OC Council Incumbents, Political Newcomer Participate In Candidate Forum

OC Council Incumbents, Political Newcomer Participate In Candidate Forum

OCEAN CITY — Before the American Legion Post 166 hosted a forum for the five candidates seeking four open seats on the Ocean City Council next week, it was clear going in the four incumbents were running on a unified platform aimed at continuity and the fifth was on the outside looking in. Tuesday’s event only reinforced that appearance.

There are five candidates for four vacant City Council seats on the ballot in next Tuesday’s municipal election including incumbents Doug Cymek, Dennis Dare, Tony DeLuca and Mary Knight along with local businessman John Gehrig, who filed just before the deadline two weeks ago. The incumbents made it clear they were running as a cohesive group when they all filed on the same day in January and that message hasn’t changed in the weeks leading up to the election.

Gehrig, however, is a wild card in the five-horse race for four seats and has positioned himself as an alternative choice and independent thinker. During the roughly two-hour candidate forum hosted by the American Legion on Tuesday, those messages were largely restated, and despite a cordial, articulate debate, the differences in the choices were clarified further.

The four incumbents are largely running on their record of infrastructure improvements, fiscal responsibility and maintaining, and even lowering, the tax rate and ensuring a high quality of life. While Gehrig shares those same goals, he has been viewed by some as an outsider who threatens to break up the continuity and upset the city’s momentum. During Tuesday’s forum, he embraced both his potential to maintain the continuity on the council while presenting himself as an independent thinker.

“I respect all of these people and work with them frequently,” he said. “I am a 100-percent independent thinker. I just don’t subscribe to group thinking.”

Gehrig, who owns and operates D3Corp and is current president of the Greater Ocean City Chamber of Commerce, is deeply involved in the community and serves on several boards and committees. He has been viewed as potential City Council candidate for years and the assumption has been he would one day seek election, but he said on Tuesday the timing of his decision in this election cycle with four incumbents running has been called into question and there have even been attempts to talk him out of it.

“There are five incumbents up here and at least four of them are going to be re-elected including the mayor,” he said. “Most think I’m part of the future of the council and I’ve heard from a few ‘why run now?’ and ‘wait until next time,’ but what does that say about the other councilmembers that aren’t up for election in this cycle? It’s as if they’re saying if I get elected the whole council is going to blow up and the world is going to end.”

Each candidate was given roughly 10 minutes at the forum on Tuesday to enumerate their accomplishments and illustrate why they should be elected and each presented a strong case. However, the candidates’ time was allotted alphabetically with only Knight following Gehrig. Knight also used much of her time to illustrate her accomplishments, but because she was the only one to follow Gehrig, she also addressed the unified four against the single independent candidate issue.

“We’re a group of independent thinkers with a common goal,” she said. “That goal is giving you the best lifestyle we can and we’ve been able to accomplish a lot of that. Frankly, I’m a little offended. I am very independent, but we share the common goal to serve to the best of our ability.”

Knight, who is retired, acknowledged the council often votes unanimously on some weighty issues, but disputed the notion the incumbents always voted as one.

“I’m very proud to stand here and say ‘yes, I do vote with these guys after a lot of careful deliberation, but the road to get there isn’t always easy,’” she said. “It’s not like we’re up there all of the same mind and voting as one on every issue.”

Although he went first, Cymek anticipated the four incumbents versus the lone independent issue coming up later.

“We want to maintain a cohesive council,” he said. “We have an excellent council now. I’m not going to kid you, we have moments where we all don’t see eye to eye but there is always a desire to work together. Generally, the vote is 7-0, but it’s not always as easy as it seems.”

Although he is unchallenged and has essentially been re-elected, Mayor Rick Meehan utilized his opportunity to speak during the forum. Meehan also addressed the current cohesiveness of the council and harkened back to a recent time when a clearly divided council threatened to derail the city’s government.

“Five years ago, the town went through a very difficult time with a very dysfunctional council,” he said. “I think I vetoed 10 ordinances in one meeting and I’ve only vetoed around 12 the entire time I’ve been mayor. People recognized that and elected a different council. They restored the respect in the community and restored the public’s confidence in their government.”

By and large, most of the candidates utilized their allotted time to extol their accomplishments and illustrate why they should be returned to the council and most did so with aplomb. Cymek went first and spoke of the current’s council’s fiscal responsibility.

“I pledged to closely watch government spending,” he said. “When I started in 2008, we heard it’s time to chop the low-hanging fruit and that really struck home. We got a couple hundred suggestions from the staff and the council was able to cut about $6 million from the budget. I’m very proud of that.”

Cymek’s background is heavy in law enforcement as he was formerly a private detective and he currently serves as chair of the Police Commission. Cymek, who owns a construction company, said maintaining Ocean City’s goal of top-notch public safety remained a priority as he seeks a new term.

