OCEAN CITY – Following two public hearings regarding the authenticity of council candidate residencies, one familiar name — former Councilman Joe Hall — was allowed to run while newcomer Philip Ufholz was denied.
Following the filing deadline last Monday evening, City Clerk Kelly Allmond presented the final list of candidates filed to run in the municipal election on Nov. 4 to the Mayor and City Council for approval. She announced a total of nine candidates to fill four open council seats, and Mayor Rick Meehan filed for re-election unchallenged.
The only incumbent to file for re-election for council was Council President Lloyd Martin, who has been in office since 2002. Councilman Brent Ashley, elected in 2010, and Councilwoman Margaret Pillas, elected in 2006, have decided not to seek another term, and Councilman Joe Mitrecic submitted his resignation as he is unopposed to represent Ocean City on the Worcester County Commission. Mitrecic served on the council from 2002-2010 and after losing in 2010 was elected back to the council in 2012.
The nine candidates filed to run for council were Martin, Joe Hall and Joe Cryer, Tony DeLuca, Wayne Hartman, Matthew James, Christopher Rudolf, Ufholz, and Nancy Bolt, the only female candidate.
Local attorney Jay Phillips, representing the Citizens of Ocean City group, challenged the residency of Hall and Ufholz based on the terminology of the Charter that states, “to qualify for election as Mayor or City Council the candidate must be a qualified voter in the Town of Ocean City, and must be a resident of and domiciled in the corporate limits of the Town of Ocean City for four months preceding the election,” which in this case is July 4.
Hall moved to North Carolina after the 2012 election and in October of 2013 began working as a banquet chef at The Speedway Club in Concord, N.C., according to his Facebook page, which also indicates he started working at Johnny’s Pizza in Ocean City in August. His move south was reportedly to be closer to his children who moved from the resort area to North Carolina with his ex-wife. Prior to finishing in seventh place in 2012, receiving 806 votes, Hall had served 10 years on the council.
The public hearing challenging Hall’s residency was held Tuesday, and Phillips presented a case that Hall has resided in North Carolina until August when he re-established residency in Ocean City. He exhibited an array of evidence, including a local newspaper article where Hall stated he moved back to Ocean City in August, Hall’s Facebook posts during his time spent in North Carolina dating past July 4 and several court custody documents listing Hall’s address in March and April being North Carolina with the most recent document dated in September listing an Ocean City address.
“If he temporarily leaves Ocean City for any purpose what so ever during the four months immediately preceding the election, then somehow he has lost his residency here?,” City Solicitor Guy Ayres asked Phillips. “There is case law after case law in Maryland that once you establish domiciliary, and you leave for a period of time, you have to show he intended to abandon his domicile, and I haven’t heard anything what so ever that he intended to do that.”
Phillips argued according to the town’s Charter Hall is to be a resident and domiciled in Ocean City.
“I don’t for a second believe that there is a judge anywhere that is going to say a person’s domiciliary of Ocean City, Md. … that they can’t leave this town to take care of family business in North Carolina and therefore loses four months of residency immediately preceding the election,” Ayres said.
Prior to Hall giving testimony, Ashley, a personal friend of Hall’s, made a motion to attempt to have Hall accepted as a candidate. The motion was seconded by Pillas.
“You have showed me evidence of a moment in time but you have not showed me he changed his license or voted elsewhere … you have not showed me he lost contact with this town in any way,” Pillas said to Phillips.
However, the motion died in a 5-2 vote with only Ashley and Pillas in favor to approve Hall’s candidacy at that time.
“I would like to hear what you have to say Mr. Hall … I look to you to be even more responsible in understanding the Charter. I read that the day after the election in 2012 you decided to run again. With that in mind if it was me … I would have made sure on July 4 that there was proof of my residence,” Councilwoman Mary Knight said.
According to Hall, at the end of the summer season in 2013, the opportunity presented itself to take a sabbatical from Ocean City, and he packed two suitcases and headed for North Carolina to spend time with his children. He stayed with his brother-in-law part of the time and the rest of the time he went from hotel-to-hotel.
“Clearly, it has been documented that I love my children, so with nothing holding me here I went down to be closer to them, reflect on my life and gain my strength back. As I have stated before, the intent of that move was never to abandon Ocean City but more so to gain strength and to gain a stronger perspective to bring back. I think I brought back a stronger asset for the town. I am 70 pounds lighter, I am mentally stronger, and I am happy to be back in the Town of Ocean City. I look forward to serving the residents of Ocean City again, and I hope you give them the opportunity to choose that,” Hall said.
