Ocean City Candidates Offer Pop-Up Rally Viewpoints

OCEAN CITY — The six candidates for the four open City Council seats along with Mayor Rick Meehan, who is running unopposed, weighed in this week on last month’s pop-up rally.

The Dispatch hosted on Tuesday a virtual town hall meeting (full video of the event can be viewed on the newspaper’s website) and posed questions to the candidates on a wide variety of issues, from the recent pop-up car rally event, the crime wave in June, expanding the police department, sports tourism and economic development and many more. The candidates also fielded questions submitted by the public.

This year, four at-large City Council seats are up for election on Nov. 3 and the field of six candidates includes incumbent Councilmen Tony DeLuca and John Gehrig along with newcomers Peter Buas, Nicholas Eastman, Daniel Hagan and Frank Knight. Incumbent council members Dennis Dare and Mary Knight opted to not seek re-election, guaranteeing at least two new faces will be added to the council next month.

The following serves as a transcription of the conversation on the pop-up rally.

The Dispatch: Ocean City was aggressive as ever this year with its stance on the pop-up car rally event in late September, seemingly trying to make coming to Ocean City as unpleasant as possible for those intent on wreaking havoc and breaking laws. New tactics were put in place, including heightened towing, more arrests, sudden road closures and a zero-tolerance approach to reckless driving. Did it work? What more should Ocean City do?

DeLuca: Four days in September. In June, I wrote an email to OCPD Chief Ross Buzzuro and to legal to have it vetted. It was entitled ‘Alternate Pop-Up Plan.’ It included things like speed bumps, road closures, single lanes and things that we tried this year in certain areas. We had some success this year. I feel that on Wednesday, Thursday and Friday, there was some success. Saturday was terrible. Next year, some of the solutions I want to test are some speed bumps on Coastal Highway at 33rd, 45th and 94th streets. SHA came to a meeting and told us that they would probably let us test a couple on Coastal Highway next year.

Also, I’d like to see us test some single lanes, every three or four blocks along Coastal Highway. My Saturday night plan is this. I’d like to close Baltimore Avenue from 10th to 33rd Street with no traffic whatsoever. I think each hotel and condo on Baltimore Avenue should add a security person on their lot. We did that at 48th Street this year. We had full-time security working and we had no issues. I also think that all businesses and hotels should sign up for the TEAP program. I know that many of them on Baltimore Avenue didn’t sign up. It gives police the authority to enter private property. I think those are some things we need to test next year.

Knight: From what I observed, law enforcement controlled the situation until Saturday night. Through well-managed policing, they brought the situation under control. Following social media, actually many members of the 80,000-member group were posting because of these tow ordinances and the increased fines and fees, they weren’t coming back, Believe me, most of them are coming back. The police did their job, the prosecutors are going to do their job, but we must hold the judicial branch accountable. Too often in court, a substantial fine of $1,200 is reduced to $50 and just a slap on the wrist, so we have to hold the judges accountable to carry out what our police officers and the state’s attorney’s office have done. I’m looking forward to hearing recommendations from the motor vehicle task force and the legislation that Delegate Hartman and Senator Carozza plan on submitting in Annapolis this year to further diminish the impact of this unruly crowd on our town.

Hagan: My stance on it was two different ways. There was a lot of crime and a lot of disruption. I also saw a lot of people getting pulled over for no reason. I also saw a couple of videos that were disturbing. You know, there are ways of handling people. As you know on a greater national scale, it only takes one incident and cities get looted and burned down. Ocean City cannot handle that. We have to have a plan. We know these kinds of crowds can come down here. We have to weed out the bad ones and keep the car enthusiasts here. I believe there were criminals and I believe laws were broken, but if a business or government cannot price gouge, then a local government cannot enforce $3,000 to $4,000 fines. I disagree with that.

I think maybe utilizing community service, cleaning up the beach. Hey look, you caused this damage, you caused this trash, now you’re going to go pick it up. I believe in strict enforcement and I stand behind the police. They had a hard job and worked long hours, but I believe they need to be prepared to handle situations like this without doing it physically, which should be a last resort. It only takes one bad incident and everything goes straight to hell. It’s a national thing. We need to focus on how to get better training for the officers and how we can protect them so at the end of the day, at the end of the evening, they can go home to their families because that’s what’s important- the community and them as well.

Gehrig: First of all, all of our public safety did an unbelievable job. That’s obviously the police, but the firefighters and paramedics as well. It’s almost an unfair fight if you want to call it that, but they did an unbelievable job. The Mayor and Council, our state legislators worked hard on this throughout the year, going to the state to get the legislation passed. We had an impressive showing in Annapolis and it allowed us to get some stricter enforcement from the state. From where I was in a Senate committee, we got a real reaction from those people. They didn’t really understand what it was like and now they’re starting to get a taste of it in other areas of Maryland.  We need to keep the pressure on the state.

