief from economic losses including back pay and benefits. The complaint also points out Inkrote was terminated with less than two years left until he was eligible for county retirement benefits.

The suit seeks an undetermined amount in compensatory and punitive damages and a declaratory judgment that Inkrote’s right to free speech under the First Amendment were violated.

No Major Injuries In North Ocean City Fire

Photo by the OCFD

OCEAN CITY — A townhouse was severely damaged  but only one minor injury was reported during a major residential fire on Jamestown Rd. in north Ocean City early Monday morning.

Around 2 a.m. on Monday, Ocean City Communications received a call coming from a three-unit, two-story townhouse on Jamestown Rd. in the area of 116th Street. The caller, who was in a neighboring unit, was awakened by a smoke detector and saw fire in a second-floor window.

The initial reports indicated occupants were trapped inside. However, all occupants had evacuated with the assistance of the Ocean City Police Department. The fire was quickly upgraded to a three-alarm event, but was later backed down to a two-alarm fire.

Arriving Ocean City Fire Department units quickly extinguished the blaze, limiting the most significant fire damage to the unit of origin. The OCFD was assisted by firefighters from Berlin, Bishopville, Selbyville, Millville and Bethany Beach.

Smoke and water damage was present throughout the unit of origin and adjacent units sustained water damage. In addition, a property to the east had vinyl siding melted due to the extreme heat of the fire.

Ocean City Emergency Management assisted the occupants of the unit in coordination with the Red Cross, which arrived on the scene shortly after the fire. One occupant suffered a mild injury, but did not require transport to a hospital and was treated on the scene by paramedics. The cause of the fire is under investigation by the Ocean City Fire Marshal’s Office.

 

Loss In State Title Game Does Little To Tarnish Remarkable Season

With the sting of the late loss to Century in the state championship game on Wednesday, the Decatur girls’ varsity lacrosse team was all smiles as they showed off the runner-up trophy. The Seahawks were remarkable all season during their run for perfection.

Submitted photo

BERLIN- Stephen Decatur’s girls’ varsity lacrosse team’s bid for a state championship and a perfect season ended with a heart-breaking 10-7 loss to Baltimore-area powerhouse Century in the title game on Wednesday, but the loss did little to tarnish what was a remarkable season for the Seahawks.

Decatur entered the state championship game against Century as a decided underdog as the battle-tested Knights had been in the state final 11 times in the last 12 years and on Wednesday won their fourth state championship in the last seven years. The Seahawks, meanwhile, were undefeated, taking on all comers throughout its remarkable season including a win over Queen Anne’s in the Bayside championship and a narrow win over another Baltimore-area power Hereford in the state semifinals last Thursday.

For much of the first half on Wednesday, the two teams battled like a pair of heavyweights looking to expose each other’s weakness and look for an opportunity. The first half ended in a 5-5 tie, setting the stage for a dramatic finish. The Decatur defense led by goalkeeper Jillian Petito, who recorded eight of her 10 saves in the first half, had been successful in stymying the Knights, who averaged 15 goals per game.

The Seahawks took a 6-5 lead early in the second on a goal by Elle Bargar, but Century answered with a tying goal with just over 15 minutes remaining. After the Knights took a 7-6 lead, Decatur answered with a goal by Payton VanKirk on an assist by sophomore Claire Porter, who emerged as an offensive force during the state playoffs. VanKirk’s goal tied it 7-7 with 8:30 left in the contest, but that was as close as the Seahawks would get to wrapping up a state championship and a perfect season.

Century took the lead for good with a goal at the 7:37 mark to go ahead, 8-7, and scored again less than a minute later to extend the lead to 9-7. With plenty of time still left, there was no quit in the Seahawks, who continued to apply pressure on the Knights’ net.

However, a couple of late, ill-timed yellow cards by the Seahawks left them down a player as the clock wound down and Century was able to control the ball and limit Decatur’s possessions. The Knights were able to kill the clock and scored the final goal with less than a minute remaining to secure the 10-7 win and the state championship.

The loss was a tough one for the Seahawks, but did little to tarnish their remarkable season. Decatur came from behind against Hereford last Thursday with two late goals by sophomore Lexie VanKirk to reach the state championship game for the first time since 2006. Decatur’s run at perfection and a state title provide further evidence on how far lacrosse has come on the Eastern Shore in recent years. The teams in Century’s bracket had won 31 state championships compared to five for the rest of the 3A-2A.

Ramadan Case Nearing Trial; 2013 Probe Broke Up Smuggling Op

OCEAN CITY — Two years after the raid on his Ocean City business and West Ocean City home, the trial for Basel Ramadan, ringleader of a vast multi-million dollar cigarette smuggling ring who was later charged with attempted “murder for hire” from behind bars, will likely begin as early next month.

In May 2013, federal officials concluded an investigation into a multi-million dollar cigarette smuggling operation with raids on two locations in and around the resort area including the West Ocean City homes of local business owners Basel Ramadan, now 44, who was called the “ringleader” and “boss of the enterprise,” and Samer Ramadan, 42, who was called the “enterprise treasurer.” Federal officials on the same day also raided the Ramadans’ offices over the Subway restaurant they owned at Sunset Drive near 26th Street in Ocean City.

Nearly two years later, Basel Ramadan was back in New York’s King’s County Supreme Court for yet another appearance, the latest in a string of 19 pre-trial court appearances for the ringleader since his arrest and grand jury indictment in 2013. Basel Ramadan is scheduled for another appearance on May 29 and his trial could begin as soon as early June. A spokesperson for the New York Attorney General’s Office this week said the trial might start as soon as June 8 and Ramadan’s attorney confirmed the case was finally moving closer to trial.

