OCEAN CITY — If re-elected on Nov. 6, Councilwoman Mary Knight wants to restore “decorum” to Mayor and Council meetings and bring back the town’s subcommittees that were abolished two years ago.
Knight was first elected in 2006 and served the remainder of Mayor Rick Meehan’s council term when he became mayor. She was re-elected in 2008 and is seeking her third term next month.
In an interview this week, Knight, the only female in the 10-person council field vying for the four open seats, explained why she will not divulge her stance on the town general employees’ union referendum, her goals if re-elected, why she voted against hiring current City Manager David Recor and gave examples as to why she thinks the council majority is anything but “conservative” as it maintains.
Here’s a transcript of that interview:
Q. It’s been six years since you were first elected. Why are you seeking another term?
A. I’m running again because I think about the future of Ocean City. I have been extremely involved these last six years as evidenced by the body board and skateboard issue and I attend every AARP meeting and I feel I serve the entire community and I serve it well. These two years have been difficult and I don’t want to dwell on them. I want to look at the future, and I want to be part of the good that’s going to happen with Ocean City.
Q. It’s no secret you are a member of the City Council minority currently. What stands out in your mind over the last two years, which you call difficult? I’m interested in what specifically you think was the most regrettable decision made by this council.
A. On a broader spectrum, what frustrated me about the last two years was that solutions were never crafted. They were always forced upon us, and I always felt very out of the loop. With that said, the most regrettable in my mind was the dismissal of [former city manager] Dennis Dare.
On a Thursday morning in early September 2011, I got a call that there was going to be a closed session in three hours and had no idea whatsoever what was going to happen in that closed session. When I get in there, they voted to fire Dennis. That changed everything in Ocean City. I think the town became divided. I think the town was hurt. There was such a better way if there was a problem with his performance. There could have been discussions about what we can do. A plan of some sorts. There were so many other things they could have done, but no question that was the most regrettable and most hurtful.
Q. You voted against that move and then a lot transpired as far as who was going to be the next city manager. Some of your opponents said the city could have easily had its next city manager by promoting Public Works Director Hal Adkins but that you and your colleagues refused to vote for Hal at that time and Hal would not take the job without being unanimous. Is that true?
A. At the point, I felt it should be a national search. If Mr. Adkins or anyone else wanted to apply within the town, they were more than welcome. I thought it was a disservice to just automatically put someone in. Whereas if there was a 14-month plan where Dennis retires and let’s look at Mr. Adkins or whomever and have them work with Dennis and then make a decision. That would have made perfect sense. I totally insisted on a national search.
Q. David Recor, who did not get your vote for city manager, has been the city manager since June. Has he been able to mend any of the fences between the council majority and minority or is that not really his role as you see it?
A. I think Mr. Recor has done a very good job.
During the process, the consultant brought us a packet of about 10 candidates. As I read through them, I didn’t look at names, I looked at qualifications and highlighted and then I went to the Internet for additional information. David Recor really impressed me because he had his strategic plan online and had so much good information. He was one of my top candidates.
With that said, I became discouraged when the phone call was made [by Councilman Joe Hall during the process]. I have told David that, I just wish he had just not taken the call. I became very discouraged. He would have been my No. 1 candidate without that phone call. I was very impressed that he had background in tourism and the way he ran Fort Pierce, Fla, which was not an easy place to manager as you know.
I’m very pleased with his performance so far. Prior to the meetings, he gives us a blue sheet, listing the consequences of if you vote for it or against it. He does a beautiful summary for those people on the council who do not like as much detail as I do.
Has he mended anything between the council? I feel that this council is unmendable as it sits now. I am very open to discussion, but even after David Recor and everything, I still don’t get the phone call. I wish it was not the case, but I still go into meetings with my stomach flipping, wondering what’s going to happen at the end with council comments or when some poor constituent gets up and has an innocent question and then there’s a firestorm.
Q. After appointing Jim Hall as president, the first act of the council majority was to disband all the town’s subcommittees, including the Tourism Commission which you chaired. The majority says it has opened up government. Do you feel that way?
A. No. I will give you an example as to why I don’t think it has worked.
When I was chair of the Tourism Commission, we had everybody in the room so decisions could be made and things could be hammered out. As soon as TAB [Tourism Advisory Board] was started, the City Council was not allowed to attend. At one of the first meetings after TAB was formed, the Dew Tour came to that meeting at the convention center. I went to the meeting not knowing I wasn’t invited. The Dew Tour started to talk about coming here and they were leaving the next day because of a snow storm in Chicago where they are from.
Everybody was kind of wondering what to do so I left the room and called the mayor and Dennis and said this is a perfect opportunity but they are leaving tomorrow. Dennis and the mayor got every department head together and had a meeting that next morning at 9 and in March it was announced we were getting the Dew Tour. We needed somebody, a liaison, to know how government worked and what you needed to do to get the ball rolling. They didn’t know what to do and it’s not that I did it. I just got the effort going. I found that the commissions really helped do that.
Commissions and subcommittees have always worked. They do the grunt work and make a recommendation. That said, I don’t think TAB should go away. I like TAB, but I think it should have some council members on it.
Q. Will you make a motion to bring subcommittees back if re-elected and the council makeup changes?
A. I would do it in the proper way. Over the last two years, we have lost all decorum. Robert’s Rules have been thrown out the window. In fact, I told City Clerk Kelly Allmond that if I am re-elected, regardless if all the incumbents return, what I would like to do is have a work session on Robert’s Rules and legislative procedures. I would bring it to a work session so we can have a discussion. You are not supposed to at the end of meetings make motions without any information. It’s not fair to anybody. It’s forcing decisions, rather than crafting decisions.
