OCEAN CITY — Each of the five candidates for city council along with two candidates for mayor of Ocean City acquitted themselves well during Wednesday’s forum hosted by American Legion Post 166, setting up what should be an interesting race on election day early next month.
Providing the first real glimpse of the field of candidates for Ocean City’s municipal election on Nov. 6, the American Legion Synepuxent Post 166 on Wednesday hosted a spirited forum to introduce the community to the five candidates for city council and two for the mayor’s seat. To be sure, most in attendance were familiar with the candidates, each of whom has made their mark in the Ocean City community, but the forum provided a little more insight into their backgrounds and their motivation for seeking office.
The mayor’s race features longtime incumbent Rick Meehan facing former councilman Joe Hall. Five candidates are seeking three open spots on the city council including incumbents Lloyd Martin and Matt James along with Mark Paddack, Chris Rudolf and Emily Nock. Sitting Councilman Wayne Hartman won the Republican primary for the District 38-C House of Delegate seats in June, meaning there will be at least one new councilmember following the November election and possibly more.
The American Legion’s format for Wednesday’s forum did not necessarily foster a spirit of debate and that intention was made known from the outset with the announcement of the rules. Instead, it was more of a meet-and-greet format with each candidate offered an eight-minute period to introduce themselves to those in attendance. There was a question-and-answer period at the end, which provided insight to some of the candidates’ positions on key issues facing the town, but the questions were directed to the candidate of the asker’s choice and not all responded to the same questions.
Each of the candidate was given the opportunity to address those in attendance in a pre-determined draw and Nock went first. Nock grew up in Ocean City and is a Stephen Decatur graduate. She is the president of Nock Insurance and is very active in the Jaycees and the American Legion Ladies’ Auxiliary. She said on Monday her deep roots in the community make her an ideal candidate for city council.
“I grew up right there on 6th Street at the Nock Apartments and I learned early on the importance of hard work and dedication,” she said. “I learned about our community and the importance of giving back to the community. I have the skills needed to hold this office effectively and efficiently. We need to make sure we’re good financial custodians and the more prepared we are, the better off we’ll be.”
Paddack is a career Ocean City Police Department officer who is retiring at the end of the month after nearly three decades with the department. He said on Wednesday during his 28 years with the department, he has developed a unique perspective on the resort and some of the issues facing it.
“I’m retiring in 14 days after 28 years of my boots on the ground in Ocean City,” he said. “I want to continue to serve my town. After 28 years of my boots on the ground here, I know every street, every alleyway, every storm drain and every sign. I’m ready to hit the ground running. I like this council and I want to be a part of it.”
Rudolf was a near-miss when he ran for council in 2014, falling just 211 votes short. Among the many other things he is involved with in the community, Rudolf spends much of the winter in Annapolis serving as a legislative assistant for nearly a decade. He said he would draw on that political experience if elected this time around.
“I bring a unique background,” he said. “During the winter months, I serve as a legislative assistant for the Senate minority caucus. Statesmanship is the cornerstone of my campaign. At the end of the day, we all have to get along and govern. Basically, I’m a jack of all trades. I have a lot of experience and I bring that experience to the city council. I think we’re going in the right direction and I want to join that. I have a passion for politics.”
When it was his turn, Martin largely drew on his vast experience on the council and said he is essentially running on his record of community service and fiscal responsibility in his 16 years on the council.
“You’ve had a great council to work for you,” he said. “We listen and act on your needs like you are family. We can’t fix everything right away, but we’re working on it. We get a lot done. We’ve actually lowered your tax rate, and we’ve done that in a fiscally conservative way.”
Martin said he was passionate about serving the community and that was his motivation.
“It’s not the campaigning I love, it’s the work that I love,” he said. “I want to continue to work for you. Just the other day a citizen said in a council meeting we should be paid more, but it’s not about the money. I just love this community and want to serve.”
James was a relative newcomer four years ago and was the top vote-getter in the 2014 election. He ran at that time on a promise of fiscal conservatism and has become a steady voice of reason on the council.
“We’ve done a lot of great work and I’m proud of that, but there is much work still to do,” he said. “During the campaign four years ago, I was committed to responsible spending and responsible planning and we’ve been able to do that. Ocean City residents are the customers and they should expect friendly, efficient service from their elected officials. I take this job very seriously.”
For his part, Hall said his desire to serve as mayor was instilled at an early age when he was part of a group of school children to sing Christmas carols to iconic former Mayor Harry Kelley. He related some of his trials in tribulations in recent years and even made a sort of tongue-in-cheek reference to his residency, which was questioned during a former run for re-election to the council.
