OCEAN CITY — After considerable debate on Monday, there will be a classic vehicle event in Ocean City as planned in the spring, but a task force will decide the future of the town’s often troublesome motorized special events going forward.
It was standing room only on Monday at City Hall as the Mayor and Council heard a presentation on a plan of action to eliminate some vehicle-related special events or at least curtail some of the illicit activity associated with them.
During a closed Police Commission meeting on Oct. 13, the panel, which includes Mayor Rick Meehan and Councilmembers Dennis Dare, Wayne Hartman and Mary Knight, came up with a list of recommendations to forward to the full Mayor and Council. Highlighted on the long list of recommendations is sending a letter to the H2Oi promoter requesting the event be moved entirely out of Worcester or Wicomico counties.
In terms of the spring and fall Cruisin event, the Police Commission is recommending eliminating the traditional Boardwalk parades during the events and discontinuing the rental of the convention center and Inlet parking lot for spring and fall cruising events. The list goes on and includes working with state legislators to create a Special Event Zone, similar to work and school zones, with associated traffic laws and increased fines, and an expansion of video surveillance systems and increased enforcement.
The word got out on the presentation of the police commission’s recommendations during Monday’s Mayor and Council meeting late last week, touching off a firestorm of controversy and a call to action to flood the council chambers for Monday’s meeting. The call clearly was answered as every chair in the council chamber was full with a ring of more concerned citizens, business owners and other stakeholders standing around the perimeter of the meeting room.
Councilman and Police Commission Chair Dennis Dare presented the commission’s action plan and proposed recommendations, eliciting cat calls and other responses from some in the room including a large contingent of representatives from the classic car community. It’s important to note the commission’s recommendations had to be approved by the council before being enacted. After Dare’s presentation, Council President Lloyd Martin called for his colleagues to advance the concepts to future work sessions for full deliberation.
“It sounds like the police commission has put everything on the table and brought these recommendations to the council,” he said. “Now is the time to break these items down one by one and we can do out of this list and move forward with them. I think we need to bring these back to a full work session with all of the information in front of us.”
Councilman Wayne Hartman made a motion to move the recommendations to a future work session for consideration. However, Councilman John Gehrig pointed out the Mayor and Council had urged the formation of a task force including residents, business owners, the event promoters and town staff to come up with solutions to the growing problems associated with some of the vehicle-related special events.
“Ideas are good,” he said. “That’s brainstorming. Sometimes bad ideas lead to good ideas. The issue I have here is as a group from the beginning back in October, we gathered for three days and unanimously discussed creating a task force that would include everybody. That can happen tonight. I’m ready to do it tonight. I don’t think we need to go to a work session when we can talk about it right now.”
Gehrig continued to push for the creation of a task force by Mayor Rick Meehan to include all of the stakeholders and took exception to the recommendations formulated by the police commission.
“We bypassed that whole task force idea,” he said. “I don’t know what we’re fixing. The seven recommendations were unanimously approved by the commission to be presented to us. That means you like these seven recommendations. What happened to the task force? What happened to getting everybody in a room to solve the problem together- the residents, the business owners, our staff, everybody with a stake in this? That has been completely bypassed. We wasted our time. We agreed on something as a group in strategic planning sessions only to have the police commission come back and completely bypass it.”
Council Secretary Mary Knight agreed the idea of creating a special task force to explore solutions to the problem was discussed during strategic planning sessions, but said it was never formally voted on. Gehrig responded by essentially calling the commission’s recommendations political posturing and an attempt to divert the attention away from the real problems.
“We all know ending these events will not solve the problem,” he said. “It’s political to show we’re doing something, but the truth the residents need to know is these don’t fix the problems. We’re acting like we don’t see it. We’re closing our eyes for political points. That’s basically what it seems like. The residents need to know the truth.”
Gehrig said all stakeholders need to be involved in finding solutions, not just the police commission and four of its elected members.