At the Ramadan’s West Ocean City homes in the Oyster Harbor community, $1.4 million in large black bags was recovered in 2013, along with 20,000 cartons of untaxed cigarettes. Also seized were numerous vehicles and other property belonging to the Ramadans. The Ramadans allegedly conducted the vast cigarette smuggling operation out of their Ocean City properties, but 14 other co-conspirators, from transporters to distributors to resellers, were also rounded up at locations all over the mid-Atlantic region.

According to the New York Attorney General’s Office, the Ramadans and their co-conspirators allegedly funneled thousands of cartons of untaxed smokes and millions of dollars in ill-gotten revenue through Ocean City and Worcester County from a wholesaler in Virginia to a distribution warehouse in Delaware, from whence the illegal, untaxed cigarettes were distributed to retail outlets all over New York City and upstate.

In May 2013, a New York grand jury handed down formal indictments against the Ramadans and their alleged 14 co-conspirators. As of yesterday, 15 suspects had been arrested including the Ramadan brothers, but a 16th suspect had fled the country to an unknown location in the Middle East.

The 300-plus page grand jury indictment includes 244 total counts and another 243 “pattern acts,” which attempt to establish the pattern of the operation over several years. Also included in the indictment are numerous “overt acts,” which include recorded phone conversations and movements of the alleged co-conspirators. According to the indictment, the Ramadans were successful for a long time in disguising the illicit proceeds and funneling through local banking institutions and allowed them to continue to finance the purchase of thousands of cartons of cigarettes from Virginia wholesaler Cooper Booth Inc.

Last July, Samer Ramadan, pleaded guilty to enterprise corruption, the top charge against him for his role in the massive cigarette smuggling scheme and was sentenced to a maximum of six years in prison and a minimum of two years. Another co-conspirator, Youssef Odeh, last year pleaded guilty to enterprise corruption and second-degree conspiracy for his role in an alleged murder-for-hire plot targeting witnesses in the case and was also sentenced to a maximum of six years and a minimum of two.

While Basel Ramadan faces trial for his leadership role in the vast cigarette smuggling operation, his case was complicated in October 2013 when he was indicted, along with Odeh, in an alleged “murder for hire” plot while incarcerated. The New York Attorney General’s Office in October 2013 added the new charges alleging Basel Ramadan and Odeh conspired from behind bars to murder witnesses they believed were cooperating with law enforcement in the massive cigarette smuggling case against them.

The second indictment alleged the two defendants conspired in the murder for hire plot shortly after their original indictment and arraignment on the original charges.

“During the course of the above-stated conspiracy, it was the stated goal of defendant Ramadan and defendant Odeh to kill several individuals whom the defendants believed to be witnesses against them in the prosecution of the Kings County indictment,” the indictment reads. “In order to carry out the above stated goal of conspiracy, both defendants discussed and agreed with individuals that the individuals would carry out the goal of the conspiracy by intentionally causing, or recruiting, other individuals to cause the death of persons the defendants believed to be witnesses against them on behalf of the prosecution.”

Coastal Bays’ Leader Moving On After 18 Years With Program

Dave Wilson

OCEAN CITY — After helping to shepherd the Maryland Coastal Bays Program through its most prolific times, MCBP Executive Director Dave Wilson last week announced he was stepping down after 18 years with the program.

“It’s time to hand the reins to some fresh blood,” Wilson announced last Friday. “I think we accomplished a lot and I am proud of that, but it’s time to pass the baton.”

Wilson started with the MCBP in November 1997 as the program’s public outreach coordinator.

“I had finished graduate school at Boston College and was bent on going back to school for my PhD after earning a few bucks,” he said. “I saw this posting and thought ‘I love this program. I’m versed in these issues. I want to do this.’”

Wilson joined the MCBP during a time when the program’s goals and intentions were coming under increased pressure. Worcester County and its resort areas were entering a period of great development and preserving the natural resources that were driving the commercial and residential growth was the focus.

While local, state and county officials were becoming increasingly aware of the need to protect and conserve the natural resources, the MCBP was almost always at the table. During the next decade, the state and county would craft critical areas legislation, corridor plans, pollution and nutrient runoff laws and more. For a decade, Wilson would help sway public opinion about conservation in the coastal bays before being tapped as executive director in 2008.

“I had two great predecessors in Steve Taylor and Dave Blazer,” he said this week. “They made things easy for me.”

Wilson was quick to credit the citizens of Worcester County for embracing the MCBP and its objectives and praised the program’s countless volunteers over the years.

“The staff we have here are some of the most dedicated people I have ever worked with. They, along with our local residents, are responsible for our great work. It’s astounding,” Wilson said.

Wilson said his strengths were in policy and wildlife issues and he steered the program toward those arenas, protecting over 10,000 acres of forests and farms, restoring wildlife habitat and working on planning and zoning to keep sprawl from consuming land. Under his watch, the program also instituted colonial nesting bird, terrapin, seal and amphibian monitoring.

With the environmental community often at odds with development and farming, Wilson proved adept at bringing together diverse factions. He said this week he was most proud to run an environmental program that farmers and developers could support.

“When you bring folks together, you see attitudes change,” he said. “You realize you can institute a program that has teeth, but respects the needs and beliefs of others.”

During Wilson’s tenure, the program became adept at competing for and securing state and federal dollars, including $1 million from the EPA to run the outreach program, more than $1 million in state and federal dollars for the Bishopville Dam restoration and millions more for conservation and restoration projects. He also credited Worcester County, Ocean City, Berlin and the state for being critical partners in the funding endeavors.

