OCEAN CITY — Vying for his second term in Tuesday’s election, Councilman Doug Cymek is hoping voters return him to office as well as his allies who he thinks will return communication and leadership to the council.
In an interview this week, Cymek talked about the vast differences between his first two years on the council (2008-2010) and the last two (2010-2012) when government was led by a different council majority.
Along with the philosophical differences, Cymek addressed the absence of leadership on the current council, specifically targeting Council President Jim Hall for his lack of preparation before meetings; when true cost-cutting measures were enacted in Ocean City; the “disinformation” in the current anti-union advertising campaign being led by his political opponents; and why he thinks he is the “voice of the people.”
Here’s a transcript of that conversation:
Q. You filed last November for your second term. Why did you decide you wanted another four years as a councilman?
A. I have been self-employed in business for 38 years and I feel I have a lot to offer the citizens of Ocean City. I have been called upon to make all my own financial decisions and I have been successful so I think I have the tools and knowledge to really help the town.
I enjoyed the last four years even with the struggle we have had the last two. It’s my way of giving back and I enjoy the job.
My commitment to the taxpayers is to be accessible to them. I have always said, ‘I’m the voice of the people.’ I enjoy talking to them and hearing their ideas.
I have tremendous support and I think my commitment to the council and the decisions we have made have shown themselves over the last four years. I feel I have earned and worked hard to retain my position and I hope they will return me to office for the next four years.
The future and the quality life for the citizens of Ocean City is one of my highest priorities. I want the people to know I am always looking for things that will make life better for them.
Q. Is there anything that stands out over the last two years that you really feel the voters need to be aware of and is there any particular decision by the council that you regret the most?
A. I think I have a rather unique position having served two years prior to the self-proclaimed new majority, serving from 2008 to 2010.
One of the very first meetings I had as a councilman, then-City Manager Dennis Dare brought to the council cuts of what he called at the time ‘the low-hanging fruit’. I remember one of the things that really struck me was a contract we were about to embark on for car washes with one of the local operators. It was a $60,000 contract and in my opinion that was the first thing that needed to go.
I think one of the things Dennis didn’t credit for is he had the insight to go to our employees and ask them the areas where we could cut. Who better to tell you that than your own employees who are out on the frontlines? It was my recollection we had 200-plus suggestions, many of which we used. I don’t remember that anyone on the council really being pro-active in bringing these forward, but we did approve them as they were brought forward because of what Dennis did. We were able to save between $5 and $6 million. For the sake of conversation, let’s say its $5.5 we saved through those moves between 2008 and when Dennis was dismissed in September 2011. I thanked Dennis for what he did there. That’s one of the biggest things.
The second thing I take exception to is what the new majority did when they came in with taking back the committees and boards. I am very appreciative of the individuals who served on those boards and the knowledge and experience they bring. Everything was supposed to be transparent, or that’s what they were suggesting as to why they were doing it. We would be holding these meetings in front of the council, the majority said.
I maintain that ceased to exist, with the exception of TAB (Tourism Advisory Board), who have a few times over the last two years come before the council, and most of the time that has been to sit down and organize how government and TAB and the private sector are going to work together. It was stressful at times. The most recent thing I really take exception was when TAB came to the council and suggested the council allow MGH continue for another year. We have a lot of commercials early on in the Rodney campaign that can basically be recycled and brought back with no costs because they have already been produced. People have long since forgot those promotions. TAB felt the Rodney campaign was strong enough to continue for another year.
The other objection I had with the decision to not go with MGH was to allow for a 120-day notice. I didn’t feel that was sufficient to develop a new RFP and put it out for bid and sit down with the people and hear their presentations and then go to contract. I didn’t think we could accomplish that by Jan. 1 and I could see us really going into the next season with someone not really in place and having their creative ideas done and ready to put to work.
Some of the other things that bother me is the way some council members have talked to the public. Comments about “we have the power”, you know that’s very true. The majority does have the power and they can and have taken control of the council. On many occasions over the past two years, there have been topics that have come before the council in closed session where it’s obvious the new majority has discussed these in advance and knew which direction they were headed in, making the motions and seconds and basically ignoring Lloyd Martin, Mary Knight and myself and our input. That’s the part that’s most distressing to me. The conversation is gone, both in the backroom and out front. I hold the public to be very astute and I’m sure anyone who has an interest in seeing government runs can see that there’s no conversation. They make their motions, seconds and we’re moving forward.
Q. To play devil’s advocate, your political opponents have said that’s just how majority government works. When the votes are on one side, the majority steers government. In your first two years, I’m sure you would admit you were a member of the majority side until the 2010 election. What’s different? Is it just the manner that things are being done?
