OCEAN CITY — Despite an eventful term that included some self-proclaimed “gaffs” on his part, Councilman Joe Hall has no regrets about the decisions he made in office over the last four years and believes his knowledge, experience and passion merit him another term in November.
During an interview this week at Soriano’s Coffee Shop, where he once worked when his father ran a business in the same downtown location, Joe Hall, who has served 10 years in elected office and filed for re-election on Monday at City Hall, addressed his critics and explained why he felt the major changes instituted over the last two years by the council majority needed to be implemented in Ocean City, including the move to terminate former City Manager Dennis Dare and what specifically “chafed” him to the point he felt ousting Dare was the right move.
The following is a transcript of that conversation:
Q. Four years ago, your campaign message was Ocean City’s budget was “super-sized” and spending was out of control. Has that been addressed to your satisfaction?
A. I think it has been a struggle to move into a resized government, but I think the fruits of our labors are starting to show.
Yesterday, we had Bolton Partners give us a report on health care benefits and the retooling we did. What’s happened is we diversified our offerings to the employees and she said at least 15 times this week in describing the benefits package we offer employees as ‘rich’. It’s a ‘rich’ benefit we offer, and yet we came in $100,000 less than last year. The employees have options and are picking and choosing what works best for them. We didn’t take anything away, but at the same time we have delivered a true savings to the town that will hopefully be realized year after year as we educate the employees more and more.
In 2008, the total budget for the town was $121 million. Last year’s budget was $114 million. Even the mayor acknowledged in a recent interview, the town has never been cleaner, never been safer and it’s vibrant.
Q. To be fair, though, weren’t those savings already being realized before that 2008 election in the so-called “right-sizing” that was taking place along with the realization of a long-term recession?
A. Absolutely and I think that shows after my successful campaign [Council President] Jimmy [Hall], [Councilwoman] Margaret [Pillas] and myself were able to get the discussions on the table.
If you go back and research, you will see it was just as divisive the other way around. There was resistance to having those cost discussions, but we were able to keep those discussions on the table even without the mandate from the voters of a majority vote.
In the 2010 election, I wrote a letter supporting Brent asking the voters to give us a mandate and the votes to push forward these changes, and the voters did that.
If the last election was the mandate, this election is going to be the super mandate on where the town should go, and my confidence is the facts are on my side and Jimmy’s side and that people are going to vote their pocketbook first and hopefully their emotions second.
I believe the opposition’s campaign is an emotional campaign. By their bullet points they’re using and the conversations they are having on the streets, they are capitalizing on emotional bullet points and gaffs that may have been made by me.
Q. Let’s talk about the gaffs you mentioned. A lot has happened in your term, particularly the last two years. Is there anything specifically you regret over the last four years? Maybe the “we’re done with you” comment you made about the employees during the benefits discussions in 2011?
A. If you take that into the context of the conversation, that comment is not bad whatsoever.
Regrets? Zero. I don’t live with regret. I have embraced that I am a human being and I am flawed and things aren’t always going to come out correctly along the way all the time. If someone wants to grab a portion of the context of a conversation and use it against you, you are not going to avoid that. For me, I’m a free wheeler and when you do that you are apt to have some hiccups along the way.
My desire in that conversation you mentioned is we should pay as we go. If the street sweeper is sweeping the street today, I want to pay him in the next paycheck everything we owe him. I don’t want to tell him you are going to have to wait until you retire to get part of what you earn. I don’t want the taxpayers, after you retire, to have to pay for something you did 10 or 15 years ago. That’s the change we made.
There’s been a lot of talk about the old plan and the new plan. Well, I find the old plan not employee friendly.
Q. With the council majority, what I hear most common is not necessarily the ends but it’s the means of the process and the manner in which decisions are being made. For example, with the slew of benefits changes proposed in 2011, there was a perception those 11 ordinances were introduced out of the blue and that was that. It’s thought the council majority rules with an iron fist and jams things through. Can you address that perception?
A. Absolutely, sure, I have heard that. Joe Mitrecic admitted in his own interviews that no less than three times did we talk about pay and benefits [prior to the 2010 election]. So ‘out of the blue’, no way. It’s one of those bullet points that breeds on emotion and gives the impression that we were half-cocked in our views. It’s not the case.
The motions that came, under their impression ‘out of the blue’, wasn’t a mandate that that was what it was that night. It was a mandate to say these are the 10 things we are going to discuss and have a conversation about and instead of allowing the process to unfold and have that conversation and the ‘actuarial studies’ the mayor wants to hit us over the head with, we never said don’t do them. We said do them. It just works on their behalf to say we weren’t going to do our homework.
The 10 motions were this is the priority Dennis. Drop everything else, this is what we want you working on. We want the information, we want to move it forward and have the conversations. It wasn’t ramrodded. It was forcibly moving the ball forward down the field.