“These pots of money are earmarked for conservation purposes,” he said. “I like to think we made the taxpayers of Worcester County proud by bringing money back here rather than sending it over the bridge.”

Wilson pointed to island restoration and the creation of the Lewis Road Kayak Launch as some of his favorite MCBP projects.

“There is something very rewarding about taking an old dump and turning it into a kayak launch,” he said, referring to the program’s successful conversion of an old Town of Ocean City garbage dump on Lewis Rd. in West Ocean City into an attractive, viable kayak launch.

Another favorite for Wilson was the recent use of sand dredged from the navigation channels in and around the coastal bays for the creation and restoration of sandy islands in the estuary important for threatened several species. He said the dredge spoil island restoration projects could be the last chance black skimmers and royal terns have to survive in Maryland.

“Projects like this really make a difference,” he said. “To lose these shorebirds in this state would be a travesty, especially considering the island creation is actually saving tax dollars by allowing sand to be re-used in the bays rather than being trucked inland.”

The former director will now shift his focus to environmental and public relations consulting, using his knowledge, skills and abilities to assist other organizations with conservation and policy needs.

 

Cruisin Weekend A Hot Topic In Ocean City Community; Problems Again Stem From Unofficial Participants

A video of a visitor to Ocean City spinning out on Coastal Highway has been viewed by more than 1.4 million people on Street Racing Videos's Facebook page.

OCEAN CITY — In the calm following a raucous Cruisin weekend, a storm of a different sort was brewing in the resort this week with local residents once again railing against the noise, reckless driving and abuse of the town and officials wrestling with strategic adjustments to the event.

Cruisin hit Ocean City last weekend with around 3,400 classic cars officially registered for the event and an in-kind number of hangers-on, or “wannabes” as the event promoter referred to them this week. While the officially registered participants appeared to be well behaved for the most part and attended the event’s official activities, the latter group raced up and down Coastal Highway and other streets, dumped trash in parking lots and left a considerable amount of rubber on the roads.

Clearly, the spring Cruisin event has become one of the biggest weekends of the year in Ocean City, the biggest according to promoter and organizer Bob Rothermel, bigger even then the Fourth of July. While local residents and business owners bristled at the steady roar of the hot rod engines, they likely didn’t mind the equally steady ringing of cash register drawers.

Special events drive the economy in Ocean City, especially in the shoulder seasons, but balancing them with the quality of life has always been a challenge. Finding that balance remains a challenge, magnified by last weekend’s debacle, but town officials this week vowed to take measures to make it better.

“Twenty-five years ago, the Cruisin event was started the same year as Springfest,” said Mayor Rick Meehan at Monday’s council meeting. “Very few people were here the first weekend in May 25 years ago. Springfest was started to jumpstart the season and Cruisin was started to make sure we had people here for Springfest. That first year, there were less than 200 cars and people thought they were everywhere. Now it has grown and the event itself brings in 3,400 cars. They max it out at that number because that is all they have parking for at the Inlet and Convention Center, but that is the event itself.”

With the growth of the event and obvious economic benefit came the large unofficial groups that create most of the problems, according to Meehan.

“Unfortunately, there is an awful lot of others that come and piggyback off of that event and typically the people causing the problems are not the ones who are associated with it,” he said. “Things have changed in 25 years. We have a lot of new condos, new hotels and there are a lot more people coming to town in the beginning of May. We have split Springfest and Cruisin events to become two weekends, but now I think we really need to take a look at what we’re doing in moving forward because things have changed.”

Meehan said this week any real change will likely come out of meetings and recommendations from the Police Commission.

“It is something that we do need to continue to look at,” he said. “I know the Police Commission is going to talk about it to see what we can do to help the situation …”

Meehan said the event is a boon for local businesses after a long, harsh winter, but the economic gains are tempered by the obvious problems associated with it.

“To the citizens, it is a great weekend for business and it brings a lot of people into town,” he said. “You saw a lot of people on the highway having a great time, but unfortunately with every group there is a number that can cause havoc for everybody and we saw that. We have to figure out ways to do it better and our commitment is to work on that. Your concerns do not fall on deaf ears.”

 

Police Commission To Review Weekend For Possible Changes

Last weekend’s problems, from the speeding and reckless driving to the noise and trash and blatant flaunting of many of Ocean City’s laws touched off a firestorm of sorts this week with letters to the editor, emails and phone calls to council members, social media posts and a demand to find a way to improve the event. The pushback was not lost on Councilman and Police Commission Chairman Doug Cymek, who said steps are already being taken to improve the situation.

“I hear all of you loud and clear and certainly agree significant changes need to be made,” Cymek said. “Informal discussions between the mayor and some of the council members have already begun. As chairman of the Police Commission, I intend to schedule a special meeting with Chief [Ross] Buzzuro and his command staff so they can present their recommendations regarding the event to all the members of the Police Commission.”

Cymek said out of those meetings will likely come some measures to improve the event. Last year, similar promises were made and it remains to be seen if any real change can be affected, but it appears there is at least a will to make the Cruisin event more palatable for local residents and other visitors looking for a quiet beach weekend.

“I feel changes will undoubtedly arise from this past weekend’s abuse of our town,” said Cymek. “It is most unfortunate that such a well-managed event draws so many unwelcomed undesirables that ruin it for all of us. The points that all of you have made are right on and I assure you that I am committed to doing whatever I can do to bring about change for the better.”