A. I would have to disagree. What has been lost here is the ability on our part to offer our opinions and discuss matters, both in closed and public sessions. I invite any member of the public to go and watch any of the meetings from pre-2010 and also do the same thing now. Look at some of the confrontational matters we tend to disagree on — tourism issues, employee compensation and benefits. We always allowed the other side to speak their peace. That’s what has been lost. That’s what disconcerting to me personally. We just have not had that opportunity to express our opinions. I understand about majorities, but you don’t just cut off the minority and not allow them to speak.
Q. I know you are an astute reader and have seen the ads involving the union and yourself and your allies in bed with the “union man.” That has raised a lot of concerns amongst the public. Were you surprised by the ad and its insinuation?
A. I have to say that Jim Hall and Joe Hall are clinging to anything that they can. There have been statements repeatedly that are not accurate. I publicly stated my position at the AARP forum that I am not necessarily in favor of the general employees having a union. I have been very open about that. Their advertising keeps saying we are in bed with the union people.
Jim Hall has made representations in his ads that we will have to deal with an arbitrator from Baltimore City and that the arbitrator will set the tax rate. I think Mr. Hall needs to be reminded that the general employees are asking for collective bargaining and not binding interest arbitration. There’s nothing to say we are absolutely locked in to agreeing with them on any particular subject.
They are stirring up this belief that these people are going to come down here and set their tax rate. That’s not true. There’s a lot of disinformation, not misinformation, put out there to scare the taxpayers and voters that they are on the right track.
I think it was disgraceful to Mary Knight and the way they represented her in that cartoon. I think they are desperate and are at the point they just have to throw anything out there and hope they can convince the public that we are doing something wrong when that’s not the case.
Q. I don’t want to harp on other candidates’ ads but I think it’s important to get your perspective because they are enraging a lot of people who say they are not factual. It’s being alleged that you, Mary, Dennis, Joe Mitrecic and Rick Meehan are the “big spenders” and that Jim Hall and Joe Hall are the “conservative” types. How do you respond to being called a “big spender”?
A. I made a commitment to the public that I was going to look at the budget line by line and cut anywhere I felt was appropriate. Not this past budget but the one before the police department had a number of items, such as travel to conferences that I felt needed to go, so I worked with my colleagues to gain consensus and get that out of the budget.
We have Council President Jim Hall who has been responsible for approving at least 24 budgets. You have Joe Hall who was involved with at least eight of those budgets. Yet, the budget has grown from 2000 to 2012. It’s kind of like the pot calling the kettle black on their part.
If anything, since I have taken office in 2008, it’s easy to see we have cut the budget and made substantial cuts. For them to say we are the big spenders, well, as Councilman Brent Ashley often says, ‘I don’t get it’.
Q. Let’s get on the record for the general employees’ union referendum. Will you vote yes or no for the union referendum?
A. I would like to answer that by explaining my position fully. I would be hopeful that it would not be necessary to have a union. I believe now, after knocking on doors and talking to people, that there’s a lot of ‘we’re just not in favor of it’ I’m sure that comes with the times.
Jim Hall and Joe Hall have been telling the people the union is going to strategically place the date they want to strike as July 4th weekend and how it will cripple our town. I give our employees more credit than that.
Last week, in one of your columns, you touched on something. You had discovered some information about what myself, Mary Knight and Lloyd Martin did as far as negotiating the last FOP contract.
Well, one of the changes that came with the new majority was they wanted everything as far as contract negotiations to be done in front of the full council in the back room where we would give instructions to the attorney representing the town who would go back to the other side and their attorney. Eventually, they just reached an impasse and there was a target date that had already been negotiated for it to be completed. That date came and went.
We were asked to sit down with the FOP and we met with the FOP Executive Board. It took us about an hour-and-a-half to talk through it. At the time, the council was just trying to get a one-year contract. The three of us were successful in getting a two-year contract with no increases to wages, COLA or returning any of their shift differential. The council was in awe when we came back with that.
It wasn’t anything really creative that we pulled off or promised. What it was, was two trusting groups of people and we talked through it. The FOP was very quick to recognize the town was in a tough financial position because of the recession and they offered to forgo the benefits that contractually the town was responsible for paying them. That’s what the public doesn’t understand. They had a contract and they could have taken it to court and enforced that contract.
Jim Hall and Joe Hall are constantly beating on the FOP, but the truth is they have given a lot to help the taxpayers and voters of Ocean City in the last contract negotiation. I have always found them to be more than fair with their dealings with the town.
Jim Hall and Joe Hall are not consistent. Back in 2008, Joe Hall said the employees deserve to make a living wage. They are saying now the city staff is overpaid. I remember the Hendricks study which compared our salaries to about 10 other municipalities. The ironic part is Jim Hall made the motion to accept the results of the study and it was an 8-percent increase at the time. So the question is: who is the big spender?
Q. Just to be clear — yes or no for the union?
A. Steve, my heart supports the city employees, but I have to do what I feel is right for the town. That being the case, I would not vote for it.
