OCEAN CITY — While acknowledging his last term has been the most difficult of his 27-year political career, Mayor Rick Meehan pointed to his commitment to Ocean City as why he wants to continue to serve.
Meehan has been mayor since 2006, but the Nov. 6 election will be the first time he has been challenged for his mayoral seat, thanks to Nicholas Campagnoli’s filing. He said Tuesday the fact he is contested will have no bearing on how he campaigns for re-election.
In an extensive interview this week, Meehan, who was first elected as a councilman in 1985 and served 14 years as council president, explained what it was like being city manager for 10 months; why he will not vote for the general employees’ union effort; gave specific examples of how the city cut spending prior to the advent of the current council majority; and reflected on his specific concerns about government under the council majority’s leadership.
Here’s a look at the conversation:
Q. After 27 years as a councilman and then mayor, I’m interested to know why you want to continue serving. Why file and run again?
A. I am totally committed to the Town of Ocean City. At this point, I have been involved in a number of different capacities — as a councilman, council president, mayor currently and now I have a 10-month background as city manager. I have always looked at the future of Ocean City to be exciting and challenging and it’s something I very much want to continue to be part of.
The citizens need to know that you want the job, and I want the job and I want to continue to serve the town of Ocean City under any circumstances. I want to continue representing Ocean City before governing bodies here and in Annapolis and I want to continue to talk about Ocean City before major media outlets during our advertising tours. If there’s one thing I do well, it’s talking about Ocean City, and I get to do that and tell visitors what we have new in Ocean City and what they can expect during their visits. It’s an important role for the mayor. It’s something I take serious and I think I have been productive. I want to keep on doing that.
Q. I want to talk about the future, but to do that I think we need to talk about the past and present some. It’s now been about five months since you shed the title of acting city manager, filling in for Dennis Dare after he was abruptly removed in September of 2011. Did you learn much during that stint as city manager?
A. I did learn some things. I had always been involved in the managerial process as far as the budget as council president, and I always worked closely with the city manager. I felt my job as council president was to have a clear understanding of everything that was presented and going to be on an agenda. To make sure all the information was included for the council to make decisions. As council president, I had to make sure I understood all that before it was presented to them. So I had a very good understanding of how our government operated.
Stepping into the city manager’s position was certainly not something I expected to happen. I was certainly not happy with how that came about, but what I can tell you is I learned the very first day the city employees wanted to have a leader. As with any job or any company or business, there has to be somebody who is in charge and someone they can look to as who they go to. I realized taking over the position I was going to be here every day from 8:30 a.m. to 5 p.m. The city employees expected their boss, their leader, to be here.
I also realized right away at the first staff meeting afterwards that the city employees were visibly shaken by what happened. Dennis Dare was a players’ manager and they responded to his approach to city government. They were dejected by what had happened, and I took that occasion at that very first staff meeting to look at each and every one of them and tell them that we are not going to miss a beat. We have the policies, procedures and people in place to make this city continue to run and we’re not going to miss a beat. It was amazing. Everybody responded to that. Right away, I think they felt okay we are going to move ahead and prove we have everything in place to do this job. That’s what they did, and I couldn’t be prouder of the city employees.
I learned a lot through that and the course of the budget. I did prepare the budget with our budget manager and input from department heads. I did learn a lot through that and I learned the mechanics of the town, such as how to approve a purchase order, and things I needed to know. I felt I needed to know how everything worked so I did learn a lot.
Q. Back in September, when the majority informed the rest of the council that Dare was going to be given an ultimatum — retire or be fired — I was walking around City Hall and talking to some employees, including Dare himself. Nobody knew what was going on and they were all bewildered and worried. Do you see the morale as the employees as better now with the new city manager and some new stability or is it still an issue?
A. I do think it’s still an issue. I think there’s still concern on their part of the unknown and not knowing what’s going to happen next. I think it’s died down some. That’s probably because of the election, but I think there’s still a lot of concern. I think the city employees lost the confidence and trust in their council, their employees, and that’s a wound that has not healed. They are still looking for a resolution on that.
Q. You and Dennis Dare worked together a number of years. You are also friends. You were vocally and visibly upset when that decision was made. What was it about it that bothered you so much? Was it the fact you were not a part of that decision?
A. Well, I think it followed the ‘ready, shoot, aim’ approach of the self-proclaimed new majority. I did not think they had a solid basis for making that decision. I also felt the way they handled it was done very poorly. When I hear comments about having the power and doing whatever we want, I certainly don’t think that’s an all-inclusive way of having a discussion of the magnitude that you would think you would have with regards dismissing a long-standing city employees. I think it was handled very poorly. It was upsetting to see that because I didn’t see the basis.