In response to inquiries this week, the Ocean City Police Department released this statement via spokesperson Lindsay Richard.

“The Ocean City Police Department has a positive working relationship with the event organizers of Cruisin OC and we are happy to say that there were no significant motor vehicle collisions and minimal serious crime this past weekend. This event continues to be challenging and taxing for our officers due to the sheer number of visitors and event participants,” the statement read. “We are grateful to have had assistance from the Maryland State Police and the Worcester County Sheriff’s Department during this event. While the vast majority of visitors are compliant with our laws and ordinances, some behavior seen during this event remains troubling and our officers’ time and efforts are concentrated on those individuals during this event. We will closely review this past weekend and use our findings to prepare for next year’s event and all other motor events throughout the year.”

 

Solid Business Weekend, But It Comes With A Price

From a business standpoint, Cruisin weekend ranks among the best in the resort, according to Ocean City Hotel-Motel-Restaurant Association Executive Director Susan Jones.

“Most everybody I talked to was pleased with the business and that it was certainly very busy,” she said. “Of course, nobody likes the people that come to town and misbehave, but those are not typically the Cruisin event participants, they are the spectators.”

Jones said she wasn’t certain what the answer was for improving the event and suggested perhaps an even stronger police presence.

“I don’t know if the town needs to bring in additional police agencies like it does with the VWs, but it definitely seems like it is getting harder to control,” she said. “Again, it is not those who are related to the event, it is all the groups that come here like the Mustang clubs and other clubs. There are a lot of spinoffs that come on the same weekend.”

Jones pointed out the Mustang Club of Maryland had an event in Ocean City over the weekend. The event was billed as the 10th Annual All Mustang Ocean City Show.

“Overall, it was a very good, solid business weekend, but there is certainly a concern with some of the traffic situations,” she said.

It remains to be seen what changes will come, but for the time being, many in the resort are still bristling at the wanton disregard for the town on display during the event.

“We must ask ourselves, what type of town do we want?” wrote local resident and business owner Gabby Mancini in a letter to the editor this week. “Don’t tell us that we live in a resort and, therefore, must put up with this nonsense because we do not, and we will not. This past weekend was like a scene from the lawless wild west. The cowboys came to town and shot up the place, daring us to do something about it. Well? Anyone want to wear a star?”

Mancini called for more police presence and stricter enforcement of the law.

“How many laws must these people flaunt before something is done?” he said. “If we are not going to enforce our ordinances for speeding, reckless driving, public drinking, illegal parking, excessive noise or destruction of public property, why should anyone respect those laws for the remainder of the summer? There should be no double standard under the law. To let this go on is sheer folly and will invite numerous lawsuits.”

Particularly troubling is the speeding, reckless driving and flaunting of traffic laws. It is only a matter of time before there is a tragedy on the roadways, according to Mancini.

“Does someone have to die before the town officials notice that it is dangerous on Coastal Highway?” he said. “Between the large crowds of drinking spectators and the young, testosterone-hyped day trippers with loud, fast cars, someone is going to be seriously hurt or killed. Hopefully, it won’t be a friend, neighbor or someone you know that becomes a casualty to this event, but given the lack of control, it is just a matter of time.”

Mancini said like many of the other vehicle-related special events in Ocean City, Cruisin emphasizes the streets and not the resort’s greatest asset.

“Remember too that we are a beach town,” he said. “It’s about the beach. It’s our brand and our only real commodity. We wait all winter for beautiful spring weekends to enchant new generations of beachgoers. Events like last weekend only kill that magic and destroy our brand. Anyone who visited last weekend looking for a nice beach weekend was deeply disappointed and if a first time visitor, will probably never return. Wake up Ocean City, We have what most small towns only dream of. It is our town, It is up to us to decide what type of town we want.”

Chris Tilghman, another local resident and business owner, railed against the problems created last week.

“What we witnessed last weekend was a complete and total disregard for our town and the people who live here,” he said. “What started as a way to boost Springfest with registered participants has morphed into a free-for-all with all manner of high horsepower vehicles ranging from unregistered street rods, rat rods, giant diesel pick-up trucks and modern day muscle cars along with a batch of small import street races, trashing out town.”

Tilghman said the event represents a departure from the essence of the resort.

“Ocean City is supposed to be a family resort,” he said. “Ocean City is a vibrant, connected group of people who love it here and call Ocean City home. We deserve much more. So what do we do?”

Tilghman pointed to the lines of spectators along the highway blatantly drinking alcoholic beverages in violation of the town’s open container ordinance.

“We need to enforce open container violations,” he said. “This needs to be carried out with help from other municipalities’ officers along with a solid presence by the Maryland State Police. I own two properties that are separated by a street. I once was stopped by a bicycle officer for carrying a closed bottle of beer from my house to my dock. If I have to abide by that law, then every visitor should have to.”

Like many others, Tilghman said a certain segment of the visitors during Cruisin’ weekend has no respect for the resort.

“I’ve never seen Coastal Highway or Baltimore Avenue look like they did last Sunday,” he said. “I was appalled. What kind of person treats anywhere like that? And Ocean City is worried about smoking on the beach with cigarette butts being discarded? If O.C. is going to cater to these people, they need to be treated as the law provides.”

Also like many others, Tilghman said he understands the economics of the special events.

“I recognize this event brings money to town and helps me with my taxes,” he said. “However, at what cost?”

