OCEAN CITY — With the municipal election looming next Tuesday, the six candidates for the four open City Council seats along with Mayor Rick Meehan, who is running unopposed, sat down for a virtual town hall-style forum last week to express their views on a wide variety of issues facing the resort.
The Dispatch hosted the virtual town hall meeting and posed questions to the candidates on several topics. 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. Meehan is unopposed, but participated in the forum as well.
The two-hour-plus forum can be viewed in its entirety on The Dispatch’s website and YouTube channel. A sampling of the questions posed to the candidates ran in last week’s print edition along with another batch this week. The following is another segment:
The Dispatch: June was once again a major challenge for law enforcement in Ocean City, including one stretch when 15 guns were confiscated in nine days. It was a dangerous time. Ocean City Police Chief Ross Buzzuro said a key point from his perspective is ensuring the police have the necessary support. He told the Mayor and Council in June, “There has to be changes. It can’t be on the backs of law enforcement. It’s a holistic effort.” What do you think Ocean City should be working on this off-season to prevent the crime wave of last June from occurring again in 2021?
Knight: In June, all the elements aligned to create the proverbial perfect storm. We were still mostly locked down from COVID. No bars were open to absorb these young adults that came to town. Unemployed people had an extra $600 added to their regular unemployment paychecks. There were no J-1s in town, so their rooms were unused and there were rentals for $50 a night. So they came to Ocean City and they found the Boardwalk was the only place for them to hang out and we know that didn’t end well. Unless we see large spikes in COVID, I don’t think that same scenario is going to repeat itself next year, but we will still have two weeks, so we have to repurpose those two.
This goes to the economic development director and sports tourism. We have to sell Ocean City. We have to sell June. We have to pack June with events and gradually squeeze out high school graduates and the criminals that come down here to prey on them. We have to fill Ocean City with families. As far as next year, I know the police are working on this. I know they’re going to do a great job. Some people have asked where were the police that we had in September. Why weren’t they here in June? They weren’t here in June because they were out working in Dorchester County and Somerset County and Wicomico County and we didn’t call on them to come here in June. We had 107 police officers on duty and they did a heck of a job, but they can’t be everywhere at once on the Boardwalk. Maybe we can repeat some of the things we did during college takeover week a few years ago and during these troubling times, we can have officers in those nice day-glow green vests at every block on the Boardwalk. That’s the best I can offer at this point.
Hagan: I was up there. I created an email for the residents and tourists and I had a massive response. I did a two-part video on my YouTube channel. It clearly shows I was up on that Boardwalk when a crowd that got bigger and bigger was literally coming down the Boardwalk. Families were behind me running. When the police and public safety aides tried to get control, they overpowered them. It was like 150 to two and their lives were in danger. Obviously, the horses in danger and there are videos of that. As I said before, these people do not care about ordinances. They are doing crime and they don’t care about anything. Everybody said we had officers in other places. I totally respect that, but the thing is when the police are outnumbered, it’s hard for them to do anything and we have to make sure they are protected too. They’re over in the Monte Carlo parking lot jumping on cars. The same crowd did the same thing over at 8th Street. It’s like their hands were tied and nobody said anything. The tourists were saying I reached out to the council, I reached out to the governor, I reached out to the mayor and nobody did anything. That’s the kind of hell I’m talking about.
I’m going to go to battle. I’m going to go up there when that type of thing is taking place. We need to figure out a plan that is going to be executed and not be afraid, because just like all around the country, if we back down, they are going to come down here and they’re going to burn it down. They have proven that they don’t care. Unless the National Guard with military orders comes down here, they’re not going to stop. No matter what we do, this community cannot handle the hell that these people bring. No matter how many officers we put up there, they’re lives are going to be in danger. They have shown they don’t care about anybody’s lives or property. These people have proven that they don’t care. Baltimore City is a prime example of what they can do. We do not want Ocean City to be a bunch of abandoned homes and businesses. This is a family community and families deserve better, the voters deserve better and we do not need to put officers’ lives in danger. We need a more aggressive plan to handle this situation.
