The Ocean City Council field is set. There are eight people seeking four council seats.
That much we know today, but how the city got to this point has been anything but smooth. From four candidates’ residencies being challenged initially to the two public hearings needed to deliberate on the merits of candidates Joe Hall and Philip Ufholz, it has been a strange week. The process that played out over the last week has been awkward and flawed.
Two individuals’ candidacies were officially challenged by the local Citizens For Ocean City group, which essentially argued that Philip Ufholz and Joe Hall have not lived in Ocean City for the necessary four months. It’s appropriate and certainly a reasonable course to question residency and domicile if there is evidence to suggest candidates are not legitimate. Two other candidates were also challenged but produced enough documentation to settle any of the council’s concerns.
For Ufholz and Hall, they had to go through individual public hearings, both of which were clumsily handled. The hearings were unorganized, several incorrect statements, featured too many unrelated ad libs (including some nonsense criticism of the media) and contained an unusual airing of personal woes.
Worst of all we had the Mayor and Council acting as judge and jury over the candidates’ ability to seek council seats. The process is clearly flawed. The council, particularly Council President Lloyd Martin, who is seeking re-election, was deciding essentially who could or couldn’t be their competitors. That should not be the case.
At a two-hour hearing last week, the council ruled Ufholz had not established his domicile in Ocean City, pointing to a state property document that maintains his primary residence is elsewhere in Maryland.
At his hearing on Tuesday, Hall, while agitated about having to testify in the first place, was forthcoming about his personal life and why he has spent a great deal of time in North Carolina at his brother-in-law’s home and in several hotels over the last year to be close to his kids. He gained employment while staying in North Carolina to have an income, but maintains he never gave up his domicile in Ocean City.
After convincing five of the seven council members, his candidacy was approved and then he, along with other members of the Mayor and Council, headed to the AARP candidates forum. He was late to the forum in a strange set of circumstances.
We found the entire hearing process weak and the town’s charter needs to at least be tweaked to remove the Mayor and Council from the process altogether. Allowing the city solicitor or the elections board to rule on these matters would be more appropriate and remove hints of malfeasance from the process.
The bottom line here was Ufholz never properly established his residency, while Hall never officially vacated his domicile, despite clearly living elsewhere for a period of time.
Perhaps more importantly is what this process exposed — the city’s charter governing these sorts of situations needs several adjustments. Fortunately, that will happen before the next election in two years because the state will take over the municipal election.