Another local Ocean City resident related a story from Saturday when she approached people sitting on the side of Coastal Highway to ask them what the appeal was. One younger couple told her their boy had a Mustang that was “sick” and even had a Go-Pro attached to his mirror. However, an older couple told her it was their anniversary weekend and they come to Ocean City every year during the event to see the old cars, which remind them of when they were younger, but also told her there aren’t too many of the older classic cars left and it is not the same as it was 20 years ago. Essentially, the latter couple is symbolic of the original spirit of the Cruisin event while the first couple is more symbolic of what it has become.

 

Same Complaints Heard Each Year With No Changes

While Ocean City officials begin to explore ways to improve the safety and overall tenor of the event, others remembered similar promises made following the event last spring.

“After this past year, all of the editorial letters and complaints, and all of the promises from the organizers of Cruisin that things would get better, not just for the residents but for the other tourists that were in town, as well as the promises from the Mayor and Council, absolutely nothing has changed,” said local resident Ellie Diegelmann at the council meeting this week. “Nothing has improved and nothing has quieted down. All of these people who made promises in response to editorial letters and complaints throughout the past year have either lied or promised something over which they have no control.”

 

Organizer Defends Event

For his part, event organizer Rothermel said this week the official Cruisin event is well thought out and well planned with officially sanctioned activities.

“We all agree Crusin is a well-run, well-managed event,” he said. “We have a staff of 40 people at the Inlet and the Convention Center and the various activities and generally it’s very, very smooth.”

Like many others, Rothermel agreed the unregistered element that piggybacks on the event causes most of the problems, but said there is little event organizers can do.

“The problem becomes the people not associated with the event get a little full of themselves and run afoul of the law,” he said. “The event really doesn’t have any authority to control what happens on the street. The police department does a great job, but they can’t be everywhere. The problem is with the wannabes. Those are the people we have to figure out how to control. I don’t know what else we can do as an event. We can only do so much.”

Rothermel made the point the spring Cruisin’ event is only slightly larger than the fall event in terms of the number of registered participants but there are fewer complaints. He suggested local residents and visitors are more tempered to the noise and traffic and trash during the fall event because they have just come through a long, hot summer.

“We actually lowered the number from last year,” he said. “The October show is just 500 cars less than the spring show, but you almost never hear anybody complain. Part of that is because it’s the first major event of the spring. After a long, quiet winter, it’s the first big event that reminds people suddenly that summer is here. By the time the fall show arrives, everybody is coming off a big, loud busy summer and are more accustomed to the noise and traffic.”

Rothermel said event organizers have always shown a willingness to work with the town to address problems that arise and this year would be no different.

“We’ve always done everything that has been asked of us,” he said. “People have suggested keeping the trailers out of town. Twenty-five years ago, the participants brought their cars in trailers and nobody noticed because there weren’t nearly as many. Maybe we can make that change. People asked us if we could spread it out so it wasn’t just a Friday and Saturday event and we did that. Last week, by Wednesday afternoon, one third of the pre-registered participants were already in town and picked up their packets. We’ve adapted and changed over the year to make the event better.”

Again, Rothermel said the hangers-on create most of the problems and said the registered participants are made fully aware of repercussions for misbehaving.

“We drill it into our participants that speeding and burnouts and the other problems created will not be tolerated,” he said. “We will pull their registration card and purge them from our list. We’ve done that for 25 years, but it doesn’t always prevent them from coming.”

Rothermel said while the event can be tweaked and showed a willingness to work with the police and town officials on change, he said the economic impact cannot be discounted.

“You have to remember, this event has turned into a big weekend,” he said. “It’s the major event of the year, bigger than the Fourth of July. With the great weather, we had big crowds and most behaved but there are always those knuckleheads that come here just to rip it up.”

Rothermel defended the event somewhat, asserting the sins of a handful of unruly guests should not be hung on the organizers.

“If you go to a Ravens game, there will be an awful lot of knuckleheads, but you don’t blame the Ravens,” he said. “If you don’t like the traffic on the Fourth of July, you don’t blame the forefathers.”

Somewhere there is a balance between a big, loud successful weekend and a law-abiding safe one and town officials will explore the opportunities to make Cruisin’ better.

“It’s the perfect event for the beach,” said Rothermel. “It’s the unlawfulness that drives people crazy.”

On Landmark Demolition, Property Owner: ‘It’s Sad To See Another Historic Building Get Torn Down, But The Times Move On’

Demolition of the former Melvin’s Steak House property, located on 1st Street and Philadelphia Avenue, took place this week. Photo by Shawn Soper

OCEAN CITY — After two fires in the span of a little over a month this winter, the old Melvin’s Steakhouse and most recently de Lazy Lizard Brew Pub building was torn down on Wednesday.

On Feb. 10, a major fire occurred at the historic building on the corner of 1st Street and Philadelphia Avenue, injuring four, including two Ocean City firefighters, and displacing 13 residents who lived in the apartments on the upper levels. A little more than a month later, a second, smaller fire was reported at the vacant building.

Early Wednesday, crews began demolishing the old building with a pair of bulldozers that clawed away at the historic building. A couple of hours later, all that remained of the structure was a huge pile of wood, glass, concrete and other materials on the site that held memories for so many locals and visitors to the resort over the years.

“It’s a pretty sad day,” said property owner Bill Gibbs, owner of the Dough Roller restaurants. “I’ve experienced a few demolitions over the years in the downtown area and they’re always kind of sad. I had to tear down the old Breakers Hotel where I practically grew up and worked as a child as a beach boy. The old Purnell Hotel where I worked as a child was also torn down.”

Gibbs, born and raised on 3rd Street, said one of his earliest recollections as a child was walking to Melvin’s Steakhouse with his family for dinner.

