OCEAN CITY — While a relative calm has pervaded the resort, it’s clear the community is still smarting over last month’s unruly, unsanctioned motorized special event guests.
During the first Mayor and Council regular session meeting after the unofficial H2O International (H2Oi) event wreaked havoc in Ocean City again in late September, several private citizens and some event participants spoke out about some of the problems with the traditional free-for-all gathering. The Mayor and Council heard the concerns and scheduled a closed session the following day to begin exploring possible remedies.
For the record, the official H2Oi event, featuring tricked-out Audis and Volkswagens, for example, has been held in Atlantic City for the last two years. Also, there was nothing nefarious about the closed session, which apparently included discussions of legal issues and personnel deployments, for example, which fall under the parameters of accepted closed session topics.
Nonetheless, four weeks after the unofficial H2Oi event and two weeks after that rather contentious Mayor and Council regular session, it is clear the issue is still simmering. During the public comment period on Monday’s regular session, local resident Mike Collison asked the elected officials if they could divulge any of the possible solutions to come out of the Oct. 8 closed session.
“At the last council meeting, we talked at length about the H2Oi event and the following day you had a closed-door meeting to discuss some of the ways you planned to address that event,” he said. “I would just like to know if you are at liberty to discuss openly with the community what was discussed at that meeting and give us an update as to where we stand on that.”
Mayor Rick Meehan explained the general tenor of the closed session meeting and urged the public to give the elected officials and key staffers some time to work through some of the complicated issues.
“We did have a preliminary meeting with the Mayor and Council, the police chief and our attorney, and there were a number of things that were brought up, a number of things we need to continue to seek legal advice on,” he said. “We don’t want to take a shotgun approach to this. What we would like to be able to do is ask you to give us a little bit of time. There will be a second meeting and maybe a third before we can come back before the community and say these are the initiatives we plan to implement.”
Meehan said the issue was complex and urged the public to be patient as town officials work through it.
“We ask for your support and patience going forward and give us an opportunity to formulate some of these ideas and figure out what we can and cannot do so we’re not taking a shotgun approach to this and really addressing it comprehensively,” he said. “This is an issue we’ve never seen before. There are an awful lot of tentacles here and we have to figure out the best way to proceed.”
Collison said he understood the sensitive nature of some of the legal issues, but said he hoped there would soon be a time for the public to learn what the city is planning, and for the public to participate in the process.
“I understand that and appreciate that,” he said. “I would also ask, in addition to your closed-door meetings, that you allow the community not only to hear what your thoughts are but also present our own options.”
Meehan said there would be ample time for the community to weigh in.
“That’s the plan,” he said. “We’re going to come back to you and say here are what some of our preliminary plans are, take public comment and try to move forward with this.”
Collison harkened back to elements of the public discussion two weeks ago when some unofficial H2Oi participants told the Mayor and Council they felt they were being disrespected by the city during the event.
“One of the gentlemen spoke the other evening about how offended they were with the approach of the town of Ocean City and its police department,” he said. “They felt as though they were being attacked. I think it is important that the city as well as the community express to them they are welcome in Ocean City just like everybody else is.”
Collison asserted everyone is welcome in the resort as long as they arrive with a modicum of respect.
“We, as a community, are very welcoming to all visitors and guests provided they respect our town, respect our residents, respect our councilmembers and respect our police department,” he said. “As long as they come into town and are willing to do that, we welcome them with open arms. However, if they are not going to do that, we prefer they go elsewhere.”
Council Secretary Mary Knight said it was clear from the messages she continues to receive the issue is still very much front and center for the community.
“In the last two weeks or so, every event I go to and everywhere I go, people are coming up and giving me suggestions,” she said. “It is still very, very primary on everyone’s mind. We are still getting emails and suggestions and we are open to that. If you see us or call us, we’re very open to that because there are some good ideas out there.”
Councilman Mark Paddack agreed the elected officials were still getting emails and messages from concerned citizens, but also less than polite messages from some event participants.
“Since that event, the emails keep coming in and we’re getting tons of suggestions,” he said. “We’re also getting a lot of nasty comments from some of the participants. When I have responded to them, the common theme is exactly what you just presented to this council. Everyone is welcome to the town of Ocean City, but when you come here, you’re expected to follow the rule of law and be respectful to the community.”
Paddack said beyond the series of planned closed and open sessions on the issue, it would likely be discussed at length when the Mayor and Council begin broader strategic planning sessions.
“In two weeks, we’re going to have strategic planning sessions that are going to be dealing with everything in general,” he said. “Each of the councilmembers supplied some of the topics they want to discuss. I supplied only one — the unplanned flash mob of young adults acting like children. That was my one thing.”
Paddack issued a rather ominous warning the unofficial H2Oi event participants might change the dates next year.
“Next year, they are planning the event during Sunfest, and to me, strategically, that event needs to be protected,” he said. “This will be the 46th year for Sunfest. For me personally, my recommendation is to work really hard on this. We cannot stop people from coming to Ocean City. One of the suggestions is to simply stop them from coming to town. We can’t do that. The Constitution allows people to move around freely. We can make it a little more difficult and I believe we are going to be looking at every option to do that.”