OCEAN CITY — There will be no referendum questions on the ballot when Ocean City voters head to the polls next month.
During Monday’s Mayor and Council meeting, the resort’s elected officials were asked about the status of a handful of potential referendum questions that were expected at different times to appear on the November municipal election’s ballot. However, with the election now just three weeks away, it appears there will be no referendum questions for the resort’s electorate to decide.
One potential referendum question would have asked voters to consider a property tax rollback of sorts to 2009 levels, but it got little leverage from a legal standpoint. In June 2015, a group called the Ocean City Taxpayers for Social Justice (OCTSJ) submitted to the Mayor and Council a petition containing nearly 1,500 signatures essentially seeking a return of the property tax rate from 48 cents per $100 of assessed value to 38 cents, or the rate at which it was set in 2009.
The town almost immediately filed a petition for declaratory judgment against the OCTSJ in Worcester County Circuit Court seeking a judicial review of the validity of the petition and its attempt to launch a referendum on the tax rollback effort. Anticipating the town’s move, the plaintiffs filed a complaint in federal court seeking a habeas corpus hearing in U.S. District Court, asserting the case would not get a fair shake in Worcester County Circuit Court.
Last April, a U.S. District Court judge ruled favorably on Ocean City’s motion to dismiss the case at the federal level, citing lack of jurisdiction, and remanded the case back to Worcester County Circuit Court. Later in April, a Worcester County Circuit Court judge ruled favorably on the council’s motion for summary judgment, essentially dismissing the case.
Undaunted, however, the OCTSJ filed a petition for a writ of certiorari with the Maryland Court of Appeals asking the state’s highest court to take up the case. In July, the Court of Appeals denied the request and dismissed the appeal attempt. When asked if the tax rollback referendum question would appear on the ballot in November, City Solicitor Guy Ayres explained the courts had already decided the issue.
“The only petition to talk about would be the charter amendment to reduce the taxes,” he said. “Well, we went to court on that because the way they proposed to do it was in violation of state law. The court upheld us and specifically said it did not have to be on the ballot because it violates Maryland law,” he said. “It was appealed and the appeal was dismissed, so there is nothing to put on the ballot.”
The other potential referendum question that appeared to have a shot of landing on the November ballot related to the Career Firefighter Paramedics Association of Ocean City, or IAFF Local 4269, efforts to put binding interest arbitration before the resort’s voters next month.
Late last February, the clock expired on negotiations between the town and the Career Firefighter Paramedics Association of Ocean City, or IAFF Local 4269, on a new three-year contract, resulting in the town’s “last, best and final” offer essentially becoming the new contract by default.
The negotiations broke down in late February over the town’s unwavering position on eliminating the paramedics’ long-standing 24-hour shifts. Currently, most paramedics work in 24-hour shifts, followed by 72 hours off. However, citing a variety of reasons, including potential missed calls or delayed responses, the town remains adamant about eliminating the 24-72 shift rotation in favor of an alternative 12-hour shift or some hybrid of the two.
Eliminating the 24-hour shift became a point of contention in the negotiations for a new contract for the IAFF 4269, forcing the union to walk away from the bargaining table.
In July, the IAFF 4269 began collecting signatures in support of a petition to amend the town’s charter to provide binding interest arbitration for fire and emergency medical services personnel. The IAFF needed to collect the signatures of the requisite 20 percent of the voters in the resort in order to get a referendum question on the Nov. 8 municipal election ballot. While the IAFF did collect signatures throughout the summer, it is uncertain if the union ever reached the requisite number. Repeated attempts to reach IAFF leaders for a response to the status of the referendum petition drive have not been successful.
One thing is certain, however. Even if the IAFF was successful in collecting the requisite number of signatures, the clock has run out on getting the referendum on the November ballot, according to City Clerk Diana Chavis.
“There is no technical deadline, but there is a practical deadline,” she said. “Petition signatures must be vetted by the Board of Supervisors of Elections. That takes time to coordinate and complete, and once the signatures are confirmed, the petition must be formally presented to the legislative body.”