“I was going there when I was barely old enough to remember,” he said. “Everybody who lived downtown walked to dinner at places like Melvin’s and the Angler. Nowadays, people drive everywhere and parking is always an issue.”

While de Lazy Lizard Brew Pub occupied the structure in recent years, the historic building for decades was home to Melvin’s Steakhouse. According to property records, the primary structure was built in 1930 and Melvin’s Steakhouse opened on the site in 1946. For a brief time between Melvin’s and de Lazy Lizard Brew Pub, the building was home to Dayton’s Chicken, which had been displaced by a major Boardwalk fire in 2008.

In between, Gibbs and his longtime employee Keith Melvin tried to keep the historic restaurant running, but found the location difficult and the business gave way to economic issues.

“I tried with Keith to keep it going for seven years,” he said. “It was a good restaurant with good food, but there was just not enough business to keep it going. It’s a sad situation, but it was always a tough corner. It goes back to the early ‘40s and there was a lot of history there, but it just didn’t stay strong. It wasn’t really supported. It’s sad, but times move on.”

After the two fires, Gibbs was left with little choice but to demolish the old building. Because of the time of year with the season approaching, Gibbs said the site will become a parking lot for the nearby bayfront Lazy Lizard restaurant. Gibbs said he has a strong relationship with Steve Carullo, co-owner of Dead Freddies who purchased de Lazy Lizard this winter. Gibbs sold Carullo the old Castaway’s restaurant and bar to Carullo a few years back and it became Dead Freddies.

“It’s going to be a parking lot for the time being to help my friend Steve,” he said. “Once we get through the summer, we’ll regroup and see what we want to do with the property in the long run.”

Gibbs said he still counts his blessings the two fires this winter were not worse.

“That was a very unfortunate fire,” he said. “I thank God every day nobody was more seriously hurt or worse. For a guy like me who was born and raised on 3rd Street, it’s sad to see another historic building get torn down, but the times move on.”

Around 9:50 a.m. on Feb. 10, Ocean City Communications received a call on a reported fire at de Lazy Lizard Brew Pub. Ocean City Fire Department (OCFD) personnel responded and found fire coming from the building’s interior. First arriving units were advised people were trapped in the building, resulting in two immediate rescues. Thick smoke drifting from the blaze on a south wind clogged the downtown area and could be seen for miles along the approach to the resort from West Ocean City. Fire Department personnel battled the fire, which escalated to a third alarm, for over two hours.

Fire crews and equipment blocked much of the downtown area from around 2nd Street south during the fire and access to the downtown area and the Route 50 bridge was blocked for hours. Complicating the traffic issue somewhat was the continuing work on St. Louis Ave. although access to the Route 50 Bridge would not have been open even if St. Louis Ave. was accessible because of the location of the building fire. The cause of the fire was unknown but believed to be electrical in nature.

Around 5 a.m. on March 18, the OCFD was again dispatched to the same building for a reported structure fire that was limited to a small area in a second floor room.

 

 

On Landmark Demolition, Property Owner: ‘It’s Sad To See Another Historic Building Get Torn Down, But The Times Move On’

Photo by Brian Plimack

OCEAN CITY — After two fires in the span of a little over a month this winter, the old Melvin’s Steakhouse and most recently de Lazy Lizard Brew Pub building was torn down on Wednesday.

On Feb. 10, a major fire occurred at the historic building on the corner of 1st Street and Philadelphia Avenue, injuring four, including two Ocean City firefighters, and displacing 13 residents who lived in the apartments on the upper levels. A little more than a month later, a second, smaller fire was reported at the vacant building.

Early Wednesday, crews began demolishing the old building with a pair of bulldozers that clawed away at the historic building. A couple of hours later, all that remained of the structure was a huge pile of wood, glass, concrete and other materials on the site that held memories for so many locals and visitors to the resort over the years.

“It’s a pretty sad day,” said property owner Bill Gibbs, owner of the Dough Roller restaurants. “I’ve experienced a few demolitions over the years in the downtown area and they’re always kind of sad. I had to tear down the old Breakers Hotel where I practically grew up and worked as a child as a beach boy. The old Purnell Hotel where I worked as a child was also torn down.”

Gibbs, born and raised on 3rd Street, said one of his earliest recollections as a child was walking to Melvin’s Steakhouse with his family for dinner.

“I was going there when I was barely old enough to remember,” he said. “Everybody who lived downtown walked to dinner at places like Melvin’s and the Angler. Nowadays, people drive everywhere and parking is always an issue.”

While de Lazy Lizard Brew Pub occupied the structure in recent years, the historic building for decades was home to Melvin’s Steakhouse. According to property records, the primary structure was built in 1930 and Melvin’s Steakhouse opened on the site in 1946. For a brief time between Melvin’s and de Lazy Lizard Brew Pub, the building was home to Dayton’s Chicken, which had been displaced by a major Boardwalk fire in 2008.

In between, Gibbs and his longtime employee Keith Melvin tried to keep the historic restaurant running, but found the location difficult and the business gave way to economic issues.

“I tried with Keith to keep it going for seven years,” he said. “It was a good restaurant with good food, but there was just not enough business to keep it going. It’s a sad situation, but it was always a tough corner. It goes back to the early ‘40s and there was a lot of history there, but it just didn’t stay strong. It wasn’t really supported. It’s sad, but times move on.”

