OCEAN CITY — In the wake of arguably the worst motorized special event weekend ever, Ocean City’s elected this week promised bold action and perhaps painful solutions to ensure it doesn’t happen again.
While the official H2O International (H2Oi) car show held for years at Fort Whaley west of Berlin was cancelled two weeks ago, thousands of the enthusiasts came anyway as planned last weekend. To be sure, there was a percentage of attendees that obeyed the town’s laws and ordinances and respected their host community, but many came on a mission of racing up and down the streets, snarling traffic, littering and instigating the Ocean City Police Department (OCPD) officers and their allied partners attempting to maintain some semblance of order. The chaos reached a crescendo on Saturday night when a vehicle intentionally drove into two police officers, forcing the officers to fire their service weapons at the suspects, before the driver was ultimately caught swimming in the bay.
On Monday afternoon, OCPD Chief Ross Buzzuro issued a statement calling the behavior of some of the weekend event’s participants appalling. On Monday night, the Mayor and Council had the opportunity to weigh in echoed the chief’s sentiments. The town’s elected officials for years have struggled with how best to handle the motorized special events so prevalent in the shoulder seasons and the solution has always been an increased police presence with the OCPD and its allied law enforcement agencies from around the region.
After last weekend’s debacle, the Mayor and Council this week were pitching bold solutions for some of the events long on problems and short on obvious solutions. Mayor Rick Meehan and each councilmember weighed in on the issue during Monday’s meeting and each had high praise for the OCPD, its allied partners and other first-responders including the fire department and EMS in the face of the extreme challenges presented by the event. Each also talked boldly about the need for drastic changes.
“The Mayor and Council are unanimous in their opinion on this topic,” he said. “As mayor, I’m pretty open-minded and everybody is welcome in Ocean City as long as they obey our laws and be respectful to others. In this case, they did not obey our laws and were not respectful of others. To quote the chief, their behavior was appalling and it’s not compatible with Ocean City and it’s not compatible with our community.”
Meehan called the actions of some unacceptable and urged his colleagues and city leaders to explore ways of discouraging the event in the future or eliminating it altogether.
“Some members of this group that came here and caused all of the trouble, disrespected our community, challenged our police officers and wore tickets as badges of courage are not welcome in Ocean City,” he said. “I don’t think our residents want them here and I know the Mayor and Council don’t want them here. I think we have to take a firm stand and be consistent in that position. The type of behavior we saw throughout this weekend was unacceptable.”
Meehan suggested last weekend’s deplorable activity represented a tipping point of sorts and urged bold action. He said some of the solutions might be tough to bear for local residents and visitors not associated with the events, but added it might be a price to pay to ensure last weekend’s chaos does not happen again.
“Sometimes it takes something like this to get everybody on the same page and boy I hope everybody is on the same page here because there is only one direction to take with this,” he said. “We need to discourage this event, we need to take what they consider the fun out of this event and to do that is going to be painful in some ways because it’s probably going to disrupt some of our businesses. It may disrupt some of the activities of our citizens and all of us for a short period of time as we really do whatever we have to do to prevent this event from being fun in Ocean City.”
Meehan said it might require making changes, albeit temporary ones, to the traffic patterns along Coastal Highway during the event. He suggested anything that can be done to take the “fun” out of the event for participants could and perhaps should be done.
“We might need to restrict our highway and maybe cut down on the number of lanes,” he said. “They refer to Coastal Highway as the strip, but it’s not the strip. If we have to reduce our traffic lanes and restrict the flow of traffic to take the fun out of it, then that’s what we’re going to have to do. We all know we’re going to have to take extreme measures in order to discourage this event and I think all options should be on the table.”
Meehan said it will take a strong partnership including all stakeholders to make a meaningful change.
“This is a strong community and we all need to be on the same page,” he said. “All of the businesses, all of the residents and this Mayor and Council have to be strong with this. This has been escalating and it’s going to continue to escalate more if we don’t take that position. I hope when it comes time to make those hard decisions, the Mayor and Council stands strong and the business community respects those decisions. Let’s stand strong together, let’s follow up on all of these actions, let’s keep this discussion going forward and get the word out that Ocean City is not going to tolerate this type of activity.”
Councilman Wayne Hartman said the town’s reputation was at stake and meaningful changes had to be made.
“As a council person, seeing that type of activity in town is embarrassing, it really is,” he said. “I would really like to see some serious action on this.”
Hartman praised the solid work put in by the OCPD and its allied partners, but added increased police presence and stepped up enforcement was not entirely stemming the illicit behavior.
