Q&A With Council President Jim Hall

Q&A With Council President Jim Hall

OCEAN CITY — Currently serving his 25th year in elected office, Council President Jim Hall filed on Monday for another term because he says he has more work to do for the town.

With his candidacy, Jim Hall, council president since 2010, became the ninth candidate to file with the candidate deadline coming Tuesday. Along with Jim Hall, vying for four open council seats in the Nov. 6 election are incumbents Doug Cymek, Joe Hall and Mary Knight as well as Bob Baker, Sean Rox, John Franklin Adkins, Joe Mitrecic and Dennis Dare, former city manager. Phillip Sayan filed Wednesday to become the 10th candidate.

“I’m not finished yet …,” Jim Hall said. “This election is all about personalities, but I really think it needs to be about the wallet and continuing the city on the course we have laid out over the last two years — being conservative and watching our spending.”

During an interview this week, Jim Hall reflected on his last term, what he regrets, what he’s proud of and his reasons for leading the charge for the “administration change” that took place in September of 2011 and why he takes responsibility for the confusion and concerns sparked by the move. He said “administration” was a phrase he would use rather than specifically mention Dare as a result of the severance agreement inked after Dare was removed. That accord said the change was made for a new management direction and “not as a result of any allegation or suggestion of wrong-doing…”

“I am to blame for how that went down and I should have expressed the reasons for the change better at that time. I said management direction, but there was more to it, and I should have been more clear about it at that time,” he said.

Here’s more of the interview:

Q. Four years ago, you ran on a platform of cutting spending. The budget has been reduced from $121 million in 2008 to $114 million. Is that what you had in mind?

A. I was telling the administration that things were getting bad, and it really went all the way back to 2006. When you talk to people who make a salary, like the administration does, they’re not really affected. If you talk to a police captain, they say, ‘yeah gas is up bread is up, but their pay check is coming every week. Mine is not.’

I kept saying to everyone at City Hall look the world is changing and we better start reeling it in and putting money away. I saw it back then and it’s absolutely the issue right now — it’s wallet, wallet, wallet.

Q. Do you think the city is in better shape now than four years ago?

A. Absolutely. The pension advisors say things are wonderful, you are now funding the way you should be. We just last week heard about our health insurance and we were told we are saving a lot of money and things were falling into place.

These were exactly what seemed like chaos when we had to make all those motions because we couldn’t get anything done. It was actually cool, calm and collected. We went in, made those motions and knew what we were doing because we couldn’t the administration to move.

[Former Mayor] Fish Powell used to say, ‘throw it up on the table and then they have got to do something’. So that’s what we did.

Q. Those ordinances did seem jammed through and abruptly introduced. Are you saying that’s not the case?

A. It’s not. We thought about it and we rewrote those 20 times before we brought those forward. Instead of doing four, we said let’s bring all the things over that bug us. We felt we have a new majority and let’s bring all the things on our chest, put them on the table and then somebody has to do something with them. That’s the way it played out.

Q. I have never seen anything like the current polarization of the Ocean City Mayor and Council and the subsequent divide of the community. In other areas, it’s prevalent, but it hasn’t been like this in Ocean City recently. This is your 25th year. Have you seen anything like all these 4-3 votes and the divisiveness at City Hall?

A. Truthfully, I was on the ‘three’ side for 20 years, and I didn’t moan and carry on like they do. I didn’t have four votes for 20 years. I will tell you even now I sometimes don’t know where the votes are going. [Councilwoman] Margaret [Pillas] is an odd individual. [Councilman] Brent [Ashley] is an odd individual. [Councilman] Joe Hall is an odd individual. I never know what they are doing, but they are all their own individuals. The other side they stick together, I know where their votes are going, but that’s exactly what we get criticized for. I get criticized for all of them.

Q. That’s because you are viewed as the leader of the majority, based on your tenure and council presidency. That brings us to the “administration change”, which has been viewed as your call. Why was it necessary?

A. I am going to take full blame. I liken it to having to let go of a dear family member in your business. It hurt me more than anything I have ever done in 25 years here. I still feel bad about it, but I had to do what’s right for Ocean City. We couldn’t convince the administration to change. We kept getting ‘no’s.’ We couldn’t get the administration to budge and that was shown time and time again, particularly during the benefit changes for new hires of last year.

I didn’t explain, and I really couldn’t at that time, what happened with [Dennis], so people just said, ‘he got a raw deal and you haven’t told us anything, except you are going in a new direction.’

I had a reason and it’s not personal. I regret that had to happen, but it was a necessary change. I’m not sure many people disagree the change was needed, but they say ‘you should have handled it some other way.’

Q. Many had issues with how the administration change was carried out and the impact it had on the city’s employees and residents. How did you try between the election of 2010 and Dare’s removal in September of 2011 to get the administration to work with the new majority?