After the two fires, Gibbs was left with little choice but to demolish the old building. Because of the time of year with the season approaching, Gibbs said the site will become a parking lot for the nearby bayfront Lazy Lizard restaurant. Gibbs said he has a strong relationship with Steve Carullo, co-owner of Dead Freddies who purchased de Lazy Lizard this winter. Gibbs sold Carullo the old Castaway’s restaurant and bar to Carullo a few years back and it became Dead Freddies.

“It’s going to be a parking lot for the time being to help my friend Steve,” he said. “Once we get through the summer, we’ll regroup and see what we want to do with the property in the long run.”

Gibbs said he still counts his blessings the two fires this winter were not worse.

“That was a very unfortunate fire,” he said. “I thank God every day nobody was more seriously hurt or worse. For a guy like me who was born and raised on 3rd Street, it’s sad to see another historic building get torn down, but the times move on.”

Around 9:50 a.m. on Feb. 10, Ocean City Communications received a call on a reported fire at de Lazy Lizard Brew Pub. Ocean City Fire Department (OCFD) personnel responded and found fire coming from the building’s interior. First arriving units were advised people were trapped in the building, resulting in two immediate rescues. Thick smoke drifting from the blaze on a south wind clogged the downtown area and could be seen for miles along the approach to the resort from West Ocean City. Fire Department personnel battled the fire, which escalated to a third alarm, for over two hours.

Fire crews and equipment blocked much of the downtown area from around 2nd Street south during the fire and access to the downtown area and the Route 50 bridge was blocked for hours. Complicating the traffic issue somewhat was the continuing work on St. Louis Ave. although access to the Route 50 Bridge would not have been open even if St. Louis Ave. was accessible because of the location of the building fire. The cause of the fire was unknown but believed to be electrical in nature.

Around 5 a.m. on March 18, the OCFD was again dispatched to the same building for a reported structure fire that was limited to a small area in a second floor room.

 

It’s Official Uber Service Available In Ocean City; Resort’s First Uber Driver Now Operating

Mick Chester is now registered with Uber and picked up his first fare on Tuesday. File Photo

OCEAN CITY — One week after the Town of Ocean City passed changes to its taxi cab ordinance, the resort’s very first official Uber driver hit the streets in town this week.

Ocean City officials have been wrestling with the potential for the car service, popular in metropolitan areas across the bridge and all over the country, to come to the resort. Last week, the Mayor and Council passed changes to its ordinance governing taxi cabs in the resort and continued the discussion about regulating Uber if and when it arrived in Ocean City.

This week, it’s no longer a question of if or when as local resident Mick Chester had his application with Uber approved by the growing company. Chester wears many hats around Ocean City, including firefighter, rescue swimmer and bartender, among others, and he is now Ocean City’s first official Uber driver.

He got his approval from Uber and had his account activated last week, and after being out of town last weekend, he was ready to hit the road this week. By Tuesday afternoon, he had already picked up his first fare as the resort’s official Uber driver when he picked up a family visiting Ocean City from out of town in the downtown area and took them to the Dunes on 28th Street.

“Uber sent out a survey to its users last week stating they were opening a market in Ocean City,” Chester said this week. “So it’s now official on their end. As of right now, I’m ready to get rolling. There were a couple of drivers from other areas in town last weekend because of Springfest and the special events associated with it, but I am the first and only local resident doing it at the moment.”

Uber is a car service that connects fares to certified and approved drivers through an app on a cell phone or similar mobile device. Those who have the app contact Uber through their mobile device and Uber, in turn, connects the riders with the closest driver employed by the company in the area. The company has been active for years in over 200 cities nationwide since its inception in 2009.
Heretofore, Uber has not been regulated and doesn’t fit easily into state and local definitions of for-hire transportation services such as cabs and limos, for example. Earlier this year, the Maryland General Assembly passed legislation giving Uber and potentially other app-based car services permanent legal status in the state. That legislation was signed this week by Gov. Larry Hogan.

The legislation creates a separate “transportation network services” category for Uber and similar services so that they would not be classified under the state’s definition of common carriers such as taxis and limos, for example. As a result, Uber has to register with the Maryland Public Service Commission (PSC), which requires background checks for drivers, proof of insurance and at least $1 million in liability insurance, which is similar to what Ocean City already requires of its medallion-carrying taxi cabs and drivers.

Chester said this week he was required to do nothing in terms of registering with the town because the way Uber files in Maryland makes the ride-sharing service exempt from local taxi regulations, at least for the time being. He did have to go through an extensive background check and application process before being allowed to hit the streets in the resort.

“The background check was very thorough,” he said. “They checked federal, state and local records for any felonies or traffic violations. They checked my Social Security number and I had to send them pictures of my vehicle, pictures of my license and my proof of insurance. The whole process took about two and half weeks. The report I got back was six pages long and included other places I had lived in the past like Colorado and Florida and I had never even mentioned that.”

Chester explained Uber connects riders with drivers through the mobile device app. The riders go on the app and tell Uber they are in need of a ride. Uber then finds the riders via GPS and finds the closest company driver to them. The Uber app gives the riders an estimated time of arrival for their driver, alerts them to the vehicle type and name of the driver and any past reviews of the driver from others who had used the service.

For his end, Chester said the Uber app will direct him to the riders, how many there are of them and where they are heading. The app also gives the driver an expected time of arrival and records the time and distance of the ride. Uber also collects the money from the riders and deposits the driver’s share of the fare into his or her bank account at the end of the week. Unlike traditional cabs, there is no money exchanged in the vehicle at the time of the ride.

“There is no cash exchanged or no credit card transactions in the car,” he said. “Also there is not that awkward moment of tip or no tip. Uber handles all of the transactions through the app and the customer is charged and I get my share in the form of a direct deposit into my account at the end of the week.”

