Ethics Charge Filed, Dropped Against Joe Hall

OCEAN CITY — A few days after being initially filed, an ethics complaint against the resort councilman who called a leading candidate for the city manager post was abruptly dropped on Monday.

Details of the private Ethics Committee meeting at City Hall are unclear as all parties have been instructed to refrain from discussing the personnel matters. However, what is known is the complaint was withdrawn.

Last Friday morning, Joe Groves, spokesman for the Citizens For Ocean City group, which was formed last September after longtime City Manager Dennis Dare’s abrupt removal, requested the Ethics Committee 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”, later confirmed through city phone records, obtained by The Dispatch, to be Ft. Pierce, Fla. City Manager David Recor.

Joe Hall said last 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 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 the council voted 4-3 on Tuesday to offer the job to Recor through the city’s hired consulting firm.

After Groves’ request on Friday, Ocean City Ethics Committee Chair Charlie Barrett contacted his members and a hearing was held on Monday at 2 p.m.

“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 on Friday. “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.”

Days after the telephone call was revealed, Joe Hall questioned City Solicitor Guy Ayres on whether the conversation violated any law or ethics code. In a letter to the Mayor and Council last month, 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 said he disagreed with that opinion in an interview last Friday.

“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.”

At Tuesday’s hearing, Groves was represented by attorney J. Harrison Phillips and Joe Hall was represented by attorney Joe Moore.

Both Groves and Joe Hall said they could not comment on the particulars of the meeting, but confirmed the Ethics Committee will not be issuing an opinion since the complaint was withdrawn by Groves.

“As of yesterday, I have dropped the ethics charge … As of right now, I have to leave it at that,” Groves said Tuesday morning.

On Tuesday, Joe Hall said, “I’m very happy that Mr. Groves saw fit to withdraw his complaint. I maintain it was not a violation. We’re ready to move forward with our closed session meeting today.”

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.
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 last Friday, 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.