OCEAN CITY — In the first real public forum on Monday since another “intolerable” unsanctioned motor vehicle event two weeks ago, it was clear nerves are still raw and tensions remain high, but there appears to be some willingness for reconciliation.
It was clear from the beginning during Monday’s Mayor and Council meeting most of the large crowd in attendance was not there for the mundane agenda. When it came time for the public comment period, many spoke out against the unsanctioned H2Oi event while others sought answers from their city leaders. For the first time, publicly at least, even some participants in the unsanctioned event made their feelings known.
The public comment session ran the gamut from fear and anger to distrust and resentment from both sides. Respect was a recurring theme and both sides appeared to offer olive branches and attempts at reconciliation. When the lengthy public comment period ended, one thing was perfectly clear, however.
Nearly every speaker said change has to come and will likely come although it remains uncertain in just what form. The Mayor and Council were scheduled to meet with legal representation and other city leaders in a closed session on Tuesday afternoon to begin discussing the city’s options. Some in attendance on Monday resented the options being discussed in a closed session, but there were certain legal remedies likely to be discussed to which the public is not privy at this point.
Locals Express Concerns
Whatever comes out of that closed session, and changes are brought forth going forward, local resident Rebecca Yates said the residents should get behind the proposed solutions.
“As a citizen, I encourage residents to support the council and the decisions they have to make to make Ocean City a better community,” she said. “I’m hoping we can move forward in a positive way.”
Local resident Harriet Pilert questioned what steps are being undertaken or will be to assure there won’t be a repeat of the weekend events two weeks ago.
“I would like to know what plan we have,” she said. “We’ve already heard they are coming back, maybe even this weekend to mess up Cruisin and I don’t think any of us want that.”
Pilert raised concern about the wording on the Special Event Zone signage, pointing out it essentially acknowledges the unsanctioned event as an official event.
“One of the things that bothers me is all of the signs say special event,” she said. “That tells them we recognize them as an event. They are not an event and we want them to go away. The crowds on the street were unruly, and I don’t know if we have enough resources to take care of it.”
Local resident Michele Knopp dismissed an earlier notion that the town of Ocean City and its police department and allied partners were somehow singling out the unsanctioned H2Oi event.
“I take offense when you say we’re not open to this group because we’re very open to all groups,” she said. “I believe we had nearly 120,000 bikes in town and there were little to no problems.”
Knopp related her own experiences as a resort business owner and resident.
“It seemed to really start getting bad about five years ago,” she said. “A lot of them come into the restaurant and they literally hang the tickets they have collected around their necks and brag about them. For the first time ever, I am nervous driving down the road and I have never felt scared in this town before. … I know they want to have a good time, but a lot of them just come here to cause problems. I know a lot of them hate the Ocean City police. When you come into town and have ‘F**K the OCPD’ on your car, that doesn’t go over well. Right now, we’re 10 steps behind and it seems like they are always 10 steps ahead of us.”
Local resident Sherry Hott pointed out the town has a task force whose primary objective is to explore all of the motorized special events, but the unofficial H2Oi participants have not been invited to have a seat at the table.
“The best thing I can put forth is forming a new task force with different types of people,” she said. “Maybe we need a couple of their people that are willing to come down here and sit with everyone to begin to pound out what we can do to stop these problems.”
Hott said like most of her neighbors, she doesn’t like the event, but questioned if there were some solutions available such as designated burnout areas and other alternatives.
“I personally don’t like all the cars, but if it is done in a safe manner, it is what it is,” she said. “Kids are going to have fun. If that’s what they think is fun, they are going to do it with or without your permission. Seriously, you need to do something to keep those guys busy if they’re going to come here.”
Local resident Martin Branagan spoke to some of the suggested options and said the respect issue cuts both ways.
“There has been talk about temporary speed bumps, but you can’t do that for just one event,” he said. “They know that and they have you over a barrel. One young man spoke about respect. When you see people bragging about can’t waiting to get here and breaking the law, respect is a two-way street.”
Branagan said one obvious solution bandied about over the last week is one that shouldn’t be explored until all other options are exhausted.
“A few years ago during the riots in Baltimore, the mayor at the time said give them room to destroy,” he said. “The only reason the city wasn’t destroyed is because the governor called in the National Guard. I don’t think anyone wants to see that happen, but that’s where this is heading if there isn’t real change. I said last year this event has gotten to the point that somebody is going to die. I have no doubt about that now.”
Unsanctioned Event Participants Weigh In
Heretofore, most of the vitriol from the unsanctioned event’s participants has played out through social media. During Monday’s public comment period, a handful of unofficial H2Oi participants had their opportunity to voice their concerns, which ran the gamut from anger and resentment to reconciliation and back to anger again. Local resident and event participant Patrick Jones said he witnessed an overzealous law enforcement community throughout the weekend.