“I’ve gone through a tremendous transition of change and I’ve learned life is short,” he said. “You have to follow your dream and my dream is to serve you as mayor of Ocean City. I couldn’t follow that dream unless I filed, so I now have that choice.”
Hall couched his candidacy for mayor as more of an advocate for the residents of the community and less of an advocate for growth and development.
“I have a different perspective on what municipal government should be,” he said. “It can’t always be business at all costs. Ocean City has grown fast and furious over the years and we’ve created large crowds that create negative quality of life issues. I’m more concerned about quality of life than business at all cost. I want to focus on managing the community. Government doesn’t need to be responsible for growing business. Business will take care of itself in Ocean City because that beach is not going away.”
Meehan, by way of contrast, couched his candidacy in terms of his effectiveness of shepherding Ocean City through a great transitional period, first as a longtime councilman, council president and ultimately mayor.
“I came on the council in 1985 and that was an interesting time in Ocean City,” he said. “The community was expanding and developing and there were conflicts between the residents and the business community and we’ve worked through that. We have found a balance and this is a great place to run and business and raise a family.”
Meehan said his ability to adjust and adapt make him an ideal candidate to return as mayor.
“Times have changed, some for the better and some not,” he said. “We have made decisions to stand the test of time. I have learned to expect the unexpected. We’ve seen that happen and we’ve stepped up to the plate. Sometimes, there is no magic answer, but we have to be able to work through those things.”
With the introductions dispensed with, it was time for the question and answer period for those in attendance to ask the candidates about specific issues. The format called for citizens to direct their questions to specific candidates and did not necessarily lend itself to a debate atmosphere, but the Q&A did provide some insight to the candidates’ positions on some key issues.
For example, what to do about the motorized special events was a topic visited often during the exchange. Nock was asked for her opinion on what to do about the motorized special events in general, and the H2O International crowd specifically, saying the town needs to find a way to make the existing events more palatable while nurturing alternatives.
“We want people to come here, obviously, but we want to be respectful of our community,” she said. “We need to make sure we’re sending that message. At the same time, I think we need to do things to attract new events as alternatives. We have a great convention center and it’s getting ready to expand again.”
As a career law enforcement officer, Paddack had a unique perspective when it came to questions about the motorized special events.
“We can’t just keep them out of town because they have a First Amendment right to assemble,” he said. “What they can’t do is come here and break the law and be disrespectful of this community. Look at the numbers of arrests and citations and they still acted the way they did. Can we write enough citations? Can we arrest our way out of this? I don’t know, but we have to have a plan in place. Another option is to find a way to replace the event with more family-friendly sports events.”
Other questions related to the town’s ongoing dispute with Worcester County on the tax differential issue, or the cost of duplicated services borne by the taxpayers of Ocean City. Most of those questions were directed at Meehan.
“This has been an ongoing issue and Ocean City residents do pay more than their fair share,” he said. “We’re paying for duplicate services. We have been somewhat successful in securing grants from the county, but it still falls well short.”
Meehan updated those in attendance on the ongoing litigation between the town and county, which resulted in a split decision of sorts during a hearing just two weeks ago.
“The judge found in favor of the county in that the county is not violating the state charter,” he said. “The judge did state the situation is not equitable, so that door isn’t closed. We will remain diligent in our efforts and if we can’t find an equitable solution with the county, we will continue our legal efforts.”
Other questions related to the pending referendum question on the November ballot regarding binding interest arbitration for the resort’s firefighter-paramedic union. Meehan spoke candidly about the referendum during Monday’s meeting and did so again during Wednesday’s forum.
“We have bargained on new contracts on four separate occasions and each occasion has resulted on greater pay and benefits for the firefighter-paramedics,” he said. “If this referendum passes, it would allow a single arbitrator from outside of this area to make decisions on any impasses.”
When asked for his position on the referendum question, Paddack brought the unique perspective of a law enforcement officer and former Fraternal Order of Police (FOP) representative.
“For years, the police department tried for collective bargaining with binding interest arbitration and we finally got it passed by referendum after about four tries,” he said. “I can tell you this, in all of those years with binding arbitration, we only used it once and that was a personnel matter. … It can be an effective tool, but I believe it’s a measure of last resort when all other attempts at negotiation have failed. I support the firefighter-paramedics in this, but I’m not going to carry their flag for them.”