A 4-3 vote in government is the same as a 7-0 vote, and what happened with these benefit changes and what happened with Dennis was he continually wanted to revisit things that we told him we wanted to move on beyond.
Q. In your mind, the city manager’s office was fighting the council majority’s direction. Is that right?
A. He didn’t agree with our policies so therefore he wanted to continue to revisit the issues. Dennis was extremely confident with the programs and policies that were in place and there was a major resistance to change.
Q. I have told you my problems with how the Dennis situation was handled. The council has every right to make that call, as the city manager works at the pleasure of the council. The issue for me and many is how it played out and what it did to the employees and morale and the fears that surfaced as a result of the way it was carried out. We have talked about that numerous times, but not on the record because Dare was not a candidate, which he now is. What led to his removal?
A. The four people who voted to let Dennis go came to their conclusions on their own separately. Once we realized the four of us all felt Dennis needed to move on, then we came together and did that. So Margaret’s, Jimmy’s and Brent’s reasons could be different than my reasons. Once I knew there was four votes, I started the conversation for change.
I had quite a few conversations with Dennis about my vision of what sustainable municipal government entailed. I had the benefits discussions, tax and revenue discussions, target market conversations with Dennis.
About a month before we made that decision, Brent, Dennis and I had lunch. We tried to give Dennis a chance to work with us. Remember the move was made about a year after the election. We told Dennis to stop fighting us, just work for everybody. He looked me in the eye and said, ‘I don’t agree with you.’ What was I supposed to do?
The big thing on the street is it wasn’t that you let Dennis go, it was the process. You tell me a good way to fire somebody. There isn’t a good way. Each one of us was telling Dennis for a year to stop fighting us.
The breaking point for me was I went to Dennis’ office and had a conversation about the target market for the town of Ocean City. I explained to him that I believe the base of the Ocean City economy has always been the blue collar worker. The guy that busts his buns for 51 weeks to come down here to give his family a one-week beach vacation. That’s my clientele for my restaurant. That’s who lines up at Jolly Roger and Trimper’s … That’s the base. I think there’s clear evidence the marketing programs of the town have ignored that base. From [Mayor] Rick [Meehan] in the past mandating that we target $75,000 households and more to the golf program and that fiasco to $750,000 condos. Our base is the blue collar worker. We can’t ignore our base I told Dennis and he disagreed.
An example he gave to me was he had a friend who had a restaurant and a small bar. He expanded the bar and is now doing much better. Dennis’ recommendation to me for the vitality of my business was I should expand my bar. That just chafed me. I don’t want to be in the bar business.
I used to have lines at my door. We had a base of people that came down here to go to the beach and have fun. I don’t want to replace them with partiers. There’s a place for them, of course … I told Dennis the business is not here that once was. The lines at the businesses are not there like they once were. We have ignored the base. It was always done in the essence of pursuing growth, but you don’t have growth if you don’t maintain your growth.
We have been on a replacement strategy. We want to replace the blue collar plumber from Baltimore with the attorney from New Jersey. That doesn’t work. We need both to come and the numbers show that’s the case.
So I left that meeting with Dennis with no confidence that Dennis understands my perspective of the economy of Ocean City. That was a fundamental difference that I knew would be a continual uphill battle. Why have a roadblock in front of you when you don’t have to?
Q. Moving ahead, Dennis is replaced by Mayor Rick Meehan and a national search begins. We get down to the last few finalists, and then you call David Recor in Fort Pierce, Fla. who of course became our city manager. What that did was out him to his community in Florida. You said zero regrets earlier. Why did you make that call and do you regret it?
A. No regrets, none whatsoever. I had a serious concern that what was perceived as improper would hurt David. I’m glad that didn’t happen. I presented clear and overwhelming evidence at my ethics hearing that I had zero impropriety. I actually showed it was fiduciary responsibility and obligation to the taxpayers to make that phone call. I felt it necessary to make the right decision for the town. I felt it important to know that David Recor understood our charter and the makeup of our town in reference to the job.
I showed there was no evidence ever, none, that there was instruction to not contact the candidates. We didn’t even find it implied, but in hindsight you probably could assume it shouldn’t be done. But I was making a decision to hire someone who was going to run the town of Ocean City. The manager is entrusted with everything in this town.
For me to make a 15-minute phone call and then be criticized is an absolute joke. It was only criticized because it worked for the people who didn’t like the decision we made. What a joke.
I didn’t make the phone call and call Steve Green and say, ‘hey I called David Recor.’ There’s other people who chose to leak that out to you for their own reasons. The leak wasn’t me calling David Recor. They are the ones who put Mr. Recor at risk by telling you. It’s a joke to say that I ‘outted’ him.