Q. Let’s talk about the moving of the election date and merging it with the national election. You previously voted to keep the municipal election in October and then changed your mind. You were called a “flip flopper” for that. Why did you change your mind?
A. When I was first elected, I was so on the fence about changing it. I was new to the council and looked to the other more senior members, who said ‘it’s our day.’ The next time it came up I said to myself this really bothers me. With social media and the Citizens of Ocean City group, which is the best thing that came out of the firing of Dennis, I started to see it was what the people really wanted and said to myself this was something I could flip-flop on. I firmly believed in it and that’s why I did it.
Q. Did your vote have anything to do with trying to pave the way for Dennis Dare to run? It was alleged by the majority the change in election days and change of opinions was so that Dare could legally run for office and be considered a retired employee.
A. No, it honestly had nothing to do with it. It was the feedback I was getting from social media. When I decided, it wasn’t about me and my day. It was about the constituency and the convenience for them.
Q. You have been labeled a “big spender” in local advertisements. Your political opponents say there’s a clear choice — maintain the city’s “conservative” ways or elect a “big spender” council. How do you respond to being called a “big spender”?
A. It’s political rhetoric. If you look up the word conservative, you will see they really don’t understand what it is. They are using it because it’s done at the national and state level. It’s just something they are throwing out there, as evidenced by the amount of money they have spent.
There’s the $300,000 to get rid of and replace Dennis. The $860,000 out of fund balance for the penny tax rate cut. The $60,000 for the police officers who were sent to the academy and then not hired, which is really $200,000 because of under-manning of the department and the overtime. The $300,000 to close the defined benefits plan.
If you look at the numbers and the word conservative, it’s just ridiculous. They are not conservatives, not at all. It’s just political bantering in my mind.
Q. Back in 2008 during your re-election bid, when asked about infrastructure and budget constraints, you said in an interview, “the city cannot panic and eliminate all capital projects. The city has thrived in hard times because of its infrastructure. Our image is important to remain a first-rate destination.” In a way, Ocean City did exactly that, pretty much eliminating capital projects. Right?
A. We did for two years. In the 2012 budget, we put money back in and it was because of the declining assessments. In fairness, that was a unanimous decision. We just had to do it. It’s really not a political issue. We had to put it on the back burner.
The way I look at was right after the 2008 election that was when Dennis said we have to right-size, so that’s when we were able to cut $6 million over those two years. We were able to this year put $2 million back in capital improvements. It has been on the back burner the last two years, unfortunately, but I think it’s moved to where it should be.
Q. Something that we had a little trouble with in your 2008 bid was a response to a question about the property tax rate. You said, “I will do all that I can to decrease the tax rate again, but it’s impossible to ensure to what degree. Remember 72 percent of the budget is fixed.” Our feeling was the council has control of spending and that nothing should be fixed when it comes to reducing expenditures. What were you referring to as fixed?
A. I was referring to benefits, payroll and all the things that go along with it, such as gasoline, electric and fixed items.
We have decreased the property tax rate since I was re-elected. The real estate tax in 1978 was $1.60. Today’s equivalent, under the new formula, would be 64 cents and we are at 39.5 cents per $100 of assessed value. I think that’s a significant number.
Q. We are asking all candidates their opinion on the general employees’ union effort. Will you be voting yes or no?
A. I have made the stance and I will maintain it. I am not divulging how I am voting.
A. I will tell you why. We voted 7-0 to have it go to referendum. I believe in that process. I think I would have been hypocritical not to sign the petition. I do not want to jeopardize it. By saying I’m going to vote for it, everyone is going to say, ‘oh she’s always going to be union person’. If I vote against it, and they get it, then they are going to think she will never work with us.
I will make a prediction. I predict if it passes and you get a new council without Jim Hall and Joe Hall that at least 51% of the employees will not sign it. I predict if the same council stays in place 90% will sign it.
If it passes, I don’t think a lot of the constituents know that the general employees then have to vote for it. I don’t care what anyone says, but they started this effort when Dennis got fired and the hit list talk started. The employees are afraid.
An employee called me last week who is heavily involved in the union. This employee said, ‘I was at the forum and you never said which way you are going to vote. If you feel it’s necessary to say whether you are going to vote for or against, and you decide to vote against it, we understand. We would rather have you sitting up there than make this an issue that you don’t get re-elected.’ I was blown away by that.
I think it’s a fair question, but I think it’s fair for me not to answer it, too.
Q. Fraternal Order of Police (FOP) member Joe Bushnell and Councilwoman Margaret Pillas had an interesting exchanging at last week’s meeting regarding the FOP’s employment contract with the town. It was implied the current contract was difficult to ratify this time around and there was an impasse with Pillas saying the union employees should show more consideration to the taxpayers. You were involved in that contract process. What happened?
A. Myself, Doug [Cymek] and Lloyd [Martin] met with the FOP in the 11th hour. Prior to 2010, during negotiations it would be the council president, the mayor, the lawyer and FOP representatives and [Finance Administrator] Martha [Lucy] as a financial expert. With this new council, along with getting rid of commissions, they decided the council would negotiate with the FOP, which really meant the lawyer would go and talk and then deliver us information and then the lawyer would go back and deliver information. So there was nothing personal in the process where we were looking them in the eyes and talking.
The FOP felt left out and unrespected, instead of it being sitting across the table and having three of them and three of us, saying we will do this and you do that. It went nowhere.