Gehrig: We’ve had bad June’s, but this was the worst June I can remember. Last year felt better. I thought maybe we were turning a corner. Whatever reason was, and yes there probably was a perfect storm this June, but we can’t assume it’s going to go away. We can also assume the bad guys have discovered Ocean City, so we have to assume they’re coming back. We can’t enforce our way out of it. That’s dealing with the symptoms and not the problem. Some people say it’s the seniors, but it’s not really the seniors. I’m going to use this analogy. You know, I was a senior and graduated from high school and came here and acted like a fool, but I didn’t get arrested or thrown in jail or had guns confiscated out of my car. Most of the seniors are just normal people like me and now I’m here living in Ocean City with my family and I have a business and hire employees, and I’m a councilman and involved in the community and that all started with me being a senior and having fun in Ocean City. I wanted to keep coming back as I grew up. We have people who prey on these seniors. We have this pure, innocent plain full of gazelles running around and hopping around and having fun and then a lion stumbles upon them and got some easy meat. He went back and told all the other lions, and now we have a bunch of lions in our plain. It’s in June, but it can certainly spread.
We’ve dealt with other issues at different times of the year with enforcement, but we have to deal with the lions and what they prey on. I’ve been saying this for the last four years on the council, but this goes back to when I was president of the chamber of commerce. We have to sell our way out of it. Sales isn’t sitting in a chair, sales is being out on the streets. For my family, our big vacation is June. When the kids get out of school, we pick them up, we throw the bags in the back of the car and we’re off. We’re built for that, you know, being three hours away from 50 million people. We built for being that school’s out celebration spot and I think we need to go sell that. We need to really open the city up and welcome K through 12, not just 12. We need to fill the city up with second- and third-graders and sixth-graders and kindergartners and 10th-graders. We fill it up and we get the hotels to sponsor schools and we have banners and movies on the beach and we repurpose our family beach Olympics and create competitions with other schools. Then, we get the kids to put pressure on their parents. Hey, Tommy is going to the beach or Tommy is going to Ocean City and so is Jimmy, so we have to go to the beach. Then, they come here for three or four days, or maybe longer. So, from the middle of May through the third week of June, we can be filling our city with families, but it takes sales to do that. We need a salesperson to go out and press the flesh, strike these deals and work with the hotels.
Sports is certainly part of it. It’s a big tournament time and that can certainly be part of it too. Even if we did fill it up, the gang members, aren’t going to go away. You know, they’re here to hook up with girls, they’re here to sell their drugs and steal and terrorize. They’re not going to go away the first year or two, so there will be a transition period where we’ll have families on the boardwalk with gangs. So, we’re going to have to have enforcement measures. We may need to close the Boardwalk. A lot of the staff members who work on the Boardwalk are terrified when they get off work, so we might have to close the Boardwalk early. The bad guys won’t listen, but at least the good guys will, and then we can keep our eyes on them in one place without having any innocent people. So anyway, economic development is our way out of it, for sure. We can beat it. We have the market, we have the location, we’re made for this. We just have to go attack.
Eastman: The June crime I hope was an anomaly that had a lot to do with coronavirus, government checks and a pent-up energy from being locked up in houses for so long. I always like to prepare for the worst and hope for the best. What we saw in June, that’s what prompted me to run for city council. I know I can make a difference in this area with my degree in criminology. I think I learned a lot in school that I could apply to Ocean City and make our town a lot safer. Ocean City south of 32nd Street has been declared an economic opportunity zone and people need to be held accountable for that. This issue is a lot bigger than just June. What’s occurring is there are vacant properties, there is trash on the ground, there’s loud music in June. These small crimes, unattended houses, this is when people think they can take advantage of our city and hurt us, for lack of a better term. What I would like to see is for us to implement the broken window theory, much like Rudy Guiliani did in New York City, which was continued by Mike Bloomberg but unfortunately was totally disregarded by the current Mayor Bill DiBlasio. If we did that, it would a long way to making June a place for families and making this a town I know we all want to live in.
DeLuca: I support the long-term repurposing of June with a really strong event and with our new marketing VP. I was on the strategic plan group in 2017 and we talked about it all the time. We kind of talked through this whole thing and presented a plan that’s finally coming to fruition. But until that happens, I have a view that’s not supported by many people. I really think we need to test a curfew on the Boardwalk after 11 p.m. in the four weeks of June.
