NEW FOR FRIDAY: Ethics Hearing On Councilman’s Phone Call To City Manager Candidate Set For Monday

OCEAN CITY — A request for an ethics inquiry involving a councilman’s phone call this month to a leading candidate for the city manager vacancy was filed this morning at City Hall.

Joe Groves, spokesman for the Citizens For Ocean City group, which was formed last September after longtime City Manager Dennis Dare’s abrupt removal, filed the papers around 9 a.m. with the City Clerk’s Office. Groves is asking the Ethics Commission be convened and hold a hearing. He has also sent the information to the State’s Attorney’s Office.

“I want an ethics investigation immediately into Joe Hall, and I think they will vote he has committed an ethics violation,” Groves said. “I think when Joe made that phone call to one of the candidates … has jeopardized the fair and clean aspects of the process. Also, the phone call put the other candidate at a disadvantage and it’s possibly even opened up a lawsuit from the other candidate if [the individual] so chooses. Joe Hall thinks he’s above everybody else and feels he can do whatever he wants. Politicians should be held to a certain standard. There are certain ethics codes they should be held to and he doesn’t believe that he should be. It’s wrong and the town deserves better.”

On April 11, two days prior to meeting with the top two candidates — one for breakfast and another for dinner — Joe Hall had a 13-minute conversation with who he believed was the “front runner”. He said this week he asked him about his familiarity with the council-manager form of government and talked about the area and fishing, among other things.

Joe Hall’s phone call has touched off a firestorm of controversy with at least two council members alleging the process has been tainted and that the search effort for the next city manager must be restarted. The council majority has Joe Hall’s back and Council President Jim Hall said this week a vote is imminent on the next city manager. Barring any flags in the top two candidates’ background checks, which are expected no later than Monday, Jim Hall said a vote is likely Tuesday prior to the council work session.

As a result of the ethics hearing request by Groves, Ocean City Ethics Committee Chair Charlie Barrett said this morning he will immediately contact his members and seek a meeting prior to Tuesday’s expected vote on the next city manager.

“I have been instructed to get a hold of members of the committee as quickly as possible due to the fact that Tuesday they are going to probably vote on this thing,” Barrett said. “I hope to have a hearing with Councilman Hall before that to answer this. I don’t know if that’s possible or not, but due to President Hall saying there will be a 4-something vote on the next city manager, as reported in your paper, we need to get together soon. I think this is a very serious situation, no matter what some of the other council members say about it. In my opinion, this is a violation but I want to get all the facts before rendering a final decision.”

This afternoon, Barrett reported the hearing will be held at 2 p.m. on Monday at City Hall.

Days after the telephone call was revealed, Joe Hall questioned City Solicitor Guy Ayres on whether the telephone call violated any law or ethics code. In a letter to the Mayor and Council, Ayres found no violation took place.

“In my opinion, the actions of council member, Joe Hall, do not constitute a violation of any statute of federal, state or local law including but not limited to conflicts of interest and public ethics,” Ayres wrote. “Furthermore, under the common law adopted by the Constitution of the State of Maryland, the actions of public officials are scrutinized under the feasance trilogy, non, mis and mal. Nonfeasance is not doing the job you were elected or appointed to do. Misfeasance is negligently doing the job you were elected or appointed to do. Malfeasance is wrongfully doing or using the job or position you were elected or appointed to do. In my opinion, Joe Hall’s actions do not violate either of the feasance trilogy [nonfeasance, misfeasance and malfeasance].”

Groves disagrees with that opinion.

“I think he’s got that one wrong and let’s let an independent committee decide. Guy, who works for the Mayor and Council, was asked to give his opinion and he’s allowed to do that, but as am I,” Groves said. “Let’s investigate it and come to a decision. The majority wants an open government … let the committee decide if he’s broken the ethics code.”

In a story that seemingly takes new turns by the hour, late yesterday, Councilman Doug Cymek sent a letter to the Mayor and Council requesting a meeting as soon as possible.