“We create the divide between the residents and the businesses,” he said. “Not one person I spoke to said they hate the businesses, that they hate these events. Would they like the events tweaked? A lot of them would. We heed to fix this and fix this together, not four people in a room superseding what we as a group decided. The task force needs to include all of the stakeholders, not just four of them.”
Martin said the creation of a task force could be one of many elements to come out of future work sessions.
“It’s all about future consideration,” he said. “If a task force comes out of it, then it does. You’re looking at just one part of this. The police commission put together what they thought could be done about these events as we asked them to do. What comes out of that is up to us. I still believe we need to take this to a work session item by item and see what we can and can’t do and move forward with it.”
Hartman questioned Gehrig’s assertion that there is a growing divide between the residents and the business community over the special events issues.
“I’ve never heard of a divide between the residents and the businesses,” he said. “There may be different priorities. As a council, it is our responsibility to listen to the four different constituencies we have — the residents, the businesses, the non-resident property owners and the tourists. You see all of these people here? That’s a good thing. These are people who want to help fix this. We can have a dialogue and that’s how we can make it better.”
Hartman said the debate had moved away from the heart of the issue, which is how best to fix some of the problems associated with the special events.
“We were tasked at strategic planning to think outside the box, to come up with the biggest, craziest ideas,” he said. “That’s why we need everybody involved including everybody out here tonight. How can we fix this? How can we have these events and all of the revenue they bring, but have them be respectful where nobody feels threatened or endangered or awakened in the middle of the night.”
Hartman essentially said the town was essentially repeating the same action and hoping for a different result.
“When we have a weekend when there are 1,100 citations issued and we keep inviting them back, there is something wrong,” he said. “We keep asking the allied agencies for help. Remember the story about the boy who cried wolf? We keep approving these events and keep asking for help and one day they’re going to say they don’t have the resources available. We need as a group to find a way to make this more palatable. If we can’t, something drastic has to happen.”
Gehrig said the problems could have been easier to solve if former elected bodies had acted on proposed solutions before it got to this point.
“Solutions have been discussed on this for more than a decade,” he said. “This body, whoever was sitting up here at the time, never acted on them. It’s human nature. When the problems are small, we punt because they are off the radar, but when the problem is small, we have the opportunity to implement some ideas. We can be disingenuous now and say we don’t have any solutions. There have been plenty of solutions, but we kick it down the road to the point it is now a crisis. Now, the problems are larger and the solutions are harder.”
Gehrig said simply cancelling the events, or implementing rules that basically make them go away, is not the answer.
“There is no switch,” he said. “We don’t make a decision, flip a switch, lights out and the party’s over and they’re all gone. It’s good for everybody up here politically to say look at what we’ve done, but that’s disingenuous.”
Councilman Matt James said cooler heads needed to prevail and made a motion to have the mayor put together a task force representing all stakeholders.
“I would hate to cancel the Cruisin events and have them turn into something like H2Oi,” he said. “That event was always unsafe, and then it was cancelled and it was the worst one ever. I think a task force would be the best approach. We’re only talking about nine days. Maybe the task force can come up with ways to make those nine days better.”
For his part, Dare said he could support the creation of a task force, but raised concern the sense of urgency could wane while the process unfolds.
“We have to focus on the bigger picture,” he said. “I’ll vote for a task force, but I fear it might just be kicking the can further down the road. If we’re going to do something, we need to do it with the same passion we’ve seen here tonight and get something done.”
For his part, Meehan embraced the idea of creating a task force and pointed to past success with issues such as street performers, for example.
“I think a task force is a good idea,” he said. “They’ve been very productive and proven to resolve issues and bring about change. That’s exactly what we’ll do. We don’t want to kick this can down the road. This is the second or third time we’ve been here at this time of the year after these events and sometimes we have a short memory about some of the things that have happened.”
Meehan said it will take the collective effort of all stakeholders to find a solution.
“We all have to be realistic that we have some issues we need to fix,” he said. “We have short-term problems and long-term problems and we’re going to need short-term solutions and then look to long-term solutions. If nothing else, this certainly got everyone’s attention, but we have to keep their attention. We have to all work together and decide if this is worth maintaining, we’re all going to have to do our part.”
