No Legislative Vote Needed For Resort To Merge Elections

OCEAN CITY – A state of confusion arose this week when a supposed state regulation almost put a stop to Ocean City’s attempts to consolidate its municipal elections with national Election Day.

Early this week, a letter from City Solicitor Guy Ayres had circulated among the Mayor and City Council answering a list of questions regarding consolidating Ocean City’s municipal Election Day in October with national Election Day in November.

On June 18, the council voted 4-3, Council members Joe Hall, Doug Cymek, Mary Knight and Lloyd Martin in favor and Brent Ashley, Jim Hall and Margaret Pillas opposed (as well as the mayor, who does not have a vote on the matter), to instruct Ayres to draft a charter amendment to make the switch in hopes to draw a larger voter turnout, as well as save in election costs.

Ayres had contacted the Worcester County Board of Elections over the matter and officials in Snow Hill in turn contacted the State Board of Elections, which provided a list of responses to the questions asked.

The first item on the list caused the most concern this week stating that in order for Ocean City elections to be held by the county as part of the general election, legislation authorizing such must be passed by the General Assembly. If the state board is correct, the charter amendment cannot be passed in time for this year’s elections since the General Assembly only meets January through April.

However, on Wednesday, Maryland Municipal League (MML) Director of Research Jim Peck confirmed Ocean City does not need the General Assembly’s approval to move forward in consolidating election days.

“All the Town of Ocean City needs to do would be to amend their charter to change the election date,” he said.

Peck explained that Maryland municipalities have authority to conduct their own affairs as they see fit and the MML fully supports that discretion.

“The league itself has no position as to when municipalities should have their elections,” he said. “The election dates of all municipalities are all over the board. There are very few municipalities that have municipal elections that coincide with state or federal elections.”

Peck said in recent history Cumberland in Allegany County and Hagerstown in Washington County were told that if they want the county to continue to conduct their elections for them they would need to move their election date to coincide with the county’s elections.

In that case, Cumberland chose to make the move, without the General Assembly’s approval, and to Peck’s knowledge Hagerstown has not acted one way or the other yet.

“Over time, I have been approached by other municipalities looking into the possibility of changing their election dates to coincide with state or federal elections and frequently municipalities have opted not to do so because of the concern of having the local municipal issues that are involved in the elections, having them subsumed by state or federal issues, should they decide to coincide their election dates with state or federal elections,” Peck said.

Councilman Doug Cymek, who encouraged the vote last week, has been following the process closely this week and has no doubt that a vote to consolidate election days will take place during the Mayor and City Council’s meeting next Monday, July 2.

“I have no doubt it will move forward … this is not about us, it’s not our day, it’s not a party, we are here to do what it is best for the town, and it is about voter turnout and that is enough justification for me to vote for it,” said Cymek, who has filed for re-election and will be seeking his second, four-year term.

Councilwoman Mary Knight, who is up for re-election and said she is most likely going to file, is also confident that a vote will take place next week following discussion and public input. She supports the change not only to increase voter turnout and to save in election costs but also because it would be more convenient for voters.

“People are so busy nowadays, a lot of people work multiple jobs, taking their children to school, so if they could just carve out an hour or two from one day instead of two separate days, I think it helps everybody,” she said.

Last week, as a compromise, Knight asked what the chances were of having Ocean City’s candidates placed at the top of the ballot if elections were to be held on national Election Day.

According to Ayres’ letter, Ocean City candidates and issues will be last on the ballot.
This week, Knight was at ease over the response.

“I think it is my responsibility to do a good job to make sure everybody knows who I am,” she said.

However, Cymek expressed some concern about ballot placement.

“Will the voters have the stamina to get through a lengthy ballot like that?,” he questioned.

One other item that raised some discussion from council members was a onetime cost of an estimated $10,000-$15,000 the town would have to pay for programming the county system to incorporate the municipal election.

“Once you get past the first year, you will have an annual savings but this is just not about money, this is also about bringing out more people,” Cymek said.

In the past, the town has reported the estimated cost of conducting Ocean City’s individual municipal election is $10,000.

“If we did change it, the money would be a wash, the one-time cost of $10,000 … so we would save a little bit of money in this election and moving forward we would save a lot of money,” Knight said.

Other regulations that would have to be followed is the town would have to adopt state regulations for elections, the town’s filing date for candidates would have to be changed to meet ballot printing deadlines and early mailing of ballots (45 days) to members of armed services, the county system is not set up to allow for the supplemental (town only) voter roll, all candidates must file in Snow Hill and Ocean City would have to pay all costs associated with any special election requested.

Councilman Brent Ashley voted against consolidating election days last week, stating the town’s individual day has become a tradition. He confirmed that stance this week.

“It is one day you have a chance to interact with the voters, a little one-on-one, … and for me I like it because there has been many council members that have come before me that have gone through the same process and greeted the voters,” he said.

In past discussions over the possibility of combining election days, Ashley has suggested the town host an Election Day festival to increase voter turnout.

“Here in Ocean City having one voting location it would be excellent … we could have music and entertainment and street performers and hotdogs, have a festival atmosphere so people can have something to look forward to,” he said. “In our history, voting used to be a big celebration day, the people would come off their farms and people would come so many miles to vote that they would make a whole day out of it. So why not have a little excitement here.”

Ashley added that if a vote is conducted next week he does not see the election date being changed this year.

“I just think that once the dust settles I think somebody is going to change their mind,” he said.

Via Facebook, the Citizens For Ocean City group sent a message out to the community to attend the Mayor and City Council meeting on Monday to voice support for the consolidation. The organization is in favor of holding Ocean City’s elections the same date as the federal election for the same reasons — increase voter turnout and save money in election costs.

According to city records, in 2010 out of 6,000 registered voters in Ocean City only 1,383 voted, a 24.7 percent turnout, which was a decrease from 2008 when 1,393 people voted, a 24.8 percent turnout.