Taxpayer Dollars Spent On City’s Referendum Opposition Questioned

Taxpayer Dollars Spent On City’s Referendum Opposition Questioned
Election day in Ocean City is pictured with candidates and supporters outside the Roland E. Powell Convention Center.

OCEAN CITY — With the election now in the books, the point is somewhat moot, but the use of taxpayer money to fund a letter to the voters on the town’s charter amendment opposition raised some questions this week.

Two weeks before Ocean City residents got to vote on a charter amendment referendum question that would allow binding interest arbitration during contract negotiations between the town and its firefighter-paramedic union, the Mayor and Council approved a letter to all registered voters spelling out its position. Similar expenditures were used to pay for newspaper ads extolling the town’s opposition.

During the public comment period on Monday on the eve of the municipal election, local resident and former councilman Vince Gisriel called into question the use of public funds to promulgate the town’s position on an important referendum question. For the record, the other side, in this case the firefighter-paramedic union, had heretofore utilized significant resources to get their message out, but Gisriel took exception to the town using taxpayer money to counter the union’s message.

“I took exception to a vote taken at the last meeting to send a letter urging the residents of Ocean City to vote against the charter amendment,” he said. “I’m not here to advocate for the referendum and I trust the voters to make that decision. I do take exception to using taxpayer money for sending a letter to the voters and for newspaper ads.”

Gisriel pointed to recent case law around Maryland that appeared to validate the town’s use of taxpayer money to help sway voters one way or the other. Nonetheless, he said in this case the decision was a poor one.

“It’s probably within your right to do so, but I’m not sure how it would fly in the court of public opinion,” he said. “I think the public would agree it’s wrong to use taxpayer money to advocate on a position one way or the other.”

Gisriel said his research showed the mass mailing to resort residents cost around $3,500, but said he was opposed to the principle of the idea.

“I think $3,500 is not a lot of money in the big scheme of the budget,” he said. “But $3,500 here and $3,500 there starts to add up.”

For their part, some on the council defended the decision, pointing out the opposition had expended significant resources to get their message out.

“I think you deserve a reply regarding the use of taxpayer money on the letter,” said Councilman John Gehrig. “I believe the voters need to know what the facts are. One side is advertising a message and doing so very effectively and we felt like we needed to do the same.”

Gehrig pointed out the letter, and the newspaper ads, should not be taken to mean the town did not support the firefighter-paramedics union.

“This issue is solely about binding interest arbitration,” he said. “A lot of citizens didn’t understand the issue and that’s what this was about. The voters will decide this and we’ll continue to support our firefighter-paramedics regardless of the outcome.”

Councilman Dennis Dare pointed out the relatively light attendance at the open Mayor and Council meetings in an effort to defend reaching out to the town’s entire electorate to get the message out about some of the facts in the referendum issue.

“We’re sitting here tonight with 100 empty seats before us,” he said. “If you take away two reporters and a couple of family members, we’re down to six or eight members of the public. It’s important that we did what we did. This is a very important issue. The letter was clear and concise and said exactly what our position is.”

Town voters supported the charter amendment change by a 1,288 to 1,048 vote on Tuesday.

About The Author: Shawn Soper

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Shawn Soper has been with The Dispatch since 2000. He began as a staff writer covering various local government beats and general stories. His current positions include managing editor and sports editor. Growing up in Baltimore before moving to Ocean City full time three decades ago, Soper graduated from Loch Raven High School in 1981 and from Towson University in 1985 with degrees in mass communications with a journalism concentration and history.