Thoughts From The Publisher’s Desk

Thoughts From The Publisher’s Desk

It’s amazing to me how much political business is done on cell phones these days. Some may not have a problem with that and simply believe it’s indicative of the times, but the frequency and the timing of the calls raises some flags with me.

In future weeks, I will be examining government officials’ cell phone records to see if this is just standard political business these days, but in the meantime I started this project by reviewing all Ocean City elected officials’ cell phone records.

For what it’s worth, cell phone records confirm the leadership of the Ocean City Mayor and Council cooked up the scheme to force out City Manager Dennis Dare largely through private conversations beforehand on their phones.

This is not surprising and some may say this is not a big deal so long as open meeting laws were not violated, but I think it’s useful to know exactly how much time was spent on this matter on city-issued phones.

The Dispatch requested the cell phone records earlier this month to specifically examine the week leading up to Dare’s removal in early September and the days after. It’s my understanding two other citizens have also obtained the records, which are a matter of public record.

Unfortunately, the city could not provide text message data on Wednesday because the carrier only has that information available during a certain period of time and the request was filed too late.

However, cell phone records indicate hundreds of minutes of conversations leading up to and after Dare’s removal among the four-member majority — Brent Ashley, Jim Hall, Joe Hall and Margaret Pillas.

In particular, the day of Thursday, Sept. 8 is of note. That was the day a closed session meeting was held at City Hall when Council President Jim Hall informed Mayor Rick Meehan and fellow minority members Doug Cymek, Mary Knight and Lloyd Martin of the majority’s decision to immediately get rid of Dare. Jim Hall announced the time had come to move on and that Dare was going to be removed.

As expected, cell phone records confirm there were dozens of calls between the four leading up to that meeting and the days after when the fallout played out privately and publicly.

I was pulling up some pavement in the City Hall parking lot on that Sept. 8 afternoon and evening hoping to get some comments from the elected officials. Truthfully, I knew nobody would confirm one way or the other that the meeting was about Dare’s future, but I was trying to read body language to get a confirmation of what I knew was in the works.

Subsequently, I stalked the entire council at City Hall for a couple hours and watched as they spoke to each other and on their phones. I was specifically interested to see who the council members called that particular day and evening.

After I spoke with him in the City Hall parking lot briefly at 5:15 p.m., an hour after the closed session was begun discussing Dare’s removal, Jim Hall immediately left City Hall in his vehicle and drove off while on his cell phone. The nosey reporter in me wondered who he got on the phone with so quick.

Records show he checked his voice mail first and then called a local roofing contractor. He then phoned City Solicitor Guy Ayres (who five minutes later was seen driving into City Hall followed by Jim Hall), local businessman and long-time friend Hale Harrison, Joe Hall twice and Harrison again. He then received calls from Ashley and two calls from Joe Hall. All of these calls took place during a 75-minute period, and each was extremely short in nature with the call to Ashley at 7:22 p.m. being the longest at five minutes.

Over the next half hour, Jim Hall also phoned minority members Doug Cymek (six minutes) Mary Knight (four minutes) and Lloyd Martin (two minutes) as well as made several other calls to Pillas and Joe Hall.

In fairness, it’s worth pointing out records show minority members also spent significant time speaking on their phones with each other, but the frequency is severely less than their majority counterparts.

In the hours before that Sept. 8 meeting, it was also interesting to note Jim Hall called each of the majority members in an apparent effort to discuss the closed meeting beforehand. At 10:49 a.m., he spoke with Joe Hall for five minutes; at 10:54 a.m., he spoke with Pillas for six minutes; and at 10:59 a.m., he spoke with Ashley for six minutes. Again at 3:46 p.m. (meeting started at 4), Joe Hall called Jim Hall and they spoke for two minutes.

On the morning of Friday, Sept. 9, the council reconvened publicly at City Hall before about 80 residents and then adjourned to a private session where they decided Dare would be given till the end of the day to resign or be terminated.

It was interesting to note several morning and afternoon conversations took place between Jim Hall and Joe Hall. One specific exchange was particularly noteworthy and provides some insight into how matters may have played out.

On Sept. 9 at 12:23 p.m., about an hour or so after the council had left chambers after reporting closed session minutes and votes to the disgruntled citizens, Joe Hall called Jim Hall.

At 12:25 p.m., Dare called Jim Hall and apparently Jim Hall put Joe Hall on call waiting and had a two-minute conversation with the then-city manager before flipping back to Joe Hall for a four-minute talk. Joe Hall then immediately called Ashley on his cell phone (he does not use a city cell) and had a 15-minute conversation.

It’s unknown if this was when Dare told Jim Hall he would be submitting his resignation with conditions. Two short conversations (two and three minutes, respectively) between Dare and Jim Hall also took place on Wednesday, Sept. 14 .

Later in the same day at 5:45 p.m., Joe Hall called Jim Hall and had another short conversation (four minutes) and then immediately called Ashley for a seven-minute chat. While Joe Hall and Ashley were talking, Jim Hall called Pillas. A similar pattern throughout the month occurred.

Back in January, Cymek culled these same cell phone records, finding 17 hours of conversations between the council majority, including many over one hour in length. It’s worth noting there were no conversations of that length discovered this time between the four.

At that time, the majority was adamant there was nothing wrong with speaking with colleagues and they assured me they would continue to talk privately. These records confirm they are doing that for certain.

Nonetheless, it’s clear much of the city business is being done on cell phones. Is it just a sign of the times? Is it okay for elected officials to discuss city business and plan accordingly beforehand? It’s up to you to decide if that’s significant to you. It is to me.

Speaking of cell phones, the State’s Attorney’s Office is reportedly investigating harassing phone calls made by a citizen to at least three members of the City Council majority’s cell phones over the last couple weeks.

The phone calls were reportedly received in the wee hours and contained some disturbing tones. According to sources, the caller blocked the call so the phone number would not appear on the receiver’s phone.

However, authorities reportedly contacted Verizon and received the phone number and it was tracked to a female who could be facing misdemeanor charges if the State’s Attorney’s Office sees fit to file them. The name of the individual was provided to this reporter by three sources, and if true it’s newsworthy, but it could not be officially confirmed as of deadline.

Reached yesterday, while a jury in Snow Hill was deliberating on a murder trial, State’s Attorney Beau Oglesby confirmed an investigation is taking place into the calls but could not comment further as it was ongoing.

There will be more on this in the coming weeks.

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.