OCEAN CITY — Just one week after introducing a pair of rather draconian ordinances, aimed at reducing the disruption associated with some of the offseason vehicle-related events in the resort, town officials this week did an abrupt about-face and moved in the direction of enforcing what is already on the books.
Ever since the spring Cruisin’ event, with its big traffic jams, crowds of often unruly and disruptive onlookers lining the streets and jamming into business parking lots and generally disorderly behavior, town officials have wrestled with ideas on how to foster a welcoming attitude for the special events while toning down some of the illicit behavior. Borne out of those debates was a pair of proposed ordinances introduced last which, if passed, would have seriously put a damper on the special events-related festivities.
One of the proposed ordinances would have expanded the Ocean City Police Department’s ability to enforce open container and public consumption of alcohol laws on certain private property including the parking lots of shopping centers, hotels and motels and restaurants, for example. One of the major issues with some of the vehicle-related special events are the crowds of onlookers who gather with coolers in the private parking areas along the highway, some merely enjoying the parade of vehicles and others egging on illicit behavior from the drivers. The belief was strengthening the public consumption and open container ordinances would curtail some of that activity.
A second ordinance proposed last week would also have addressed some of the issues with crowds gathering along the highway during the special events. The ordinance outlined the destructive use of the landscaped areas along the highway in private parking lots etc. and held accountable those who cause the damage as well as the property owners for failing to prevent or deter the activity. In fact, with both of the proposed ordinances, there was an element of enforcement and accountability for the business owners.
As a result, the business community rejected, or at least resisted, the proposed ordinances on a couple of fronts. Concerns were raised last week the proposed ordinances shifted the onus to the business community and not the individuals responsible for the disruptive behavior. Perhaps more importantly, the business community voiced concern cracking down on the special events with changes in the laws and stricter enforcement might drive away the special events visitors who put heads in beds in backsides in restaurant seats.
Between last week’s introduction of the proposed ordinances and Tuesday’s regular session of the Mayor and Council, town leaders did an about-face and reversed course. Many business owners filled the council meeting room ready to voice their displeasure with the proposed law changes, but they quickly learned town officials were abandoning the proposed ordinances in favor of strictly enforcing state laws already on the books.
Mayor Rick Meehan, who is also serving as acting city manager, came around from the dais to the podium on the floor to outline the proposal. Meehan explained the new approach would be for the OCPD and the allied law enforcement agencies that assist during the special events to strictly enforce the state’s existing laws on disturbing the public peace and disorderly conduct.
“We’re going to get out in front of these issues before it becomes a problem,” he said. “I think we’ve come up with something that meets the test. We’re notifying visitors we want them to have a good time, but they must obey existing state laws.”
Meehan said special events visitors would be given fair notice of the stricter enforcement of disorderly conduct and disturbing the peace laws, which cast a rather large umbrella over the types of behavior targeted by the originally proposed ordinances. There will be some broad discretion for law enforcement officers to enforce the state laws, but a key element in the new ordinance will be enforcement will not just be complaint-driven. In other words, if an officer observes activity that runs afoul of the disorderly conduct or disturbing the peace state laws, he or she can and will take the appropriate enforcement action.
“The state laws are already there,” said Meehan. “This gives us the ability to address some of these issues on private and public property. Enforcing the state law instead of making our own ordinances makes a lot more sense.”
The Ocean City Police Department endorses the change in direction to enforce the state laws already on the books. Chief Ross Buzzuro said strictly enforcing the existing state laws will take away some of the gray areas in enforcement during special events.
“This is something that gives up awareness and understanding with the public,” he said. “It takes away some of the ambiguity. Now, we have some direction on how we want to proceed and we’re all on the same page.”
A major component in the new approach announced on Tuesday is the requirement for business owners to post town-provided signs in prominent locations advising the public of the existing state laws and the potential enforcement of them. For example, while the final product has not been defined, the signs might say something like “Warning- Disturbing the public peace and disorderly conduct is a violation of state law and will be strictly enforced,” according to Meehan.
Because of the late date of this week’s action, the signs will not be created and distributed in time for this fall’s special vehicle-related events, although the fall Cruisin’ event, for example, is typically smaller than the spring event. As a result, the ordinance related to the installation of the new signs ultimately approved by the council on Tuesday would have an effective date of May 1, 2016. In the interim, business owners would be allowed to, or even encouraged to, post the signs in advance of the effective date, but they won’t be required to do so until May of next year in advance of the spring events.
While it remains to be seen if the new approach will achieve the desired results, it certainly seems to have appeased the murmuring business owners who filed into Tuesday’s meeting ready to pounce on the ordinances proposed last week.
After Meehan’s succinct outline of the new approach, the big crowd in attendance, which appeared ready to spar just a short time earlier, filed quietly out of the meeting after the change in direction was announced.
Meehan acknowledged the business community’s reaction to the proposed original ordinances was in part the catalyst for the change in approach. He said the proposed ordinances accomplished the goal of engaging an often silent majority business community. He said councilmembers worked through the weekend with a bevy of phone calls, text messages and emails to come to an amenable solution.
“As we worked on these ordinances, we found some in the business community weren’t happy with them,” he said. “If anything, they accomplished one goal. They got everybody’s attention.”
Meehan said strictly enforcing the existing state laws will shift the onus from the business community to the offenders, as it should have been in the first place. He said the only responsibility for the business community will be posting the signs with no threat of enforcement, citations or potential license revocation.
“We need to make sure all of the property owners know the law,” he said. “The penalty is for the person violating the state law. There is no penalty for the property owner. The only responsibility of the property owner is that they must post the sign. The town will supply the signs, the owners only have to post them.”
The disgruntled business community did appear to be appeased with the solution for the most part, although there were some minor concerns raised. While he supported the change, The Embers Restaurant owner Jay Taustin questioned whether the sign requirement was the right approach.
“I think what we have here with going with the state law is the way to go,” he said. “I’m a little concerned about more signage. The city pays for the signs, but we’re paying for it indirectly. There are plenty of ways to make the public aware without these signs. We already have no parking signs, towing signs, fire lane signs, etc.”
Patricia Johnson of the Castle in the Sand agreed strictly enforcing existing state law was the correct approach, but wondered aloud whether the definitions of disorderly conduct and disturbing the peace were too broad.
“We all appreciate these long-time events,” she said. “We just need to let folks know they are welcome here but their past behavior won’t be acceptable. There’s a distinction between just having fun and breaking the law. Who defines what is disorderly?”
Meehan said the problems associated with some of the special events, and not the registered participants specifically but more often the hangers-on, were not necessarily bad problems for the town to address.
“With growth comes additional problems, including manpower problems, traffic problems and disorderly problems,” he said. “These are all problems that come from success and there is a solution to dealing with them.”