Council To Decide Smoking Issue After Hearing

OCEAN CITY — There will
be no voter questions on the ballot for the upcoming Ocean City municipal
election after the council removed three topics from the table.

At Tuesday’s City Council
work session at City Hall, City Clerk Kathy Mathias gave the final query to the
voting seven to decide which, if any, questions would be placed on the ballots
when local voters go to the polls in October.

On the table was a
Councilwoman Margaret Pillas-led campaign to put the recent hot button topic of
smoking on the beach and Boardwalk on the ballot this fall, as well as changing
the date of the municipal election to be held on the same day as the national

In addition, Councilman
Jim Hall had also wanted to get support for his belief that City Council
members should get a pay raise, bringing them in line with the compensation of
the County Commissioners, but apparently found little to no support as he
publicly recanted the idea.

(BOLD/CENTER)Smoking On The Beach

Council President Joe
Mitrecic was adamant in his belief that the council should be the ones to
decide on whether smoking is banned on Ocean City’s beach and Boardwalk, and
the council followed his lead and that of Mayor Rick Meehan, who has stated
that he believes a public hearing should be the next step in the ongoing
smoking debate.

“I have a real problem
with putting this on the ballot to be voted on by the people of Ocean City,”
said Mitrecic. “The people of Ocean City voted us into office to make these
types of decisions. We are going to be the ones that have to figure out how to
implement it, monitor it and enforce it. I’m not for smoking on the beach and
I’m not against smoking on the beach because I don’t even go to the beach, but
I think we need to be the ones to make this decision.”

Mitrecic’s comments
gained big support from fellow council members, including Councilwoman Mary
Knight, who believed that putting the highly debated topic of smoking on the
ballot was a “scary proposition.”

“Over the last few
weeks, I’ve petitioned the Ocean City Hotel-Motel-Restaurant Association, the
Ocean City Chamber of Commerce, the Economic Development Committee and
overwhelmingly their position is that [banning smoking on the beach] would hurt
business in Ocean City,” said Knight. “Even if the people who smoke is only 20
percent, why would we purposely turn off one out of five people.”

Meehan recommended that
the council set a date for a public hearing to invite residents to speak out on
the matter in a formal setting.

“It’s been out there,
and there’s been a lot of discussion on this, both in favor of this and
against, but I think there is a large segment of the population that don’t
necessarily see this is as a big problem,” said Meehan. “I don’t smoke, but I’m
not sure if I see it as a big problem either, so I think we should have a
public hearing on this. It’s the right discussion to be having in 2010.”

The council voted to
hold a public hearing to discuss the merits of banning smoking on the beach and
the Boardwalk in late October.

Council Pay Raises

Early this month,
Councilman Jim Hall pitched the idea of a pay raise for Ocean City Council
members and expressed a desire to poll the people to see if the public thought
there was any merit to his idea.

“Ask the voters if they
think that we are worth more money,” said Hall. “Do you think we should make as
much as the County Commissioners, because we’ve never asked that before, and I
think it’s a fair question.”

Hall noted on Tuesday,
before pulling back his earlier motion from the proverbial table because of “a
lack of traction from his council colleagues”, that he was really hoping to get
a pay raise for council members, not necessarily himself.

“Almost nobody is going
to be able to run for office unless there is compensation,” he said. “In the
future, I think you’ll see less candidates.”

In addition, City
Solicitor Guy Ayres told the council that it would be difficult to even pass
such a pay raise due to the staggered nature of the council member’s terms.

For example, only three
seats are up for re-election this fall, and in two years, the remaining four
seats will be up for re-election. The mayor, in comparison, must run every two

Currently, the mayor is
paid $30,000 a year, with the council president compensated $11,000 annually,
and the rest of the council paid $10,000 a year, plus health insurance

The County Commissioners
pull in $25,000 annually, plus they get $3,000 per year for mileage and
incidental expenses. They also are privy to the county’s health insurance
coverage if they choose.

Still, the council opted
to table the discussion for another time, perhaps in fear of public backlash in
these strenuous economic times.

“It’s definitely a
conversation for a better economy,” said Councilman Joe Hall.

Election Day Change

The council held firm to
a budget time decision that opted against a slight savings of a few thousand
dollars to uphold the longstanding tradition of the election in Ocean City
being on a separate date than the national election.

“I’ve always run my own
campaign and that day is my day to talk to the people of Ocean City,” said
Councilman Jim Hall. “I feel like if we put it on the same day as senate races,
and presidential races, and sheriff’s races, Jim Hall would get lost in that
and so would the day when locals get together. So as an old timer, I would like
to see us keep that special day.”

It had been argued by
Councilman Joe Hall that switching the date to the national election could
increase voter turnout which has been at an all-time low in the last two
elections – 24.2 percent in 2006 and 23.5 percent in 2008.

However, Council
President Joe Mitrecic believes that the voter registration numbers are
incredibly skewed and overstated.

“I would like to see the
voter roll purged, because the last time I went knocking door to door, on doors
that were supposed to have people living there, there was a lot of people who
weren’t there,” said Mitrecic. “I even saw a few names on that voter list that
I know for a fact were deceased because I knew them personally. I think, at the
most, there are 3,000 voters in Ocean City. Based on those numbers, the last
two elections have been a much better turnout.”

Still, Councilwoman Mary
Knight pointed out one thing that is different about the Ocean City political
race as compared to national races is reason enough to keep the dates separate.

“I love that there is no
partisanship in our local election,” said Knight. “Nobody is running as a
Democrat or a Republican. They are simply running because they love the town of
Ocean City and want to make it a better place.”