Hall presented his driver’s license listing an Ocean City address, his Ocean City voter registration card, and his Bank of America debit card and the last six months of bank statements reflecting his Ocean City address.
“I’m telling you I never ever, ever intended to give up my residency of Ocean City. It wouldn’t cross my mind for a second. What little left I have of equity or property is in Ocean City. To think I would give up my vote and my opportunity to be able to speak to what I own … it is ludicrous to me to have to sit here and have to defend it,” Hall said.
Phillips began to cross-examine Hall until Knight interrupted, pointing out no evidence has been provided that Hall had signed a long-term lease in North Carolina. That was a point Ashley had raised earlier.
“I think unfortunately Mr. Hall you were just sloppy but I believe in my heart of hearts now that your residency and your domicile is here in Ocean City,” she said, as she made a motion to approve Hall’s candidacy. Mitrecic seconded the motion.
Before the vote was taken, Mayor Rick Meehan questioned Ayres’ opinion on the issue.
“You don’t cease to be a resident of a place if you are absent for a period of time. It is the intent. Clearly from everything I have heard here today his intent was he was down there to protect his rights as a father, and you don’t cease to be a resident of Ocean City if you have to go to another jurisdiction to do that,” Ayres said.
Meehan agreed, however it was the Mayor and City Council’s duty to respect the Citizens of Ocean City’s challenge.
“It is fair that we listen and go through the judgment process,” the mayor said.
The council voted 5-2 to approve Hall’s candidacy with Council members Doug Cymek and Dennis Dare in opposition.
“I feel an obligation in following the charter. The charter says you needed to be resident here in the last four months. You haven’t displayed any counter to Mr. Phillips, you haven’t explained where you were, and I don’t see the evidence from your side to support that,” Cymek said.
At the conclusion of the hearing, Ayres clarified the issues between the two cases of Hall and Ufholz.
“The issue in that hearing [Ufholz] was whether the individual properly established his domicile. Here the issue is not that. Clearly Joe Hall has lived here all his life but the issue here was whether he intent to vacate his domicile,” Ayres said.
Last Thursday, after considerable testimony and comments, Ufholz was denied as a candidate by the council in a 5-2 vote, with Ashley and Pillas opposed.
At the hearing, Phillips’ challenge was based on the same language of the charter, “to qualify for election … must be a resident of and domiciled in the corporate limits of the Town of Ocean City”.
Besides reviewing several case laws, and the definitions of “residence” and “domicile” in relation to Ocean City’s code, Phillips primary piece of evidence was Ufholz’s State Department of Assessment and Taxation (SDAT) form.
According to the form, Ufholz’s Ocean City address is not listed as his primary address. An address in Bethesda is listed as the primary address as well as is the address where tax bills are to be sent. The form is dated Sept. 24, 2014.
According to Ufholz his family purchased the property in Ocean City in 1975, and when he retired as a tax attorney he became a permanent resident in Ocean City in 2008, although his wife remains a resident in Bethesda.
Ufholz provided an Ocean City senior bus pass, a driver’s license with his Ocean City address listed, his voter registration code being a registered voter in Ocean City, where he has voted in the past three elections, a letter from a neighbor stating he has been a permanent resident in Ocean City for the past six years and a copy of his most recent State of Maryland tax return listing his Ocean City address.
“As far as I am concerned, I don’t think Mr. Ufholz has proven that he resides here in Ocean City … it comes down to the SDAT as far as I am concerned,” Mitrecic said.
Dare added, “He says his vehicle registration is in Ocean City and he receives his mail here but we have not seen any proof of that … and I know his utility bills are actually sent to Bethesda but he stated that he receives them here. However, on the other hand he has presented his tax return and driver’s license with this address, and he voted in the last three elections. So I am trying to weigh whether that documentation meets the test of totality.”
Ashley made a motion to approve Ufholz as a candidate in the 2014 municipal election but only had Pillas as a supporter.
“I would like to point out that its participation that counts and a lot of towns around here have trouble even getting candidates,” Ashley said. “Here we have people who want to participate. If you want to weigh things out I think the evidence for Mr. Ufholz is far greater than against.”
The council also questioned whether Ufholz claimed his Homestead Tax Credit in Montgomery County or Worcester County. Ufholz responded he didn’t claim the credit in either location, which the council found hard to believe.
Knight made a motion to deny Ufholz as a candidate in the 2014 municipal election and the council voted to approve with Ashley and Pillas in opposition.
Immediately following the hearing, it was discovered that Ufholz claimed his Homestead Tax Credit in Montgomery County.