The fact I was not a part of it … it is a council-manager form of government and I respect that. I realize the mayor doesn’t have a vote on the city manager position, but typically at least the mayor’s insight would at least be taken into consideration as part of the process. In this case, it was not at all.
Q. At the OC Rally in September, you were the keynote speaker. You said, “as the mayor, former council president and councilman, I have served this community for 27 years, but I don’t think I have ever been through a two-year period that has been as difficult as we have just gone through in Ocean City.” In an interview a couple weeks later, Councilman Joe Hall responded, saying, “that’s because he’s not driving the train right now and he can’t accept that.” Can you respond directly that?
A. I don’t think that’s correct at all. I think it’s the fact that our government is more closed today than it’s ever been. Right now, if you follow the context of the meetings, the decisions have already been made before the meetings even take place. The discussion of all seven or eight members is not part of the process. I have never experienced that before.
There have certainly been years when I might have been considered to be part of a majority, but really the function of that majority was when we had our organizational meeting to elect a council president and council secretary. I always thought or hoped our goal was to then work together and try to make good decisions for the community.
As council president, I never looked to have 4-3 votes. I always thought it was important to try and include everyone in the conversations and address some of the concerns and come up with a better decision, something everyone could buy into. There were even times when I was successful in obtaining a vote to move forward with a project and that vote was only a 4-3 vote. As council president, I pulled that vote back and said we need to discuss this further and get a better buy-in from the council and understand why those opposed voted the way they did. In that particular case, you will recall it was the first expansion of the convention center. We opened up that discussion again and it eventually became a 7-0 vote. When you are building something of that magnitude, you need the consensus of the council and not just four council members. It’s such a stronger position.
That’s what has been so concerning to me about the last two years. There was no consideration by the council to try to gain more than a 4-3 vote. It was we have the power, we have the votes and we are going to do what we want.
Q. In early 2011, you vetoed seven of 11 ordinances put forward to alter the employee pay and benefits packages. A lively debate often incurs on whether these changes by the council majority were initially for all city employees or simply for new employees. What’s your take?
A. I don’t miss very many meetings, but all those ordinances were introduced at a meeting that I was not at. I thought those ordinances were poorly thought out and the council would not take the time to bring in our actuaries to really look at the ramifications those ordinances would have on the employees and taxpayers.
In the six months prior to that, we had many discussions and we all wanted to work collectively to re-examine how we did things and see if there were any changes that could be made. Then all of a sudden there were 11 ordinances about to be passed that had not been thoroughly looked at. Those who presented the ordinances couldn’t answer the questions, saying we would address that later. You just can’t do that. After first reading, I asked the council to take a step back and bring in our actuaries and consultants to get the information we needed to make sure we all understood the ramifications of these ordinances. They would not do that. In other words, they didn’t want to be blinded by the facts. They just wanted the ordinances passed.
I will tell you a lot of the discussion prior to passage of those ordinances was about the salaries of city employees. That certainly was one of the priority concerns of the council, so it would only be reasonable to assume these changes were intended to affect all city employees. I have no doubt that initially that was the direction the new majority intended to take.
Q. You have said in the past that ultimately those vetoes will save the town a lot of money. How so?
A. It did. It also saved our employees as well and their integrity and their base salaries and benefits. As proposed, one of the employees was to cut all salaries by 8%. Now that eventually became all new hires, but I vetoed that ordinance. Not because I was opposed to an adjustment of the salary scale, but I thought it should be a sliding scale. If the problem was we felt our upper-level employees were at a range higher than they should be, I felt we should address it that way, starting with a lower decrease at the bottom and work up to that 8%. I felt that made sense and followed the concerns.
By vetoing that ordinance and bringing in the right people to give us the scenarios and pay scale options, we were able to do that, and it made a significant difference in what was originally proposed.
If the salaries of our current employees was really the problem, why wasn’t that addressed? I was open to addressing that. They didn’t want to discuss that because they had made such a blunder, in my opinion, they were trying to backtrack a bit. That’s just one example.
After those ordinances were vetoed, and it became apparent they didn’t contain the information necessary to know what was actually going to happen after they were passed, I said to the council, ‘you would have passed those ordinances if we hadn’t vetoed them. What would you have done?’ Council member Pillas said, ‘oh mayor, we had confidence you would veto the ordinances.’ I didn’t even know what to say to that.
Q. The budget process while you were city manager was quite surprising and interesting. With the council majority repeatedly targeting spending and remaining “conservative,” we thought every line item of your budget was going to reviewed in detail. That did not happen at all during the public budget meetings. Did that surprise by you?
A. It did because each department head was certainly prepared to come in and discuss their budget line by line so the council would be well versed in what their budget entailed. It was a good budget that met the constant yield and was about $600,000 less than the year before. We had made some additional cuts.