Buas: The first thing we need to recognize is this is not a new phenomenon. This June crime has been building for years. Of course, this year is exceptional due to COVID and federal assistance and just general unrest. In that spirit, I think it’s equally important we recognize that this problem is not going to get solved overnight. We’re going to have to make incremental changes over the next couple of years to actually get this fully under control. This building behavior is actually threatening the viability of the visitors we actually want to bring to town. I think we need to improve in a couple of areas. The first would be presence. This presence includes police officers, but I think it also includes public safety and public works. So, we need to make sure we’re giving all three groups the tools they need for success.
An interesting example from a couple of months ago, the OCPD presented a request for a utility vehicle that would be used on the beach. It’s actually a pretty cool looking utility vehicle, but the argument is they can get from point to point pretty quickly. That was denied for budget concerns, which I can certainly appreciate, but I think we should have approved that. Frankly, I think we should add a couple more. What I would like to see happen downtown, when I’m talking about presence is the OCPD, but really also public safety on the streets serving three main purposes. One is keeping an eye on the community, making calls when there’s an issue. Two, making sure the community stays clean, especially downtown. Three, downtown is a great spot for our tourists to visit. Any questions? Talk to a public safety officer, directions, attractions, all that kind of stuff. They serve three specific assets.
In addition, I want to see an infusion of full-time residents, especially downtown. I think we can also figure out a way to incentivize primary home ownership. And more than that, we can also figure out a way to incentivize year-round tenancy. I don’t think it has to be home ownership. When people live in the area full-time, they take care of the community. They make calls and when there’s an issue, they watch out for their neighbor. That’s the type of stuff we need to be encouraging. I also think we need to sell June. I think we need to get someone on the staff that sells to the events that bring the people we want into June and fill it with the right people. And then naturally, the people we don’t want here aren’t going to come anymore because it’s a family-friendly sort of environment and they don’t have fun.
Meehan: I agree with a lot of what’s been said by everybody that has spoken before I did. You know, one thing we need to remember is we lost all of our events. We lost the Maryland State Fireman’s Convention, we lost the MML convention. We lost our beach soccer tournament, we lost the air show and we lost the Raven’s beach bash. We lost all of those events, and that is one of the reasons that there were so many rooms. On top of the fact that due to COVID, many of our visitors that would normally come decided not to travel. That created a vacuum and that was part of the problem, so hopefully as we turn this corner, we’re going to get those events back and that, in itself, will make a huge difference, but you’re right. We need to continue to look for those types of events, expand some of those events, sporting events in particular that time of year. It doesn’t have to be just here if you look at all of the availability of fields we have. I know we’re talking about building a sports complex, which I certainly hope we do, and I hope we work with the county and do it right. But if you just go over to West Ocean City and you look at all of those beautiful soccer fields behind the church, if you look at Northside Park, if you look at the other schools and all of the fields in Worcester County, we have the ability now to host those types of tournaments. That’s what we should be looking at because those are great types of business because families come with their kids that are on a team and it multiplies the number of visitors. So, I hope we really do concentrate on that.
I do want to say something about enforcement. You know, it was a really difficult time, not just because of COVID, but because of what was happening around the country. Unfortunately, the world around us has changed and Ocean City is not immune to all of those changes. But what I can tell you, contrary to what I have heard is the OCPD never stood down. The OCPD stood strong and they prevented some of those problems that we saw from expanding and becoming the same type of problems you saw in other areas. We didn’t have those types of problems, but we always have to be cognizant that could happen, but they didn’t happen here and I think the Ocean City Police Department should be recognized for that. We’re going to have a good plan in place. We can’t take for granted that just because some things are going to return to normal, that a number of these individuals are not going to return and we have to be prepared for it. Public safety should be our number-one priority always, We want people to feel confident when they come to Ocean City. We want to make sure when they come here, they feel safe and they feel comfortable to go out and about. We have a big job ahead of us and we have a challenge. That’s what we’re going to have to concentrate on the rest of this winter.