A. We even went to the administration and said here’s some good ideas we think we have, change the pay and benefits, pensions … make them your idea. You will be the hero. We don’t want the credit for it. We are telling you things are changing, this 401k is breaking people. You have to change it. We were told no, it won’t be done, can’t do it. The insubordination ran rampant.

The administration is at Thursday staff meetings telling employees you are going to have to wait two more years until those guys are gone. There’s nothing we can do. That’s what turned the employees against us. Here you have the administration saying we are the bad guys, we are going to cut their pay … That’s not true.

The population in Ocean City is falling. Tourism hasn’t grown in 20 years. Yet, the administration is hiring new people and giving raises. Twenty-two raises of some sort over eight years and 110 new employees over that time. That’s important to know. We are losing residents, tourism is stable at best — we can’t keep growing the payroll.

We said no more hires, gave the employees incentives to leave. We squeezed the checkbook and when the money stopped, the administration turned on us.

Q. Was it that perceived juggernaut that led to the change?

A. No, what did it for me was the volunteer fire company. In 2006, the volunteer firemen were told by a company, ‘thank you for your order of a fire truck’. He said, ‘what order?’ and started to make inquiries. The last line item of the administration’s budget for 2006 for capital improvements was a new fire truck.

The only thing the administration didn’t have control of was the volunteer fire company, and it made the administration nuts. They were in charge of every other employee, and the volunteers could say these are our houses, these are our trucks, etc. What they tried to do was get rid of the volunteer fire company and start a paid fire company. They did that under the ruse of the volunteers came to the administration and said because our wives now work, we can’t cover 24-7-365. We think there should be some paid guys guarding the hen house because we can’t quite cover it anymore. So we thought okay let’s get a small crew of paid.

What the administration wanted to do was make it all paid, get rid of the volunteers and start over. When I found about this piece of equipment, I went crazy. I was never told about it.

I saw what was happening and wrote a letter to the residents, which I never do, saying, ‘please don’t let this happen to the volunteers because we need them when there’s a big fire.’ It was proven at the Dough Roller fire and it was just proven the other night at Bradley on the Bay. When you looked around, it was the volunteers who saved us.

That for me was the first trigger, and the others backed up the administration all the way. After I wrote the letter, everything went crazy.

Q. After the change, the search process for the next city manager commenced, and there were some bumps along the way. Are you happy with how that all played out?

A. We hired a professional city manager, not a city engineer. We hired someone with a Master’s in business and finance. To us, that made a lot of sense. That was one of the reasons we picked him, over the objections of the other part of the council.

David Recor has proven to be calm, level-headed and smart and he understands the finances.

While the process seemed chaotic, the result of that has been savings, a record number of qualified applicants for job openings. We were told nobody will want to work for Ocean City under these new benefits plans because of our changes. That never happened.

We made one administration change. What’s happened is this election has come to personality. It’s a personality race, but it shouldn’t be. It’s about the money. Do you want the ones who are going to spend or do you want the ones who are going to save? I don’t know what the people are going to do, but I do think there are a lot of people very concerned about the money. Conservative is the way to go, and we know the money hasn’t gotten better.

Q. Where are you on the general employees’ union referendum issue?

A. I strongly believe this is the wrong direction for the town and our employees. If you want a seasoned labor negotiator from Baltimore City to set your tax rate, then vote for the union. That’s who is going to set your tax rate because he’s going to say how much they are going to get paid.

Q. That has not happened so far with the FOP and paid firefighter/paramedics, though. Are you saying that because the general employees are a larger lot?

A. Well, it has happened. It has become more difficult as we have gotten into this relationship to work out a deal. I will give credit to the police and firemen who have recognized the financial crisis we are in and understand why they can’t get raises. But I think that’s coming to an end …. I just don’t think it’s going to work out well for anybody.

Q. Some general employees say this union effort is all about a lack of trust of the council majority and the way it has operated over the last two years.

A. One person has been fired, one. We made one administration change. We made all the pay and benefits changes and they didn’t affect one of them because we did it just for new hires. What we did ensures that when they retire, the money will be there, and the employees will never give me credit for that.

Q. The problem many have with the council majority is the iron-fist governing, not necessarily the end results. The perception is, ‘we have the power, get out of the way, we are in control now type of thing.’

A. How many times do you bring things up and just get brushed off? Finally, we just said make a motion. It had to be force fed to get it done but the end result is the same and it’s good for the town. It’s not a popularity contest, it’s what the best thing for the town.

Q. Do the FOP’s ‘No Halls, No Way’ ads currently running and signs around town sting?

A. Yes, sure. They were in the parking lot outside City Hall last night giving them out. They are all cordial to me. I understand this is a union thing and the union says, ‘here’s how you do it.’

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.