(Sept. 14, 2018) By opining that county laws can’t be tailored to just one community but must apply countywide, the Worcester County Commissioners have blocked the effort to allow tattoo businesses to operate Berlin.

Nevertheless, the town’s Tattoo Ordinance Committee on Wednesday night vowed to keep pushing for change.

The catch is county law requires tattoo shops to be monitored for health and safety by a physician, largely because of Ocean City’s opposition to tattoo shops in the resort.

Berlin, however, petitioned the commissioners, who also serve as the county board of health, to create a legal exception that would allow tattoo shops in town to be monitored by the health department, a work-around approach the commissioners refused to do.

The committee of tattoo artists Matt Amey and Dana Helmuth, Town Council members Zack Tyndall and Dean Burrell, and resident Patricia Dufendach, spent several months drafting regulations that would have asked for that exception.

Committee members, who were also aided by Town Administrator Laura Allen and Town Attorney David Gaskill, repeatedly said the goal was to carve out that exception, and the Town Council in May voted 3-1 to back the effort with a letter of support to the commissioners.

After waiting several months for a reply, the town got its answer in an Aug. 23 letter to Berlin Mayor Gee Williams that said the commissioners declined to alter the law.

“Please be advised that at their meeting of Aug. 21, 2018, the Worcester County Commissioners reviewed your recent request for the County Commissioners, acting as the Board of Health, to modify the county law regarding tattoo establishments to regulate the health and safety aspects of tattoo businesses in Berlin and throughout Worcester County.

“After careful consideration, the County Commissioners are not inclined to adopt revised regulations in their capacity as the County Board of Health, which would then apply countywide, including all municipalities in Worcester County. However, we understand that you may choose to adopt such local regulations that apply only in the Town of Berlin.”

Worcester County Public Information Officer Kim Moses, in an email last week, said the legal matter was discussed during a closed session and the decision was “based on the advice of the County Attorney.”

Williams, in a statement emailed last Friday, said the county’s lack of support had likely doomed the effort.

“With the county’s decision to reject any revisions to the regulations to allow tattoo establishments in Berlin because they must be applied countywide, I believe this effort has come to an end,” Williams said. “From a practical matter it would be cost prohibitive for the town to establish and maintain its own municipal board of health.  This function is currently funded and managed by Worcester County.

“Given this decision, I don’t expect to see tattoo artists operating legally anywhere in our county any time in the foreseeable future,” he continued. “In light of this decision, I can’t imagine a majority of the Town Council wanting to take on both the legal liabilities and costs associated with creating and operating our own municipal board of health to oversee one type of business.

“With no place to go, I anticipate Berlin’s Tattoo Ordinance Committee will, unfortunately for now, go into sleep mode,” Williams said.

Amey, the committee chairman, suggested during a meeting Wednesday night that the commissioners didn’t understand the request, which specifically asked for an exception only for Berlin.

“They’re well aware,” Gaskill said, adding he spoke directly with County Attorney Maureen Howarth who told him it was her opinion, “That if the county acts as the county board of health, it applies everywhere in the county, including all municipalities.”

“I am led to believe, by that, they’re just not interested and they’re not going to do this,” Gaskill added.

Gaskill

Berlin Town Attorney David Gaskill on Wednesday said he believed a county tattoo ordinance was written in order to be prohibitive. “It was an economic ordinance … passed with the intent that no one would ever attempt to open a tattoo parlor,” Gaskill said.

Several times during the meeting, committee members pointed to hypocrisies in county regulations.

“Their excuse is that anything that’s done in one municipality basically affects the whole county, which it doesn’t seem to work that way with Ocean City, because they have their policy and their rules about tattooing, which does not apply to the rest of the county,” Dufendach said. “We were trying to establish the same sort of thing with us, where we establish our rules … why is it good for Ocean City, but it’s not good for Berlin?

“I don’t understand why they prefer to not address a health issue, which we have brought forward to them. Are they waiting for somebody to [get sick]? … Bad art isn’t a reason to complain, but illness is and this is a public health issue, and that is my reason for being here,” she added.

Amey said the nearly yearlong effort of the committee at present felt like “a waste of a lot of energy by all of us.”

“I agree and Laura [Allen] agrees,” Gaskill said, adding he does not believe the county ever intended to act on the matter, partly because the current county ordinance only allows tattooing if a physician or osteopath is present.

“Yet, they didn’t create any regulations for the health department to inspect – I don’t think they had any intention to, because what tattoo parlor is going to have a physician on staff seven days a week?” Gaskill said. “It was an economic ordinance … passed with the intent that no one would ever attempt to open a tattoo parlor.”

Tyndall said he was not willing to give up, and moved to continue bimonthly committee meetings and to recommend the town extend its moratorium against new tattoo businesses for 90 days beyond the current expiration date, in November. The vote was 3-0 in favor with two members, Burrell and Helmuth, not present.

In the meantime, Dufendach encouraged grassroots efforts.

“How do you get people to get their state or their county to move off an old idea? The old idea is that tattooing is bad and it’s harmful, and you wouldn’t want your daughter to do it,” she said. “Nobody thinks that anymore. Tattooing is beautiful, it’s incredible what people do and it’s a real art form.

“People want to spend hundreds and hundreds of dollars on it – why shouldn’t they be able to? Why shouldn’t they be able to right here in Berlin?” Dufendach added.

She also wondered aloud whether the county commissioners would become more flexible after the November election.

“Every one of them is up for reelection,” Tyndall added.

Josh Davis is an MDDC award-winning editor and reporter at the Bayside Gazette and Ocean City Today newspapers, covering Berlin and Ocean Pines, Maryland. He is the author of three novels, including 'Vanishing is the Last Art' (2012). He lives in Berlin.

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