Meehan recalled the early days of the cruising events when they were brought in to help jumpstart the fledgling Sunfest event each fall.
“I have always been a big proponent of the Cruisin events, but the town has grown up and the town has changed and we have to adapt these events to those changes,” he said. “This is a big issue and it’s going to be difficult. I don’t see anybody up here looking for political points tonight. This is an opportunity to get together and fix a problem.”
A separate document rates the various vehicle-related special events on a variety of factors including the behavior of non-event attendees, the behavior of roadside crowds, the level of law enforcement required, the desired demographics, adverse social media impact, promoter cooperation and pedestrian endangerment with a score of “one” being good and “five” being bad.
On the motor events rating matrix, H2Oi scored five nearly across the board, the only non-five score coming under the heading “trailers.” Similarly, the spring cruising event scored five across the board, the only four coming under the heading “desired demographic. The fall cruising event scored fours and fives across the board with the only exception being a three under promoter cooperation.
Bike Week generally scored well on the motor event ratings matrix with scores of one and two almost across the board. The only four for Bike Week came under the level of law enforcement required and the only threes coming under the headings trailers and desired demographics.
The annual Corvette special event in October and the annual Jeep Week in May scored perfect scores of one in every category.
When it came time for public comment on Monday, some in the audience took exception to the special event ratings formula.
“I’m 74 and I don’t think I’m an undesirable demographic,” said Kathy Swagler, representing the Ocean City Cruiser Club. “It goes back 28 years ago when you came to us and said can you bring some classic cars over because we have this Sunfest event and it’s not doing so well. If you screw around with this, you’re going to end up hurting this place.”
Francis Scott Key Hotel and Resort owner Annemarie Dickerson asked a very important question about the future of the next vehicle-related special event, the spring cruising event.
“What do I tell my groups booked for the May event?” she said. “Can we tell them the event is safe for spring 2018? I think that’s an important question.”
Delmarva Condominium Manager’s Association President Joe Groves pointed out the apparent rift between some on the council harkened back to a time not so long ago when a divided council resulted in a major upheaval on the elected body.
“I know you all want to work hard and find a solution,” he said. “I think the task force is a good idea and I want to serve on it. Five years ago, there was a perception that four people were running the town and that didn’t work out too well for them. It’s not that hard to fix this, but it won’t be easy. I represent 58,000 condos and I want to be part of this task force. Annemarie deserves an answer to her question. People are already calling to ask if they should cancel their plans.”
Ocean City Hotel-Motel-Restaurant Association Executive Director Susan Jones said her membership was being blitzed with calls from concerned cruising event participants about the future of the events.
“There are a lot of our members who are seriously concerned about this,” she said. “I’ve had calls all day today from our Cruisin guests asking if they should still come. The cruising events are sometimes bigger than Memorial Day and almost bigger than the Fourth of July. We need to be really careful with this.”
After considerable debate, the council voted unanimously to honor the memorandum of understanding (MOU) to allow the spring Cruisin event to go on as planned. Beyond that, the future of the vehicle-related special events will be determined by what comes out of the task force and council work sessions.
TEAM Productions’ Bob Rothermel, who produces the spring and fall Cruisin events, said his crew was always open to finding ways of making the events better, safer and more palatable for residents and other visitors.
“We’ve always advertised our willingness to work with the town to make the events better,” he said. “We don’t make any apologies for our events. We have a lease for the convention center and we can control that. We have a lease for the Inlet lot and we can control that. What we can’t control is what goes on out on the streets. The people who come here for the events are the people we want in town. It’s those knuckleheads that aren’t part of the events that cause all of the problems.”
The council in the end voted unanimously to forward the police commission recommendations and other possible solutions to future work sessions, voted unanimously to have the mayor put together a task force to further explore possible solutions and voted to honor the MOU allowing the spring Cruisin event to go off as planned next year while the other issues are resolved.