“What I witnessed made me sad as an American,” he said. “I saw police brutality and people’s rights being trampled. I saw a kid tased for standing on private property. Another friend got arrested on false charges.”
Oddly, Jones’ comments appeared to attempt to make the event participants’ the victims in the issue.
“What I saw wasn’t right and it made me upset,” he said. “I’m a 24-year-old man and never has being an American meant so much to me as I watched people’s rights getting violated. It sucks coming into the town you grew up in and went to church in and being scared. I feared for my safety just walking down the sidewalk.”
Event participant Nigel James cleared the air about his, and presumably other event participants’, feelings toward law enforcement and the somewhat lawless element of the larger unsanctioned event.
“First and foremost, I support all local and national law enforcement,” he said. “I don’t condone the actions of those with the sole agenda to cause havoc and to disrespect law enforcement that I saw take place on the previous weekend.”
James then asserted the town’s enforcement actions and the subsequent special event zone has exacerbated the problem.
“This is a relationship that has both sides reacting to one another,” he said. “You have continued to push this group into a corner by elevating fines and targeting them. To quote E. Stanley Jones, ‘a rattlesnake if cornered will become so angry it will bite itself.’ That is exactly what the harboring of hate and resentment against others is — a biting of oneself.’”
James accused the town and its enforcement actions of being prejudiced against the unsanctioned event and it participants.
“This has been a concentrated effort of prejudice against a specific group,” he said. “This has been a strong desire to keep out people who might look different than you, or have different interests than you. These efforts have resulted in anger. What you don’t realize is this group looks forward to this event all year. Some of these people cannot connect to one another without this group.”
James pointed out Ocean City’s geography make the resort the perfect host for the unofficial H2Oi event and encouraged the city leaders to embrace it.
“It is a very unique town with a long stretch of highway for cruising,” he said. “It is a very unique place to hold this event, which is why the event in Atlantic City has failed. Floods and hurricanes couldn’t stop them from coming. Instead of fighting this passion, why are you not celebrating it and working together to come up with a solution.”
In a slightly less conciliatory tone, James said he was willing to work with the town on coming up with an amicable solution.
“I am not the mayor of this unofficial H2Oi event, but I did drive two hours tonight to stand up for something I believe in,” he said. “I believe we can sit at the table together and form a new task force and begin working to make this a win-win for everyone. Can we prevent all of the riff raff? Absolutely not, but we can work together to create an amazing event. Three years of initiating the special event zone and other actions including towing vehicles and giving out tickets at will have resulted in more and more people coming and more and more outlandish activity and disrespect toward the police.”
James offered many possible solutions for alleviating the tension during the event, including doing away with the special event zone, the elevated ticket fines and the towing of vehicles. However, he did not offer any solutions for the event participants to meet the town half way.
Elected Officials Respond
State Delegate and former Ocean City Councilman Wayne Hartman said the problems associated with the event have escalated and not gotten any better.
“I want to thank our police department and its allied partners for the job they did,” he said. “Frankly, I think the brutality they received I never expected to see in Ocean City.”
Hartman said he stood at the ready to work with his colleagues in Annapolis on behalf of the town.
“I am here to do whatever we can to help you,” he said. “The leadership in the General Assembly has reached out to me and I have already reached out to some of those folks asking for their support for whatever you decide that you need.”
Council President Lloyd Martin defended the decision to hold a closed session on Monday and said all the proposed solutions would be made public when the time was right.
“Everything is on the table,” he said. “We’re going to look at everything we can do to make this better for the people who live here and the people who visit here. We need to look at what we can do and then everything will come out front. We are very open to you.”
Councilman John Gehrig said the town should share the responsibility for what the unsanctioned H2Oi event has become.
“I want to personally apologize,” he said. “We have taken very little real action and you should hold all of us accountable. There is no question people are going to die. Lowering the speed limit on a gridlocked road is not a solution. Our hands are tied a little, but we should be bold. We should be held accountable.”
Gehrig then turned his attention to the event participants in the room and presumably those within earshot.
“I appreciate the car community, but it’s a respect issue,” he said. “You are not going to get some of these enforcement efforts to go away if you don’t respect the community. It’s embarrassing to the community and it’s embarrassing for you guys. I’m willing to jump in with respect, but it has to be reciprocated. You guys need to police yourselves, then we can start talking about working with you.”
Mayor Rick Meehan, who last week said the city was “under siege” during the event and said all options would be considered to find a real solution, reiterated his position on Monday.
“You all know where I stand,” he said “We’re going to work together as a team and we’re going to come back with some recommendations. This will not be forgotten or swept under the rug. It will be addressed.”