Hey, this is the reality. We had some impact with the things that came out of the motor vehicle task force and our police chief and the city council and the tow ordinance. We definitely landed some blows. We didn’t get knocked out this year, but we certainly didn’t win a fight or anything. We need to look at how we can help the hotels make money alternatively and constrict the inventory and make it harder and more expensive for the people who cause us pain. We have to make it harder for them to come here and we have to fill up the city with the customers that treat us with respect and don’t require our police officers to put on body armor and riot gear.

Meehan: I think we did see some results of a lot of the hard work that has gone into the last three years. I formed the motor vehicle task force and we went to the state legislature to get legislation passed so that we could create a special event zone to increase fines and lower speed limits. It was done to address a number of things. It was done to address the Cruisin events that we had seen get a little bit out of hand, particularly in the spring two years ago. When we formed the task force, we had a lot of members and participants from the Cruisin event on it as well as the promoter and they worked with us. They went to Annapolis with us because they wanted to improve the events and with their collaboration with the Mayor and Council, those Cruisin events are really toned down.

Our mantra in Ocean City is that we invite everybody to come here. All we ask is that they obey our laws and be courteous to others. This wasn’t what we’ve been seeing from those who attended the pop-up event the last few years. I think the actions taken by the Ocean City Police Department this year really set the tone. The actions we took really deterred some of the problems on Coastal Highway. The problem then became the crowds, which is now something else we need to address. I think our police department and the allied agencies that worked with us did a terrific job. The goal is to discourage those who want to come here for all of the wrong reasons from coming. Remember, this event displaced Sunfest. We moved Sunfest that attracts 250,000 people, but the people who come for this pop-up rally still outnumber them, so we’re going to have to go a long way to bringing back Sunfest on this weekend and possibly adding some other events.

It’s a challenge and it will remain a challenge. The administrators of the website for this event actually took down the site. They were disturbed with some of the activities that they saw. I’ve actually had some conversations with one in particular and hopefully one day they agree we have to move out the bad guys and hopefully we can one day work with them in the future, just like we did with the Cruisin events, but we have a long way to go and a lot of work to do.

Eastman: I think what we saw over the pop-up rally weekend were some things that didn’t work. Personally, I don’t like the pop-up rally. I like cars, but I don’t like when people disrespect my town. That’s not something I want to see come here anymore. I have a few different ways that I think we can address this problem before it starts, one of which is the 80,000 people in the Facebook group. That’s something that needs to stop. We need to report them for cyber-bullying and make sure people are not posting videos of themselves doing illegal acts without being punished. When people see crime online, they might not even know it’s possible to come here and do these things. They’re from Baltimore or Annapolis or other parts of the state, or even from Pennsylvania or Virginia and they’re coming here with bad intentions from the beginning.

Another thing I would like to see for next year is, if we’re going to punish people, I think a much better punishment is community service. Anybody can pay the fine, but it takes a lot of work to pick up trash on the side of the road early in the morning. I just feel like if we do that, it’s going to discourage some people from coming next year.”

Buas: I live right down at 7th Street and Baltimore Avenue and it was chaos down there. With that being said, I have just a massive appreciation for the OCPD and all of the allied agencies. They endured so much restlessness. Those guys were verbally attacked and so many of their cars were damaged that weekend. It was a massive task to keep this town safe that weekend. More than that, I was equally impressed with public works. I walked out of my house on Monday morning and it was clean. It was incredible. They really got to work and got the job done. Did it work? Obviously, there is still a massive issue, but there are a couple of positives along the way. The police made over 250 arrests and towed 350 cars. They were out there using the tools from the reckless driving bill that really do what they could to get these guys off the street.

There is still obviously a lot of work to be done. There will be work to do until a family can come down that weekend and feel safe and have a good time. Families still can’t do that on that weekend. What more can be done? One of the major issues I saw from my front porch downtown you would have traffic blocked from kids blocking the street and the police had trouble getting from one hot spot to another hot spot. That caused a lot of problems, especially when you’re trying to get police vehicles down from 30th Street to 6th Street. So, building off Tony’s idea, I agree we should shut down Baltimore Avenue, but I would extend that from North Division Street all the way to 33rd Street. I’d like to see Philadelphia Avenue turned into two-way traffic so the OCPD can get from point A to point B quickly. The other thing I would like to see, any ordinance violations that result in a fine, I want to see those collected.

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.