Council Poised To Lay Off City Manager, Others?

OCEAN CITY — City Manager Dennis Dare’s future is in doubt, as a result of an unprecedented closed session held yesterday afternoon at City Hall.< ?xml:namespace prefix = o ns = "urn:schemas-microsoft-com:office:office">

Although nothing is official and neither Mayor Rick Meehan nor any of the City Council members would comment after the one-hour meeting concluded yesterday, all indications from on-site observations and a half dozen knowledgeable sources, speaking on the condition of anonymity, are Dare’s 21-year stint as the resort’s city manager, the top ranking administrator in the city, is coming to an end.

Additionally, there are unconfirmed reports of other high-ranking city officials possibly being terminated, or about to be in the near future, but again there’s no official word coming from the city. However, The Dispatch takes the business of reporting the facts seriously and would not report this if there was not solid information to substantiate it.

Reached last night at 8:15, Dare said he could not comment on current matters, but promised a discussion would take place in the future regarding what happened yesterday and what will be taking place down the road.

At 4 p.m. Thursday, the seven City Council members convened in council chambers at City Hall. Council President Jim Hall immediately sought a motion to meet in closed session, and Councilman Brent Ashley motioned followed by a second by Councilman Joe Hall. Meehan was at City Hall but not in council chambers at the time of the brief public meeting.

City Solicitor Guy Ayres and Dare were not present for the public or private portion of the meeting. That’s unprecedented, according to experienced city officials, as the city solicitor is often called upon for legal counsel, particularly during personnel matters, the reason for this closed session, and the city manager is usually in attendance as well.

Word is the elected officials will be convening again this morning at 10 to resume talks that took place yesterday with at least Ayres in attendance. It’s unclear at this time whether Dare would be involved in that meeting.

While this reporter was waiting outside the closed door meeting yesterday, Dare came downstairs from his office. He had just previously spoken with Police Chief Bernadette DiPino about conditions at the Inlet that ultimately led to the parking lot there being closed due to flooding and high wave action, a result of Hurricane Katia spinning offshore.

Dare was heading out the door at 4:30 p.m. to check out the Inlet himself, saying simply, “I will be back.” He returned sometime later, and at 6 p.m. was reportedly still at City Hall with at least Council members Doug Cymek and Lloyd Martin and Meehan.

The mayor had previously left City Hall immediately following the closed session at 5 p.m. and returned an hour later.

When asked if it was unusual for him not to be involved in a city closed session, Dare said in the City Hall lobby, “yes”. Ayres went further in an interview earlier yesterday, saying, “I don’t recall there ever being a closed session that I was not involved with while city solicitor.”

After the meeting, Councilwoman Mary Knight and Meehan were involved in a conversation and asked about the nature of the meeting.

“I can’t talk but at the appropriate time I sure will,” Knight said. “I will be more than willing later, we will talk.”

Meehan declined to comment, saying simply he will soon as well.

Ashley, Joe Hall and Cymek declined to comment as well.

For about 30 minutes after the meeting, Ashley and Joe Hall were privately talking, often laughing, in the City Hall parking lot. The nature of those talks is unknown.

Immediately after the meeting when approached, Ashley indicated he did not know what was happening at that time, and Joe Hall said, “I can’t talk to you about it, we can talk about anything else though.”

Prior to getting into his vehicle, when asked whether the content of the meeting would be made public or if these talks were going to remain private, Jim Hall said, “don’t know yet, just working on it.”

At 5:15 p.m., Jim Hall left the City Hall parking lot. At 5:25 p.m., Ayres pulled into his parking spot at City Hall followed immediately by Jim Hall.

Jim Hall and Ayres were in City Hall for about 10 minutes before returning to their vehicles and leaving.

Jim Hall and Ayres reportedly went directly into Dare’s office, shut the door and left quickly thereafter. Jim Hall immediately exited the City Hall parking lot, while Ayres spoke briefly with Ashley.

Meehan returned to City Hall at 5:45 p.m., again citing he was unable to comment.

On Wednesday afternoon, this newspaper was notified of a closed session. The closed session was called “to discuss the appointment, employment, assignment, removal or resignation of appointees, employees or officials over whom it has jurisdiction; or any other personnel matter that affects one or more specific individuals.”

While that portion of the city code is as clear as mud when it comes to specifics, knowledgeable and trusted sources contend the subject of the meeting was to discuss removing Dare and possibly other officials from their responsibilities.

Dare has been with the city since 1982, when he was hired as city engineer, and currently has an annual gross earnings of $170,815. He has been the city manager since 1990.

It’s no secret Ocean City will be facing another difficult budget next year, as property assessments are again expected to decline tremendously, leaving Ocean City with a serious deficit between revenues and expenditures. Some have said a significant property tax increase is a certainty unless expenditures are reduced dramatically.

Many in Ocean City believe the city payroll should be targeted aggressively because its excessively top heavy, meaning too many department heads are making too much money.

That’s where a so-called “hit list” — created reportedly by the council majority — Ashley, Jim Hall, Joe Hall and Councilwoman Margaret Pillas as well as some leading private citizens — comes into the equation.

Reached yesterday morning, prior to the afternoon closed session, Meehan said he had no idea at that time what the abruptly-called private meeting had to do with at City Hall.

“I was at City Hall yesterday (Wednesday) and the city manager told me about it,” the mayor said. “I am invited to the meeting and I understand it’s about personnel. I don’t have any idea what the topics are at this time, but for the last year or so I have been pretty much out of the loop.”

After Tuesday evening’s City Council meeting, Meehan and Cymek said the council majority met privately without any other officials present, leading the mayor to even post “Secret Meetings?” on his Facebook page.

“This leads me to believe there must have been some discussion going on that led up to a special meeting being held. What I know is I have not been part of those discussions. There has to be some conversations being held if you are going to have a special meeting,” Meehan said this morning prior to the closed session being held. “I am guessing that it has to do with this hit list that Jimmy and his gang did have of employees they wanted to talk about. Maybe they figure now is the time to do that.”

About The Author: Steven Green

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The writer has been with The Dispatch in various capacities since 1995, including serving as editor and publisher since 2004. His previous titles were managing editor, staff writer, sports editor, sales account manager and copy editor. Growing up in Salisbury before moving to Berlin, Green graduated from Worcester Preparatory School in 1993 and graduated from Loyola University Baltimore in 1997 with degrees in Communications (journalism concentration) and Political Science.