Chester said Uber takes the fare directly from the customer’s pre-approved account and takes 20 percent off the top for providing the service. The driver, in this case Chester, gets the remaining 80 percent. He used an example of a typical $10 fare in which Uber would get $2 and Chester would get $8.

Chester said the drivers go on-line when they are available to pick up fares through Uber and essentially set their own schedules. If a driver has to work at another job, or in Chester’s case one of several different jobs, he or she can go off-line and not be available.
“You pretty much work on your own schedule,” he said. “For example, if I’m not doing anything this afternoon, I can go online and make myself available to pick up fares. When I have to go to work later, I go off-line and won’t be available. It’s not like working an eight-hour shift.”

It remains to be seen if Uber catches on in Ocean City and competes with the resort’s thriving taxi cab industry, but Chester believes the resort’s clientele will embrace the concept.

“A lot of the people that visit Ocean City are from Baltimore, Washington, Philadelphia and New York and places were Uber has existed for years,” he said. “They’re already used to using it and they expect it to be available when they travel. I know I use it when I travel.”

Chester said his Uber account allows him to freelance somewhat around different parts of Maryland, although his schedule is pretty full with several other jobs.

“They’ve been blowing up my phone trying to go to Baltimore this week because of the Preakness and the Orioles at home and other special events,” he said. “They’re trying to get as many cars as possible out on the streets.”

 

Legislators Discuss Failed Post-Labor Day School Bill; New Strategy Needed After Effort Called ‘A Very Heavy Lift’

Legislators

OCEAN CITY — Despite failing to even get a committee hearing in either the Senate or the House, the bid for a state-mandated post-Labor Day start to the school year will continue.

At the Ocean City Economic Development Committee (EDC) meeting this week, Lower Shore legislators briefed resort business leaders on a variety of issues germane to the local area during the 2015 session including a proposed state-mandated post-Labor Day start to the public school year. The bills, cross-filed in the House by Delegate Mary Beth Carozza (R-38C) and Senate by Senator Jim Mathias (D-38), never got any traction during the session and failed to come before a committee vote in either chamber.

Disheartened but not dissuaded, the two Lower Shore legislators told the EDC this week the effort would continue in the 2016 session. Although a poll earlier this year showed parents and teachers across Maryland supported the proposed legislation, it turned out to be a tough sell in other areas around the state.

In August, Maryland Comptroller Peter Franchot was on the Boardwalk in Ocean City to launch a petition drive seeking 10,000 signatures advocating a mandated post-Labor Day start to the public school year in Maryland as part of his “Let Summer Be Summer” campaign. At the opening of the 2015 session in January, the campaign appeared to be gaining momentum as Franchot and its other major supporters, including Mathias, Ocean City Mayor Rick Meehan, other elected officials, small business owners, educators and tourism officials, turned in the petition with over 13,000 signatures. Also in attendance at the press conference was Gov. Larry Hogan, who endorsed the issue.

However, by session’s end, the bills had not had so much as a committee hearing in their respective chambers and the legislation died a quiet death, at least for the 2015 session. Shortly after the session, Mathias said the bill is complicated and could take two or more sessions to gain the approval of state lawmakers. He likened the measure to casino gambling or offshore wind, which took more than one session to finally gain approval.

In 2013, state lawmakers approved legislation creating a task force to study the issue and that task force ultimately returned a favorable recommendation to the General Assembly. However, the task force’s approval came too late to get legislation introduced in 2014. Franchot then rallied with the petition drive in advance of the 2015 session and appeared to have some momentum at the start. Essentially, with the creation of a task force in 2013, followed by the failed attempt in 2015, the third year might be the charm.

Despite the failed attempt this year, Mathias said there could be something to work with going forward.

“There’s a success story in that bill still to be told,” he said. “Maybe the answer is not Labor Day. Maybe it’s Sept. 1, but there is a solution to this.”

Currently, school systems across Maryland have the autonomy to set their own schedules, as long as they meet the state-mandated minimum number of days. Many are returning as early as mid-August. In Worcester, public schools returned after Labor Day last year and will do so again despite the late date this year. Wicomico will continue to start the week before Labor Day, according to its approved calendar for the next school year.

“Worcester County schools are starting after Labor Day for the second straight year this year,” said Mathias. “Maybe that’s the model for how it can be done.”

The bill’s detractors claim a statewide mandate would only benefit resort areas, particularly Ocean City, and have pushed to let the public school systems continue to set their own schedules. For her part, Carozza said it was an uphill battle in the first year and said the proposal will likely need tweaking before next year.

“I really believe we’re going to need a strategy,” she said. “We were really outnumbered on this in the legislature. We need a strategy to show a statewide benefit and that this is not just something for Ocean City. It is a very heavy lift.”

Meehan was also a strong advocate for the legislation and on Tuesday told the EDC the effort would continue and would likely rely on a positive approach.

“Let’s figure out how we can do this and not focus on why we can’t,” he said.

At the close of the session, Franchot hinted at possibly seeking a fiat of sorts from the governor in the form of an executive order for a post-Labor Day school start, but that hasn’t come to fruition. Meanwhile, Mathias said after the session the bill will likely be reintroduced next year.

“We’ll see what happens,” he said. “Regardless, I want to make sure I keep the lines of communication open and nurture the relationships with all of the stakeholders. We have to keep everybody in place and engaged. We have very good stakeholders in this, and we’re working diligently with all of the parties involved to keep everybody at the table.”