It was probably the first and only budget passed by the Mayor and City Council without one change to the proposed operating budget as far as revenue is concerned. The one thing the council did was take $860,000 out of fund balance to arbitrarily reduce the proposed tax rate by one cent. They also took about $490,000 to give a bonus to city employees.
My concern with that was part of the budget was prepared at the council’s request to address infrastructure issues and one of the main issues was to include a formula to be able to fund $2 million in street paving each year. The budget as proposed took the casino money and a certain amount from fund balance to gain that $2 million needed for street paving. That formula would have been in place for the next few years because of the savings from previous cuts made before 2010 but since the council took out $1.3 million I am not so sure we can sustain that formula for infrastructure improvements.
Q. Was that tax rate decrease and employee bonus a pure election year ploy from your perspective?
A. Yes, it was buying down the tax rate for a vote and trying to make up to the city employees with a bonus.
Q. In this campaign, you are being included in a group labeled the “big spenders” by your political opponents. How do you respond to being called a “big spender”?
A. I would laugh. As the economy took its downturn, I think Ocean City was one of the first municipalities to really react and correct the decline in revenues from the decline in assessable base. We cut our operating budget by $6 million prior to the 2010 election. The changes we made to reduce our budget were made prior to the 2010 election, which saw the election of the new so-called majority.
The cuts were done with a lot of forethought, downsizing of departments and changing the way we did business and adapting to the new economy. We eliminated our construction department in public works and found at that time because the cost to outsource was down it was better to bring in private contractors. We changed the way we did our trash collection and saved $1.6 million. We initiated a hiring freeze before anybody else did. We froze salaries. We offered retirement incentives, which were accepted by many senior employees, reducing our operating budget in not only that year but residual years. We reduced starting part-time salaries for some of our employees, eliminated night differential. We changed our take-home vehicle policies. We created the taxi medallion system. We made changes to health insurance, saving us $200,000 before this new council.
We did these things, and a long list of other things, prior to the 2010 election. We were out front of the decline in the economy and way ahead of many other areas.
It’s so easy to come up with cliché and tag somebody. If that’s all they have, that shows their tank is pretty empty. If you look at the changes made since 2010, I don’t see significant changes. Yes, the new majority refused to hire six new police officers after all the background checks had been done and we spent $60,000 to hire those individuals. As a result of them not hiring them and being six members of the police force down, it has cost the town a quarter of a million dollars in overtime. Even though we didn’t have the officers, we still had to fill the shifts. It’s cost us a quarter of a million dollars more than if we had hired those six employees. That’s just one example.
The new majority also cost the town close to $300,000 by the way they fired the city manager. We could have saved that if it was handled differently. It’s the way you do things and I think that’s what has really upset the community.
Q. Councilmen Jim Hall and Joe Hall, in their interviews, said this election is all about the money. Do you agree?
A. Fiscal responsibility should always be our number one priority, and I have followed that philosophy since 1985. It’s a cliché again. In all the quest for power by four individuals, some things have been lost. The focus has been lost in my opinion.
The focus should be our taxpayers, citizens and our community and us representing our community. We should be concentrating on our communities and let’s not just throw up rhetoric and make decisions that stymie the operation of our government. That’s what has happened the last two years.
Q. The general employees’ union referendum will be decided Nov. 6. How will you vote?
A. It’s a fair question. I support the employees of Ocean City. I can clearly understand their position. I can clearly understand why they mistrust the current council and are concerned about their jobs and their futures. That being said, I believe if you have the right council, the council can work with the city employees and we can regain their trust and rebuild the relationship between the city elected officials and the employees.
For that reason, I am not voting for the union because I believe we can take care of these issues with the right elected officials.
Q. Rather than vote for the union, you would rather vote in non-majority members. Is that where you are?
A. Yes. In your interview, Council President Jim Hall said this election is about personalities. I don’t believe that. It’s about character, and I believe the character of the council has suffered. I think the citizens of Ocean City realize this and I think that’s the direction they are going to go on election day.
Q. If re-elected, where do you see the town headed in a general way?
A. I think the town has been very fortunate to continue to be very successful, even in a difficult economy. I think that’s because of the pro-active measures by the council prior to the 2010 election, such as increasing our advertising budget.
We are one of a few tourist destinations that can show our numbers continuing to grow. If you go by room tax and food tax, collections have gone up. Prices have not gone up. It shows people are continuing to visit and they are spending money while here. I think we are on the right track, contrary to what some say. Look at the numbers and numbers are important.
We have to be positive. With the right council, the new strategic planning initiative proposed by City Manager David Recor is an awesome tool for all of us, and I am looking forward to looking again with a clean slate at how we do everything. It’s an excellent opportunity and with the right council sitting there, it will be very beneficial to us.