Even if they are successful on Tuesday, I have asked their steering committee to hold off moving forward with the union and allow us to sit and talk with them first. I feel if some changes take place on the council and I am still there that I can do a lot for the employees to show there’s no need for a union.
Q. One of things that came out of a meeting with City Manager David Recor and the strategic planning consultant last week was there is a consensus on the council to seek out new revenues in the future. Recor said increasing paid parking in town was discussed in the individual meetings with council members. If re-elected, is more parking meters something you would be interested in?
A. I think there are some places in town where we could do that to raise some revenue. We were very close to installing some Cale machines up in the north end a couple years back, but the owners up there got very upset. People need to recognize that if there’s no place else to cut that revenues are the only options, and we all might have to be inconvenienced somewhat. I’m not saying they have to be oceanfront and bayside throughout the town, but there may be some areas where we have to do that.
We are about to embark on a conversation about the parking lot at the Public Safety Building. Whether that should become Cale parking there or a portion thereof. We have to be looking at a number of those areas.
Q. Two things I wanted to get your opinion on with the last budget. One, you voted against the penny tax rate drop that came about in the final steps of the budget. That saved the average taxpayers about $20 this year. Why did you oppose that?
A. Last year when we went through Irene the unreimbursed expenses related to that event was about $695,000. Total cost was about $800,000. FEMA reimbursed us $105,000. That was an event that we really didn’t have to do much, as far as recovery, like we are going through today from Hurricane Sandy. Those expenses are going to be astronomical. We needed to keep that money in the reserve fund for the unexpected. I think it was a horrible mistake in judgment.
After I was first elected, I attended the hurricane conference in Florida. One of things that was really driven home was you need to have sufficient assets to fund your own recovery. I was thinking about that when they were talking about taking that $860,000 from the reserve fund, which is now about $10 million compared to when I was first elected it was upward of $15 million. I want to get that back up to an acceptable level. They say $10 million is acceptable, and that may be true, but when you have a beach out front that brings the revenues that makes our town go, you have to be able to financially react quickly when you have a catastrophe. Take a look at New Jersey and New York City and you know God was good to us. I worry we do not have the reserves to be able to act as quickly as we should.
Q. Another part of that budget process was the one-time bonus to employees. At first, $500 bonus was floated. You suggested it be a $1,000. Why?
A. I know one employee who I had a very heart-to-heart conversation with who has been in our employment for over five years. He’s still making what he was paid his first day with us. No increase whatsoever. I was thinking of that person when that vote came. I felt the employees earned that, having gone that many years without increases. I felt it was the least we could do.
Q. There has been a lot of talk about what this election is about. Jim Hall and Joe Hall feel it’s about the money. Mayor Rick Meehan said it was character, which Mary Knight agreed with but added it’s about bringing together a divided town. What it’s about to Doug Cymek?
A. I always put the taxes at the top of my list. I want to continue to watch spending and give back when appropriate.
This council as a whole because of the large dissension between the two groups has the appearance of losing all of its integrity. There’s no question the transparency is gone. It’s gone. Transparency doesn’t even extend to us as a council members, not to mention the public.
I want us to return to being a cohesive council where we sit and talk about things. The council, as a whole, owes that to the public — to openly discuss these issues. That’s what we have lost. I personally feel at the root of the problem right now is no conversation.
Q. There’s no question you are part of a block running for election with Mary Knight, Dare, former Council President Joe Mitrecic and Meehan. Was that an election strategy from the beginning or is this five people of similar mindsets joining together?
A. That was never my intention. I pretty much run my campaign on my own. I am not going to stoop to some of the tactics that Jim Hall and Joe Hall have done. I am very straightforward.
The mayor [Meehan] is unquestionably a tremendous asset for the taxpayers of Ocean City. His ability to go to Annapolis and lobby and help us get funding for different projects is tremendous. He’s a great leader and I am proud to serve under his leadership.
There’s an absence of leadership with the current council president. I sit to his right on the council, and I have been taken aback by his not being prepared for the meetings, not being familiar with the information not only in the packet but even what appears on the agenda. It’s obvious he doesn’t do his homework before the meetings. It’s disturbing to see the council president’s lack of understanding of some of the topics and he should be on top of it all.
I am very regimented, and I essentially have perfect attendance at council meetings in four years. I have missed one meeting and it was for the hurricane conference. I get my packet on Thursday evening. I read it thoroughly and then I ask city staff questions, which I usually get back on Monday in time for the meetings. I really dig into it.
Back to your question, Mary Knight. She has areas that really interest her, one of them being tourism. Mary does a great job, she is very informed and basically attends every event that comes up in town and has a great rapport with the voters and taxpayers.
Joe Mitrecic was an excellent council president who ran a very straightforward meeting. He was well informed and understood the budget tremendously. Joe is a good man and is very knowledgeable and is an asset to the town.
Who is better informed about the operation of city government than Dennis Dare, who was city manager for 21 years? He is very well-informed and I think he will be an asset for the town.