OCEAN CITY — The seemingly innocuous approval of two popular special events this week turned into a larger, often tense, debate about the town’s commitment to rebranding its image and the morale of its police force.
Included on the Mayor and Council’s consent agenda on Monday was a request to renew date holds on the Island to Island Half Marathon in April and the Seaside 10 and 5K races in October. Typically, the Mayor and Council approve items on the consent agenda with little or no discussion because they come on recommendations after being carefully vetted by staff and department heads.
It appeared the request for the Island to Island Half Marathon and the Seaside 10 were headed toward a swift approval before Councilman Dennis Dare raised some issues with the need to staff the special weekend events with an already-taxed police department. During budget deliberations last spring, it came to light some Ocean City Police Department (OCPD) officers were leaving the department because of quality of life issues, including a lack of time off on weekends largely due to an insufficient number of officers in the department and the need for overtime during special events.
Dare pointed out the half marathon used to begin in Ocean City and end at Assateague Island, requiring OCPD details at the start of the race to ensure the safety of the runners as they leave the Inlet and cross the Route 50 bridge. In recent years, the course has been reversed with the runners finishing in Ocean City at a post-race party at the Inlet in the Springfest tents. Dare pointed out the course reversal has increased the need for more OCPD officers and for a longer duration.
“The first or second year they tried running it the other way because then we only had to close the Route 50 Bridge for 15 minutes at the beginning until everybody got across,” he said. “The way it’s been run, you have to wait for the end of the race when the runners are all stretched out. It’s a pretty big police detail to make that bridge and Baltimore Avenue into the Inlet safe.”
Similarly, the Seaside 10 race in October each year also requires a significant OCPD presence along the course, according to Dare.
“The Seaside 10 goes up the Boardwalk and up the highway to 67th Street or so and back down,” he said. “That constitutes a lot of police officers to make that safe. I’m certainly not against any of these events. The reason I’m bringing this up is in the last year or two, we’ve had a number of police officers leave. One of the things we hear time and time again is they don’t get enough time off. We’re talking about officers who get an occasional weekend off, maybe once a month. They have a lot of things in their lives like the wedding of a best friend that happens on the weekend and they’re told they cannot go.”
Dare said the level of police commitment to the special events on the table on Monday and all of the special events promoted in the resort should be taken under consideration during the approval process.
“When we approve something like this, there aren’t enough officers on shift to do them,” he said. “Special orders go out canceling leaves and things like that because of these special events. The ones that are already lined up to go we need to do because it’s the right thing to do, but we need to think about some of these things in the future.”
However, Councilman John Gehrig said events such as the half marathon and the Seaside 10 are exactly the type of wholesome special events the town is hoping to attract and retain and said logistical problems such as police staffing should be worked out.
“We spend a lot of time talking about events and how we’re going to rebrand Ocean City and finding promoters to bring healthy and new events to town and this is what we get,” he said. “There is no reason why we can’t accommodate these events. We should be seeking more of these. Why would any promoter come here when all we do is kick them around? This event draws 1,700 people and we should be asking how we can get it to 17,000 people.”
Gehrig said the notion of holding the event promoter’s feet to the fire and considering not approving them over concerns about police staffing on a Saturday morning in the offseason was short-sighted.
“We need to change our thinking,” he said. “We can find a way to make it work. There are a lot of people out there looking for a job and we’ll find officers that want this job. We’re talking about the end of October in the morning and we’re saying no. These promoters can go anywhere they want at the end of October and we should be thinking of ways to get them to come here and stay here and instead where trying to make it harder.”
Mayor Rick Meehan said the town had a long history of working with the promoter of the Seaside 10 and the Island to Island Half Marathon and urged the council to approve the date holds for the special events.
“We worked with this promoter for a number of years and a number of different races and I think we approve these and ask them to meet with us to make it better,” he said. “Maybe we can get more volunteers or whatever it takes. I agree with our issues with hiring and retaining police officers, but I don’t think this is where you draw the line. This is a great event and I think we need to encourage more of these types of events.”
Meehan said the town could work with the promoter to find ways to augment the OCPD commitment to the events with private security provided by the promoter or volunteers.
“I think if we ask the promoter to come in and work with us to reduce the number of people we need, I think he’ll do whatever it takes,” he said. “These are good, healthy events and I hope the council will approve them and not pull the rug out from under them.”
Councilman Wayne Hartman said no one on the council was in favor of not approving the requested special event renewals, but merely wanted to revisit some of the town’s contributions including the police commitment. Hartman said as a member of the police commission, he had seen exit interviews with officers who were leaving the force concerned with quality of life issues and staffing concerns.
“I don’t think anyone is saying we don’t want these events,” he said. “This is all about compromise. The best things come when everyone has an open dialogue. What is proposed is not necessarily the best thing for everybody, but this is about giving and taking. An event in October is a great thing and I don’t think anybody is trying to chase them away. It’s just one of those things if we can make it better for everybody, why not?”
Meehan said the OCPD details for special events were likely voluntary and afforded officers an opportunity to work a little overtime on a Saturday morning. Gehrig agreed, saying the staff recommendations included an endorsement by the police department and no complaints of short staffing or weekend overtime.
“I haven’t heard a substantial fact of anyone complaining outside mere speculation that this is not the best thing for everybody,” he said. “There has been nothing presented that this is a problem. We have staff we trust and pay to analyze these events and make recommendations. I understand we can make these better and I’m all for that, but over a lot of fear and trepidation about losing officers, we’re considering not approving these. We haven’t heard any complaints from officers and we don’t know our officers don’t want to work these details.”
Gehrig reiterated potentially holding back on approval of the requested special events after the staff had properly vetted them and recommended renewing them ran counter to what the town was shooting for with its special events.
“Here we have a promoter we work well with and trust and we’re sending a wrong message,” he said. “We have an opportunity to make Ocean City a place of health and wellness with these events and we’re saying no. Let’s just assume there is a little bit of effort and expense. When it comes to making changes, sometimes you have to do the hard things to get the work done.”
Gehrig said not approving the race-related special events over concerns with police staffing and morale represented a cop-out, so to speak.
“Now we’re saying it’s too hard to have a couple of officers out there on a Saturday morning for a few hours, so we’re just going to pull the plug on this recommendation and drag the promoter through this?” he said. “Are we even serious about rebranding Ocean City or are we going to mess around with all of the promoters who want to do business here? We should be making it easier for people who want to bring these events here, not harder.”
After considerable debate, the council voted unanimously to approve the two requested special event date hold renewals through 2018 and vowed to work the promoter, and the promoters of other special events, on how best to minimize the impact on the police department.