In Maryland, we have an Open Meetings Act which was adopted to provide that public business by local elected officials be conducted in the open and in public view.
While the law does provide for some exceptions, I believe the Mayor & City Council (M&CC) of the Town Ocean City have violated the law in the formulation and adoption of the recent Ordinance 2019-18, the “Pier Franchise” Agreement.
Under the guise of going into closed sessions for contractual matters, the M&CC dismantled the previous Pier Franchise Ordinance 1978-33, approximately 10 years prior to its scheduled expiration.
Over a reported 18 months of negotiations, the M&CC rewrote the new ordinance, particularly the financial terms, all behind closed doors. The public was kept in the dark.
The new ordinance emerged from behind closed doors on Nov. 27, 2019, just five days before first reading on Dec. 2, 2019, hardly enough time for public review and scrutiny.
While the Pier Franchise Agreement is similar to both a contract and a lease, it is in reality an ordinance.
We have other franchise ordinances in town such as the beach equipment rental franchise, the beach photographer franchise and the vehicle vending franchise.
Since 1990, there have been 41 amendments to those franchises adopted by ordinance. I have reviewed 16 of those amended ordinances that were adopted during my tenure as a city councilman.
During that time:
1) None of the 16 amended ordinances were formulated or developed behind closed doors. All were done in public view.
2) Vendors and bidders had the opportunity to comment on pending revisions and changes.
3) Bid amounts were revealed publicly and not negotiated behind closed doors.
4) Most important, the public was kept informed.
When the previous Pier Franchise ordinance was discussed in 1978, there are 24 pages of transcribed minutes that record the deliberations and actions of the then M&CC prior to final adoption on April 17, 1978.
Following the vote on second reading, the minutes reflect that there had been four months of negotiations, involving six public hearings at which the press was present.
Again, none of the terms of the new Pier Franchise Agreement were discussed in open session, prior to the first reading.
I have reviewed every single document pertaining to closed meetings reported by the M&CC from November, 2017 to December, 2019. They are available online on the town’s website.
Over that time period, the M&CC never once reported any topics, actions taken or votes recorded regarding the dismantling or rewriting of the Pier Franchise ordinance following the closed session, as required by the Open Meetings Act. That is also a violation of the Act.
The new pier franchise ordinance should be repealed and renegotiated in public. The citizens, residents and taxpayers of Ocean City deserve it.
Vincent dePaul Gisriel, Jr.