SNOW HILL – The Ocean Pines Association (OPA) can proceed with counting ballots after a circuit court judge this week ruled against granting a preliminary injunction.
In a hearing on Monday, Worcester County Circuit Court Judge Sidney Campen ruled to not grant a preliminary injunction halting the association’s 2021 board election for an extended period of time.
As a result of Monday’s ruling, the OPA will be allowed to count election ballots that were turned in last month. However, it remains unclear if the association will proceed with the count, or if votes for disqualified candidate Rick Farr will be included in the tally. A court hearing to consider his eligibility status has been scheduled for Sept. 27.
“We have not met to discuss the next steps,” Board Secretary Camilla Rogers said on Wednesday.
In July, Rogers disqualified Farr from the 2021 board election after receiving an anonymous tip about the candidate’s homeownership status in the Pines.
According to the association’s bylaws, candidates must be a recorded property owner within Ocean Pines on Jan. 1 of the year in which the election is held.
The OPA contends that Farr is not an owner of record, but a successor trustee to the property listed on his candidate application. However, Farr’s attorney asserts he has been the “equitable and beneficial owner” of the property since 2000, based on his status as a beneficiary of the Farr Living Trust.
On July 30, the Board of Directors voted in closed session to proceed with this year’s election and ballot count, but to invalidate all votes for Farr. Less than two weeks later, Farr’s attorney Bruce Bright filed a complaint in Worcester County Circuit Court seeking a temporary restraining order to halt the board election until the court could rule on his client’s eligibility. The case, he noted in his complaint, was not only filed on Farr’s behalf, but also as a class action on behalf of voters “disenfranchised by the Secretary and Board’s decisions.”
The temporary restraining order, which was granted a day later, prohibited the counting of ballots and certification of election results. And on Aug. 19, that order was extended through Aug. 30, the same day as a preliminary injunction hearing.
“We’re not seeking final determination on anything with this case today,” Bright said on Monday. “A continuation of the temporary restraining order in the form of a preliminary injunction is what we’re seeking.”
But Anthony Dwyer, the association’s attorney, said he thought it was odd to move forward with an injunction, when the case could be dismissed.
“You might next week be dismissing the case in its entirety,” he said.
During opening statements Monday, Bright noted that his client was an approved candidate at the beginning of this year’s election, and that ballots were widely distributed in the weeks leading up to the election deadline.
“Apparently on July 27 some information came to the attention of the board that called into question my client’s eligibility,” he said. “There was some due diligence. We don’t know all the details of that.”
Bright argued that Farr was a beneficiary of the Farr Family Trust, which owns the property listed on his candidate application.
“The beneficiaries of a trust, like members of an LLC, have an equitable and beneficial ownership interest in properties owned by the trust,” he said.
While the association’s declarations and bylaws included the term “legal or equitable,” Bright said the OPA focused on the phrase “owner of record.”
“Those are lowercase terms and they’re not defined anywhere,” he said.
Dwyer noted, however, that the plaintiff failed to mention the bylaws at the time he asked for a temporary restraining order. He also pointed out that Bright acknowledged Farr wasn’t a trustee until his mother died in May.
Dwyer explained Rogers, who as secretary is tasked with functions related to elections and referendum, used the Maryland Department of Assessments and Taxation website and saw a Richard Farr listed as the property owner, only to later learn it was the name of the candidate’s father. A review of county land records uncovered Farr was not an owner of record.
He added that Rogers’ decision was made in good faith, and that everything was done properly.
“They did the best they could,” he said.
While Campen did not rule or comment on Farr’s eligibility this week, a separate hearing has been scheduled for Sept. 27 to discuss the matter.
In the meantime, the association must decide if it will move forward with counting returned ballots. In a statement this week, Farr said all votes should be counted.
“There is no settlement agreement in the works,” he said. “All votes are to be counted by OPA and the judge hoped that the OPA would do the right thing. If OPA certified the election before the 27th and I am ruled eligible by the judge, this will create a bigger mess to this election that will need to be resolved. This is why the judge asked OPA to count all votes and do the right thing.”
(Staff Writer Charlene Sharpe contributed to this article.)