Ocean City voters heading to cast their ballots in next week’s municipal election do not have a lot of choices to make, as the incumbent mayor is unopposed and there are only six candidates for the four open seats on the Ocean City Council. However, those facts do not mean this election is not important.
We understand this is not an entirely exciting election in Ocean City without a mayoral race and more seasoned council candidates with a superior familiarity with the town and issues facing it. Nonetheless, what makes this election unique is the balance of power on the council is up for grabs more than ever in recent years, thanks largely to tenured council members Dennis Dare and Mary Knight, who are often on the same side of issues, opting against running for re-election. With Dare and Knight off the council, the council makeup will be in for a major change, no matter who gets elected next week.
The current City Council is a divided group on numerous issues. Divided votes have been commonplace recently with this council. Last week’s vote on electric bikes on the Boardwalk illustrates the point in the most recent fashion. There was opposition to the prohibition of e-bikes from Councilmen John Gehrig, Matt James and Mark Paddack. They were outvoted by Council President Lloyd Martin, Knight, Dare and Tony DeLuca, who along with Gehrig are the two incumbents running to retain their seats.
However, there have been at least a dozen issues of consequence in recent years when the council decided major issues with either a 4-3 or 5-2 vote. In April of 2019, the council voted 4-3 (Dare, Knight and James opposed) on a new contract with the firefighters/paramedics union because they differed on the proposed hybrid schedule that reinstated 24-hour shifts, which were dropped the year before. One month later, a 4-2 vote (with James and DeLuca opposed) decided the town’s budget that set the property tax rate slightly above the constant yield level, meaning property owners saw a slight increase in owed taxes to the municipality.
Furthermore, for weeks in 2019, the council was embroiled in a stalemate over cell phone towers in residential neighborhoods. The vote was meaningless because the FCC said municipalities can not block the towers. It’s not just the weighty issues that divide this council, as another 4-3 vote (with Gehrig, James and DeLuca opposed) denied a bar owner’s request last summer to park a band’s tour buses in six public parking spaces. Last spring’s pandemic handling, specifically masks on the Boardwalk and sending the message for tourists to stay away, was also an issue that often divided this council, though the mayor held sway over most of those decisions by virtue of his executive power rights. One month ago, another divided 4-3 vote (with Dare, Knight and DeLuca opposed) lifted the Boardwalk mask requirement enacted earlier in the summer.
We offer this week’s endorsements after covering the incumbents over the course of their careers in office while also vetting the challengers through our town hall forum earlier this month as well as reviewing their backgrounds and qualifications and abilities to serve in a passionate manner.
Mayor: Ocean City Mayor Rick Meehan, who has held the seat since 2006, tops the ballot and is unopposed. After 35 years in elected office in Ocean City, Meehan remains a calm, influential and rational leader. In addition to his elected office experience, Meehan has been interim city manager for 17 months on two separate occasions. His dedication to Ocean City is unmatched. Meehan knows everything there is to know about city operations and puts forward admirable leadership during media spots representing Ocean City. In recent times, these media spotlights are not always positive, such as this week’s oil spill, the pop-up chaos of September, the June crime wave and some heavy decisions made during the pandemic. We believe Meehan deserves another term in office.
Looking ahead, the mayor has a lot to consider over the next two years. The time is coming soon for a new face to lead the town. He may be ready to hand over the leadership position he has held adeptly for more than three decades. We hope he is able to call his own shots and go out on his own terms when the time comes. We will see whether that’s 2022. In a situation akin to an accomplished professional athlete unsure of when to call it quits, we would prefer to see Meehan step away on his own accord rather than suffer a loss at the polls.
Council: John Gehrig is an idea man seeking a second term. He pushes hard. Detractors may say he drives with too much fury at times and is too blunt, but the fact is he’s passionate, driven and confident. He admits to not being a polished politician who always says the right things at the right time. We view that as a positive, however. The truth is sometimes tough to hear. He believes Ocean City needs to diversify its tourism industry. He’s right. It’s been a long time. The future of tourism in Ocean City needs to change. He knows the beach and ocean will always be our niche, but sees the value in sports tourism and selling Ocean City. His approach to improving some concerning elements of Ocean City such as June crime as well as the pop up weekend is to move them out through more events. “We have to sell our way out of it,” he said this month. Gehrig, an accomplished 25-year business owner, is known around the area through numerous leadership duties with the chamber and the paramedics foundation as well as coaching in youth recreation leagues. Ocean City needs a councilman with Gehrig’s resume as well as his ideals and passion.
Council: Six-year Councilman Tony DeLuca brings a wealth of business experience and professional acumen to the council. He’s retired from 46-year as a corporate employee for the owner of the Taco Bell/KFC brand. He’s lived in Ocean City for 12 years but was a frequent visitor for many years beforehand. This residency coupled with his perspective as a visitor for decades equips him with a unique view of Ocean City. During his six years on the council, he has become known as the “bike guy” due to his desire to see a safe bike path throughout Ocean City. He’s also a “green guy,” as the leader of the town’s green team committee. We like DeLuca’s independent mind and willingness to go against the majority. During a conversation about June crime last week at our town hall forum, he said he was for trying a Boardwalk curfew during the trying month. He also proposed closing Baltimore Avenue during the pop-up rally. It’s these bold ideas and strong will that merit a return to the council.
Council: Local attorney Peter Buas is suited well to be a successful councilman. Born and raised in the area and working in his family’s hospitality business before obtaining his law degree, Buas has the life experiences and professional background to be an immediate success on the council. It’s been many years since Ocean City had an elected official who grew up in the town and matriculated through early life here. His only time away from Ocean City was for higher learning. In the town hall we hosted earlier this month, Buas was the most succinct with his comments. He can articulate his views clearly with an obvious depth of thought. His legal background will also help on the council. Buas brings two unique backgrounds to the council – an attorney and born and raised local. Those are two intriguing perspectives within one person that have not been on the council in decades. We think Buas will make a tremendous councilman and deserves to be elected to his first term.
Council: Frank Knight is prepared to be a productive elected official, having attended council meetings routinely for seven years and lived in Ocean City for 25 years. The desired council seat swap with his wife – who opted against re-election after 14 years – is unorthodox, but it’s clearly been planned. Knight’s familiarity with the town through his service as a town code enforcement official and member of the Board of Port Wardens and on the street performer task force provides him an opportunity to step in to a council seat without a need for orientation. As a retired business owner, he possesses the time and energy to devote to the demanding responsibilities of serving as a council person.