“I would like to go on the record as officially requesting that Council President Jim Hall step forward as our leader and promptly convene the council in an attempt to restore some semblance of order to the process of hiring a new city manager in spite of what a council member’s recent actions have brought upon us. Only Council President Hall can call this meeting and should he fail to do so and the process is allowed to continue unchecked, it most certainly will prove to be unfair to the citizens and taxpayers of Ocean City,” Cymek wrote. “This most unfortunate situation brought about by poor judgment simply cannot be allowed to wait until next Tuesday as the Council President has suggested. I respectfully ask that my colleagues along with the mayor immediately come together in emergency session in an attempt to resolve our differences and restore the public’s faith in their elected representatives along with some integrity to the process.”

No decision has reportedly been made on that, but a special meeting today is unlikely. Councilwoman Margaret Pillas is out of town and sources report no meeting will be held until she returns to town over the weekend. Additionally, the city has not received the candidate background checks as of today.

Meanwhile, Barrett is prepared to convene his committee and hopes to do so before Tuesday’s work session.

“I am going to reach out to the members and depending on their schedules hopefully I can get at least three of them to agree to a meeting,” Barrett said.

The Ethics Committee is a five-member body appointed by the Mayor and Council to three-year terms. The mayor submits names to the council, which then confirms the nominees. Along with Barrett, the members are Joe Mulholland, Fran Kelly, Thomas Howard and Carroll Wagner. The committee provides advisory opinions.

The last time the committee was called into session was in January of 2011 and involved Joe Hall as well.

Ocean City Pfc. Michael A. Levy, public safety representative on the town’s pension committee, charged that Joe Hall conflicted himself out of a seat on that committee with this comment made at a public meeting.

“I want to be as fair and as equitable as possible to the employees to get the job done, but once they [town employees] retire I think the town should be done with them. The future of the council should not have to be funding people that no longer work for the town …,” Joe Hall said back then.

These comments set off a firestorm among the city’s employee base, leading Levy, an elected trustee to the pension committee, to bring his charge to the Ethics Commission.

In his letter to the Ethics Commission, Levy touched on the “hostile work environment” the councilman’s comments created.

“I believe that because of Councilman Joseph Hall’s public statements and stated disregard for the retirees/participants that the pension trust serves, his service as a pension trustee would present serious conflicts of interest to the inherent fiduciary responsibilities of a sitting trustee and would not be in the best interest the pension plans, participants and beneficiaries,” he wrote.

Apparently, some members of the Ethics Commission agreed and others did not. In a letter to Levy, Barrett wrote, “Based upon the presented testimony, the Ethics Commission was unable to render a consensus opinion (the vote was 2-2) as to whether Council Member Joe Hall’s public statements about the Town’s current Employee Pension Plan present a conflict of interest with his fiduciary responsibilities as a Pension Trustee.”

Reached today, Joe Hall said he thinks Ayres’ opinion on the phone call decided the matter last week.

“I believe Guy’s opinion, which I sought out, was clear. I was happy with his opinion and I believe it confirms what I felt about what I did,” Joe Hall said. “Even if they do go against me, I don’t know how much that’s going to change things. A lot of this is just politics …”

Joe Hall also said he believes Mayor and Acting City Manager Rick Meehan’s actions during the process deserve some attention as well. Joe Hall alleged Meehan, a local Realtor, gave his business card to the candidate at some point in the process.

“I would be surprised to find there would be so much emotion about my phone call than the mayor not having the same equal emotion … I will be interested to see the reaction to the people who are criticizing me about this phone call,” Joe Hall said. “I think the mayor/city manager providing a business card and setting up real estate showings for rentals and the sale of property would merit the same discussion before the Ethics Board. In fairness, that crossed the line as much if not more than my phone call.”

Meehan said that never happened. According to Meehan, Human Resources Director Wayne Evans contacted him and relayed an inquiry from the candidate regarding the availability of real estate rental properties.

“I gave Wayne the name of a rental agent. That was it. I never gave him my card and I gave him the name of the rental agent. I never gave a business card to anyone. Not mine, not the agent’s. That was it. Period. I’m not involved in it,” Meehan said. “Wayne said [the candidate] might be interested in purchasing. I said, ‘if that’s the case, refer them to somebody else.’ I didn’t have any involvement whatsoever. I just gave the name of the rental agent to Wayne, who then I assume gave it to the candidate. I don’t even know if that happened. I never spoke directly to any of the candidates and I never directly gave any of the candidates any information.”

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.