“Having all of the police here was certainly good to see, but we all know, and I don’t think it is a secret to anyone, that with all of the issues that were in front of the police, it still wasn’t enough,” he said. “I don’t know what the answer is right now. I hear all of you sitting out there. When I signed up to live in Ocean City, this isn’t what I perceived or thought to be the case. I’m going to ask the chairman of the Police Commission to have this addressed at one of our very near meetings. I’d like to have the Worcester County Sheriff and the Maryland State Police come in and share their thoughts on what can be done about this.”
Hartman also called for bold action to tone down or eliminate the event.
“We’ve talked about this a number of times and I think we really need to take action,” he said. “During strategic planning last week, we talked about rebranding Ocean City. I’m not sure what the solution is. Maybe we need inspection stations at the entrances to town and if they have illegal exhaust systems or whatever, maybe we can stop them before they come into town. We need to come up with something different to change the outcome of these events and we need help with those solutions. I can tell you one thing. I think the long-term impact to the reputation of Ocean City is more expensive than short-term loss of revenue brought here by events like these.”
Councilman John Gehrig assured those in attendance on Monday the elected officials were equally concerned with the weekend’s events and urged residents to be part of the solution process.
“We take this very seriously,” he said. “We’re all residents too and nobody wants this. There is a solution out there, but there is no switch to turn it off. There are ideas and there are solutions, but we need to work with you as residents to find those solutions. We want your ideas too. They may end up being the solution. We need to work with our industry partners, the business community, and they need to offer some solutions too. It’s going to take a shift in our thinking. It’s going to take some bold thinking because there is no switch. Saying we don’t want them doesn’t do anything and talking amongst ourselves doesn’t do anything. We need to make something happen.”
Council Secretary Mary Knight said she reviewed many of the posts on social media regarding the H2Oi event over the weekend and was appalled with the disrespectful and brash comments. Knight said she shared that sentiment with an OCPD officer with whom she was speaking earlier in the day. Knight also urged the public to be part of the solution.
“I told an officer I was speaking with today that it is real easy to be brave on social media, but when it comes to being brave in real life, these are the people that do it,” she said. “Some of the comments from reasonable people said that there needs to be change. It’s up to us to do that. I got a call from a constituent who happens to be an assistant district attorney who said he can help us and I’m going to meet with him this week. We’re all available to do that. Please, if you have any ideas, things have to change on some of these action items because we’re just as concerned as you are.”
Councilman Tony DeLuca said the Mayor and Council were keenly aware of the problems associated with the event even before last weekend.
“Last week, we met as a team for three days for strategic planning and for the first time, this was elevated as a major issue with actionable items, with next steps and with responsibility and strategies to attack this thing,” he said.
Councilman Matt James was blunt in his assessment of last weekend.
“This weekend was horrible,” he said. “We don’t have all the solutions. We have some ideas, but it’s going to take a commitment to following through on those ideas.”
Councilman Dennis Dare spoke on the evolution of the motorized special events.
“I want to start at the beginning,” he said. “I’ve been in City Hall from the beginning of all of these motor events and to this day, each of them has a core of people that come down here for all the right reasons. But I’ve watched as even more come here for the wrong reasons. I’ve often said if you want to get rid of them, it’s like throwing out the dirty bath water without throwing out the baby.”
Dare agreed last weekend represented a tipping point of sorts for the motorized events.
“I think we’re passed the point on some of these events of trying to put bandaids on something that is really broken,” he said. “We talked a lot during strategic planning about being bold and it’s time to make some bold moves on some of these events. Our reputation as a family resort is being damaged. I’m going to ask the Council President to put an agenda item in a closed session to meet with our city solicitor about any legal actions that can be taken against promoters and sponsors, realizing that these events also attract the undesirables.”
Dare said increased enforcement has not proven to be the solution.
“Everybody says get more enforcement, but that’s not the answer,” he said. “We saw a maxed out police force and maxed out resources that we can bring to bear on this weekend and that’s not the solution. Even though this event was canceled two weeks ago, it had been promoted for a year and they’re already promoting next year. I think we need to go to the promoter and say we’re not interested in this event being in town. Cancel it, take is someplace else or there could be legal action.”
Council President Lloyd Martin owns and operates convenience stores and was often on the front lines of the weekend’s activities.
“I have two stores up north and I know many think we benefit from these events, but this is not what I want to happen,” he said. “I think we need to reach out to the promoter and say we don’t want it here. I’m just like you, I live in this community. We don’t want this and we don’t need this.”
Martin promised to have an open and accessible ear for those in the community with concerns and with possible solutions.
“I don’t know how many people came into my store and said ‘you got a minute?’” he said. “I had a minute for each and every one of them. We’re trying to make this a family resort and make this something we’re proud of, but this is not something we’re proud of. We’re not proud of the events that come in and ruin the quality of life for our residents and visitors. We’re not just about making a dollar, we’re about making this a great community for our residents and visitors and we’re going to have to work together to make some changes.”