Commissioners, Mayor Differ Over Slots Appointment Process

ANNAPOLIS – Local officials were in Annapolis this week to testify on a bill which would, among other things, carve out a slice of the potential slots revenue from Ocean Downs for the Ocean Pines community and repeal the requirement that the Ocean City mayor participate in the appointment of a local development council to manage those funds in the future.

Worcester County Commissioners Louise Gulyas and Judy Boggs were in Annapolis on Wednesday to testify on behalf of the bill introduced in the House two weeks ago by Delegates Norm Conway, James Mathias and Page Elmore. The legislation would make local alterations to the slots bill approved by voters across Maryland in November in a statewide referendum. Ocean City Mayor Rick Meehan was also on hand to testify, but opposed the legislation as written because of language included that would repeal his authority to participate in the appointment of the local development council, which will be charged with developing a plan to manage the area’s local impact grants derived from slots at Ocean Downs.

The current law establishes local development councils in the areas where slots venues are proposed to assist local governments in developing a multi-year plan for the expenditure of local impact grants for things like roads, police and fire protection. The current law states if slots are located at Ocean Downs, the County Commissioners and the mayor of Ocean City must jointly appoint the local development council. However, the bill introduced by Conway, Mathias and Elmore earlier this month would give appointment authority to the commissioners only.

Meehan on Wednesday testified against the legislation because of the proposed change that would remove him from the local impact council appointment process. He pushed for a change that would expand the number of members on the council from 15 to 18 and retain his right to participate in the process and appoint as many as three representatives from the resort.

“This late development took Louise and I by surprise,” Boggs said yesterday. “We were there to testify on behalf of the commissioners only what we, as a body, agreed upon and weren’t prepared to address the issue involving the Ocean City mayor’s request to change the appointment process. We believed all along the 15-member council would include representation from all of the communities slots might affect including West Ocean City, Glen Riddle, River Run, Bishopville and others.”

Gulyas said yesterday she was approached by Elmore after the hearing on Wednesday and asked if there was some way to resolve the appointment process issue in order to advance the bill. Gulyas said she had already worked out a solution that included her appointment of Meehan, or his designee, to the council.

“The mayor wanted there to be three representatives on the council including himself,” she said. “That’s the only thing in this bill the commissioners opposed. I told him he would be my appointment anyway. I wasn’t just willing to make him my appointment, I wanted him to be my appointment.”

Boggs said the commissioners faxed a letter to Ways and Means Chairwoman Delegate Sheila Hixon yesterday assuring Meehan he would be appointed to the local impact council. The letter also assured the mayor his designee or designees could participate on the panel when issues germane to their department were being discussed.

Boggs said she feared issues related to Meehan and the appointment process could derail what is otherwise a piece of legislation amenable to all parties involved, but remained confident the assurances given the mayor by the commissioners could save the bill from being shelved for a year.

“That was my fear,” she said. “We did not want this bill put on hold until next year because there are so many other important components to it. We’re ready to go here. The county got almost everything it wanted in this.”

It remains to be seen if the commissioners’ letter to Hixon will resolve the mayor’s issues regarding the appointment process. He could not be reached for comment yesterday.

Meanwhile, other elements of the bill including changes to the formula for allocating the potential local impact grants for the communities in and around Ocean Downs appear to be amenable to all parties. In the version of the bill approved by voters across the state in the November referendum, the local allocation formula for Worcester included 70-percent for county at-large, with 20-percent going to Ocean City and 10-percent going to Berlin. The bill introduced by the local delegation would alter the legislation to include a 10-percent share for Ocean Pines out of the county’s share.

In addition, there is language in the bill that would help ensure new jobs created by slots at Ocean Downs would go to locals. The bill as written would require a hiring preference to include all qualified employees in Worcester and Wicomico counties. In addition, the bill would change language regarding proposed improvements to Route 589 from “may” to “shall.”