Listen, there are people who have had controlling direction of the town for a very long time. At the rally last week, Rick said it was the longest two years of his political career. It’s because he’s not driving the train right now and he can’t accept that.
Q. You have brought the mayor up a lot here. You were high profile in trying to get someone to oppose Rick Meehan for mayor over the summer. Was that because you simply feel positions need to be contested or because of your personal belief that Rick should no longer be the mayor?
A. Both. Rick’s never been contested as mayor. He inherited the mayor’s post by the death of our delegate, Bennett Bozman, and the mayor at the time, Jim Mathias, was appointed to the delegate’s seat. Also, there was the fact that in the last election there were 1,400 some voters and only 900 votes were cast for him. I felt it would be nice to know where his mandate is on his job.
Q. Are you going to vote for his challenger, Mr. Campagnoli?
A. Yes, I will vote for him. I just don’t agree with Rick and his idea of how the town should be and its future. Rick and I have very similar goals for the town, but we just have extreme differences on how to get there.
Q. On the topic of the union, you have been an outspoken opponent to the general employees’ goal of organization. It’s clear you are going to vote against the referendum. Why? How can you vote against this effort when you supported the FOP’s collective bargaining with binding interest arbitration movement 10 years ago?
A. As human beings, we can learn. Through experience, I have learned that unions are not the best mechanism for employer-employee relationships.
.. I supported the FOP because I felt police department management would not change and it needed to at that time. I felt the negative management practices were so engrained in that department that it was needed. Soon after, I told the guys, ‘now that this has passed, I’m with the taxpayer’. Some issues came up and I lost favor with them because I was not with them on every issue, including the appointment of DiPino as chief.
With this referendum, it’s very unfortunate that I have been painted as anti-employee. It’s so far from the truth. I think the employees have been manipulated emotionally through bullet points from the opposition about comments I have made to make them feel they are not valued or their benefits are going to be stripped from them.
If you line the facts up, none of it’s true. I don’t know about any retaliation, there has never been any evidence. They are basically unscathed with respect to pay and benefits. No, they haven’t gotten raises, but come on.
Q. Trust seems to be the issue for them.
A. Yes but trust should be on the facts, not on the emotion. What’s on the table is putting a third party between the manager and the employees, and I think it’s a mistake for the general employees. I think it’s a mistake for the public safety employees as well.
It’s just not needed. We are not going to retaliate against the employees.
Q. Going back a bit, the first act of the new council majority was electing Jim Hall as council president. The next move was the abolishment of the town subcommittees and later the Tourism Advisory Board (TAB) was formed. Did that move two years accomplish what you hoped it would?
A. Again, change in government is extremely difficult and it’s never an overnight success. I believe we did the right thing.
One of the mandates from that last election I felt was open and transparent government. My previous eight years on the council things were managed in a way that by the time they got to the council they had all been massaged out and predetermined. So no wonder there were more 5-1 and 6-1 votes than there are now.
If Rick and Joe didn’t feel like they had the votes lined up, they pulled it off the agenda, and they worked it. That’s how things were done. You yourself expressed those frustrations to me in the past as well as in print. A lot of those things were worked out at those commissions and out of the public eye.
Transparency is uncomfortable because the only way you have it is to do it out there in the open. Have the conversations in the public eye. All the good, the bad, the frustrations and the controversies have to be done out there. I think that’s been effective.
I have had a lot of frustrations with TAB. We said alright business community, go figure it out. They had been saying, ‘we are tired of the bureaucrats and elected officials telling us what’s best for business.’ Then they go and appoint a board that includes most who don’t work or own in town. It was frustrating to me they didn’t go right to the stakeholders and say you need to be in charge. The people whose name is on the mortgage. Instead, they put employees in charge, so I have frustrations there, but it’s developing.
However, I do think it’s better than the old Tourism Commission and I think the business people would say, ‘you guys did a bold, aggressive thing and in the end we now have a more defined business group that really drives the economics of Ocean City on tourism-related aspects.’
Another component of this was now the council gets all the information at the same time.
Q. On the topic of transparency, we pulled the City Council members’ phone records last year and it showed hundreds of minutes of conversations between council majority members. Are you telling me that’s not government decisions being made out of the public’s eye and consensus building being done behind closed doors?
A. It absolutely was, but my phone works two ways. The people who are complaining don’t call me. If they called me, I’d answer the phone and I would have those conversations.
They say, ‘oh we didn’t know anything.’ Well, where’s my obligation to call you [Councilwoman] Mary [Knight]. You call me. If you choose to isolate yourself and not engage me as a colleague, I’m not obligated to force feed you.
What we did and do is acceptable and legal and to lobby for votes is reality. Let’s live in the real world here.