OCEAN CITY — With the dust settled on the unsanctioned and uninvited H2O International (H2Oi) event two weekends ago, resort leaders this week reviewed the outcome and called for an even stronger police presence and more bite for enforcement in the future.
For the record, the official H2Oi car show was held in Atlantic City the last weekend in September, but, as expected, a huge contingent of car enthusiasts bent on wreaking havoc in Ocean City arrived anyway. Throughout the weekend, Ocean City witnessed the same lawlessness and blatant disrespect for the community from the unregistered and unsanctioned participants who did not make the trip to Atlantic City that have fairly or unfairly been associated with the event in the past.
In the days leading up to the unsanctioned event and throughout the weekend, a special event zone with reduced speed limits and enhanced penalties for some traffic violations was in place, and for the most part, appeared to fulfill its intended purpose. Statistically, the numbers in many key indicators were down slightly this year compared to prior years during the event with fewer calls for service and fewer traffic stops, although the number of citations issued went up significantly.
During Wednesday’s Police Commission meeting, Ocean City Police Department (OCPD) Chief Ross Buzzuro outlined some of the statistics for committee members and offered his own assessment of the 2018 event.
“Last year was worse,” he said. “We still had tremendous numbers this year, but last year was even more challenging. We really tried to be proactive and seek out those who were most disruptive.”
During a review of the statistics, committee member and Councilman Wayne Hartman pointed out the number of warnings issued during the event at 763 and questioned if the OCPD and its allied partners were “being too kind” with the enforcement efforts. However, Buzzuro explained the warning statistics could be deceiving.
“I wouldn’t say they were kind,” he said. “Each stop has multiple violations. In the past, we would issue one primary citation and a handful of warnings on the other things. This year, we were giving out two, three and four citations at a stop.”
While Ocean City did see much of the same wanton disregard for safety and recklessness during that event weekend, at least it was not alcohol-fueled for the most part, according to Buzzuro.
“If there is a silver lining, this is basically a non-alcohol event for us,” he said. “There were 10 DUIs last year and five this year. That’s not unusual on any given weekend. This is a road issue. It’s recklessness, but it’s virtually non-alcohol related. I’d say 99.9 percent of the time they’re sober, at least the driver behind the wheel.”
When asked if there was any feedback from the official H2Oi event in Atlantic City, Buzzuro said it appears a relatively small number of those enthusiasts participated in that event, but the large majority of the hangers-on came to Ocean City anyway.
“It wasn’t a great number,” he said. “By Saturday, our intelligence showed there were about 25 cars up there. There were just 25 cars and they were all heading down here. It was a bust.”
During Tuesday’s Recreation and Parks Committee meeting, Council President Lloyd Martin said it was in Ocean City’s best interest to help Atlantic City nurture the H2Oi event if it returns there in the future.
“We really need to help Atlantic City grow this event,” he said. “If you look at a lot of the license plates on vehicles here, they all ride right past Atlantic City to get to us.”
Once it was firmly established the unregistered hangers-on came to Ocean City anyway, the discussion turned to how to better handle it in the future. Committee member and Councilman Dennis Dare said the special event zone did its job for the most part, but the key was adding even more law enforcement. He suggested seeking more support from the state.
“Seems like the only way to control this is more enforcement,” he said. “If we’re going to turn the tide on this, we need more resources. How do we go about that? This is an Ocean City problem, but it’s also a Worcester County problem and a state problem. How do we get more assistance from the state?”
Buzzuro praised the support provided by the Maryland State Police, but did say it wouldn’t hurt to ask for more in the future.
“The Maryland State Police have been part of the enforcement for this event for years,” he said. “They have been great partners in this. I guess we could ask them for even more help, but they are big part of this already.”
Mayor Rick Meehan suggested going straight to the top and Gov. Larry Hogan for more state resources in the future.
“I think we can write a letter to the governor asking for additional support,” he said. “Our department and our allies have done a tremendous job of keeping this in the box. We created a method to control it, now we just need more enforcement.”
Meehan offered a rather dire prediction if the unsanctioned event isn’t quelled even more in the future.
“Someday, this could erupt into something more than it is,” he said. “I don’t want to be like the mayor of Baltimore and sit back and wait for that to happen. I want to be proactive with this. There is probably more activity in this area on that weekend than any other area of the state.”
A motion was made to send a letter to the governor asking for more state support during the annual late September event. That motioned passed with a 4-0 vote and will be forwarded to the full Mayor and Council for approval.
Dare pointed to an accident involving a limousine in New York last week as an example of what could happen here.
“There was one accident outside Albany last week that killed 20 people,” he said. “We all saw that overturned Mustang and there was another one in front of the convention center where there were big crowds around. I just thank God no one got injured or killed. There is no doubt we need more help.”
Another strategy is possibly adding more teeth to the special event zone, which would require approval from the state legislature. The bill ultimately approved last year was watered down somewhat by the time it was passed. Committee members voted to go back to the General Assembly in the next session and seek to put some of those things back in the bill.
“There were things we wanted to include such as reckless and negligent driving, racing, spinning wheels and excessive noise,” said Dare. “We need to go back with that this year.”
Buzzuro agreed there was room for improvement in the special event zone legislation.
“There were five or six traffic laws that we wanted to include with fines doubled, but most of them got stripped out of the bill. We didn’t get everything we wanted with this,” the chief said.