Ocean City End-of-Season Status Report, 2011

Posted on September 19, 2011

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More than usual, it feels like something is ending in Ocean City this September.  But take this report with a caveat: Events and perceptions often appear distorted after a long summer season, to those who remain when the visitors go home.

This year, Hurricane Irene put an exclamation point at the end of the season.  Ocean City was fortunate to survive a nearly direct hit with hardly any damage. The eye of the weakening hurricane swept by offshore at low tide, or damage might have been worse.

For business, Irene was like a bullet in the head on the last weekend of August. A rare evacuation of the resort was ordered, and three full business days were lost.  Just what we needed at the end of another disappointing business season!

Summer 2011 was saddened by the passing of two of Ocean City’s most respected leaders — Brice Phillips, businessman emeritus and founder of the Phillips seafood empire, and City Clerk Kathy Mathias, a pillar at  City Hall. Mr. Phillips, in the business sector, and Mrs. Mathias, in the public sector, were the kind of people who put the “family” in Ocean City’s cherished but tarnished image as America’s best “family resort.”

Now comes the new four-member “majority” of the City Council, convening in closed session, and not on a regular meeting day, to make City Manager Dennis Dare an offer he can’t refuse. Resign or be fired. Mr. Dare, by all accounts a consummate professional manager with no known demerits, decided to resign. He had worked for Ocean City for 29 years, first as city engineer, then as city manager for nearly two decades. His experience and knowledge cannot be replaced.

The Council’s action, coming just after the Labor Day close of the summer season, leaves town government angrily divided. For the record, the decision to force Dare’s resignation was made and carried out by four members: Council President Jim Hall, and members Margaret Pillas, Joe Hall and Brent Ashley. This new majority is the result of last fall’s town election.

Mayor Rick Meehan, who has no vote on the council, strongly opposed the decision, along with Council Members Mary Knight, Douglas Cymek and Lloyd Martin. The result: a slim majority of four elected leaders imposed its will on the other four elected officials. The mayor called it a “lynching.”

“This was a vindictive move made without proper justification,” Meehan said in a letter to local newspapers.

I don’t know how much change is really needed, or who is right or wrong. However, experienced and prudent leaders in Ocean City should know better than to make hasty decisions, especially emotionally charged decisions, in August or September, at the weary end of a long business season. Better to take a few weeks off, and then start preparing for next season with a clear head.

The four council members who ousted Dennis Dare said they want to take the town in a “new direction.” But the shock of  losing the city manager at this particular juncture feels less like a “change” and more like an “ending.”

I’ll stop just short of the “end of an era” cliché.  The town is now without a city manager or a permanent city clerk, and the position of assistant city manager has been eliminated. The loss of leadership culminates several years of painful budget and staffing cuts.

Earlier in 2011, many of the town’s most experienced employees accepted offers of early retirement. And some senior police officers are scheduled to retire in October, if I’m not mistaken. The remaining town employees and police officers haven’t had a pay increase in three years. Department heads who reported to Mr. Dare are probably wondering who will be next to go.

The leadership vacuum comes as Ocean City faces daunting challenges. The national (and worldwide) economic uncertainty is reflected in local business. Seasonal tourist business has been flat or in decline for several years. Established businesses with repeat customers feel a pinch, but are not in danger. For marginal businesses and new businesses, survival is far from certain.

Hotel, motel, restaurant and retail businesses are only part of the local equation. Real estate values are down sharply from earlier in the decade, and who knows what the future holds. Real estate development is at a virtual standstill.

Maybe it’s all just a bit of stormy weather. But with Dennis Dare out at City Hall, it feels more like a permanent climate change. It looks like a bleak and bitter winter ahead.

— John Hayden

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