“Public safety is my top priority,” he said. “We’re reviewing our officer recruitment and retention. It takes 170 officers to keep this town safe in the summer and we were a little shy of that this year. The officers we have stepped up and did a great job.”

A common theme during the forum was the city’s ongoing issue with the county over tax differential, or the cost of duplicated services born on the backs or resort taxpayers and Cymek took time to address that

“About 58 percent of the county’s property tax revenue comes from Ocean City,” he said. “We get a disproportionate share of that back.”

Dare, who is retired, said he draws from his decades of experience in Ocean City government, first as the city engineer, his long time as city manager and his current time on the council. He said that experience alone is enough to return him to the council.

“I have the knowledge and experience,” he said. “I do know a lot and want to bring that back to Ocean City for another four years.”

Dare said the current council has been able to accomplish many of its goals and still has work to do.

“We set goals and we were able to accomplish a lot of them,” he said. “We’ve been able to cross a lot of things off that list.”

Dare referenced the city’s strategic plan to make the resort more livable for its residents. He said fiscal responsibility and affordability is a large part of that.

“The main goal is to have a more livable community for the residents,” he said. “One of the things we were able to do is lower the Homestead cap to zero. We’ve been able to maintain the constant yield for the last few years and actually lowered the property tax rate this year. All of that makes this community more livable for the residents.”

Dare has made his position on the tax differential issue known in no uncertain terms and also referenced it on Tuesday.

“Tax differential is one of the most important things,” he said. “So many of the services like police the county does not have to provide. If they were going to maintain the same level of service, they would have to hire 105 more deputies. If one person could get this done, I would have done it 20 years ago.”

DeLuca, a retired corporate executive, is a relative newcomer on the council, having served just two years, but he has accomplished much in a short time. DeLuca served as chairman of the Coastal Resources Legislative Committee, or Green Team, and, as such, has helped foster many environmentally favorable initiatives, including the Sustainable Maryland certification formally presented just this week, along with the successful Adopt Your Beach program and the budding Adopt Your Street program.

DeLuca also serves on the Transportation Committee and extolled the virtues of a renaissance of sorts for the municipal bus system.

“When we look back at the buses three years ago, we had a lot of problems,” he said. “We attacked recruiting and boosted morale and generally improved the service, now the ridership is up and we get very few complaints.”

As sort of a hybrid between the Transportation Committee and the Green Team, DeLuca has been highly involved in the creation of a network of bike trails designed to get some of the bicycle traffic off Coastal Highway.

“I’m really passionate about the bike trail,” he said. “We need to get bikes off Coastal Highway. We’d like to do 40th Street to 62nd Street when you look at what’s there. I really want to get bikes out of that area and alleviate some of the impediments to the bike trail.”

For his part, Gehrig said he is a family man with two young children who chose to operate his successful business in the Ocean City area as well as live on the island.

“We chose Ocean City and all of my kids’ memories are in Ocean City,” he said. “Life is happening right now for us in Ocean City. We’re a beach town and quality of life is critical for us. That’s the motivation for me.”

Gehrig drew on his business experience and pointed to his efforts to create meaningful well-paying jobs in an economic climate dominated by tourism-related business.

“I have a debt-free company with nearly 50 employees,” he said. “We’ve been able to keep a lot of our brightest young people in town and prevent the brain drain. I’m deeply committed to that.”

Gehrig said his business acumen would serve him well if he is elected next week and did not waste an opportunity to reiterate the need for different types of tools in the council tool chest.

“We need vision and foresight on the council,” he said. “We need problem solving and risk taking and we deal with that every day. We deal with tight, tight budgets and that’s real world experience. I believe we need business savvy on the council. We don’t have to have a toolbox full of hammers. Sometimes, you need a screwdriver or pliers.”

Gehrig said the elected officials need to do more to ensure the residents are not pitted against the businesses when it comes to the tourism-based local economy.

“The politicians are pitting the residents against the businesses and they sing two separate tunes, when, in actuality, both groups are on one sheet of music,” he said. “We’re all in this together. We like tourism and that’s why we’re here. It seems that it’s all about the residents on Election Day and business the other 364 days, but business is part of who we are.”

Meehan summed up the open session of the forum with a call to maintain the status quo.

“People feel very strongly about Ocean City and look to us to keep it the way it is to the best of our ability,” he said. “We’re prepared for everything we know about and this council has worked diligently to be in that mode.”

About The Author: Shawn Soper

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Shawn Soper has been with The Dispatch since 2000. He began as a staff writer covering various local government beats and general stories. His current positions include managing editor and sports editor. Growing up in Baltimore before moving to Ocean City full time three decades ago, Soper graduated from Loch Raven High School in 1981 and from Towson University in 1985 with degrees in mass communications with a journalism concentration and history.