Time for Change
In the Sept. 4 issue of OC Today there were two articles, one on page 46 about the pending property swap scheduled to become a future water treatment plant in [Public Works Director] Hal Adkins’ ever changing public works plan.
The proposed water treatment plant was hatched by the council, once again, in closed session.
In the same issue of OC Today on page 48, another article instructing [Del.] Wayne Hartman to get an appraisal prior to purchasing a small 1,700-square-foot track owned by the city and adjacent to an apartment house on the corner of Judlee [Avenue] and 26th Street that Mr. Hartman has a contract on.
Mr. Hartman is a past council member of Ocean City, and is currently a delegate to the Maryland State legislature. Mr. Hartman says he is the owner of 27 rental properties in Ocean City.
Ever since I was a small boy in Ocean City, I understood that Maryland was known for its “backroom politics.”
Most of my life was busy with either business or family and I didn’t pay much attention to local politics until 2009, when I noticed the Laws property deal, hatched in closed session.
The town was in the early years of recovery from the severe recession of 2007 till 2009 and property prices were depressed.
The 1.9-acre Laws property on the bay at 64th Street was purchased by the town for $5 million for a “must have” waste water treatment plant.
Four months later, Laws took $2.6 million of the money and purchased a 3.2-acre superior parcel right on Coastal Highway and began to build a motel. That got my attention.
The purchase by Rick Laws of the 3.2 acres of road front property was roughly half the price and almost twice as large, confirming to me that the town had been fleeced an egregious transfer of wealth by the political class from the taxpayers to Rick Laws.
Many of those politicians are still in office and three are running for reelection, [Councilman Dennis] Dare, [Mayor Rick] Meehan and [Councilwoman Mary] Knight.
Today the Hampton Inn sits on a large 3.2-acre tract from 42nd to 43rd [streets] on Coastal Highway with the bay to the rear unwittingly paid for by Ocean City taxpayers.
Moreover, in the consent inquisition that accompanied the Laws sale the council allowed Mr. Laws to transfer his density to his new hotel property, bypassing all public hearings, which is rare indeed.
The rub is on July 3, 2020, 10 years after the egregious overpayment of the Laws property by the council, Hal Adkins stated in Ocean City Today that “the city did not pay a single dime for the transit-related portions of the campus project.”
At the center of the “transit related portions” rests the 1.9-acre Laws property.
Thanks to the meticulous work of Vince Gisriel, we are able to quantify the staggering costs of the Laws property to the taxpayers over time, as well as its change in uses from a “desperately needed” waste water treatment plant, to bus storage lot, then a garage and finally now a parking lot.
They are $5 million for the purchase in 2010, $2,064,000 for interest on the bond to finance the purchase and presently $1 million for the parking lot for a total of over $8 million plus closing costs and counting.
Much more than a single dime, Hal, wouldn’t you agree?
As a boy in Ocean City many of my heroes were residents or lived on the Eastern Shore.
In the 1950’s, there was the inexorable Charlie Holland who frequented our small carryout on 17th Street daily. Later in the ‘60s, we played midnight football games on Holland’s Island, ask Pete Wimbrow.
Then there was the humble reformer Dale Truitt, a Swift and Company salesmen, who was in our carryout three to four times a week.
Dale was also the mayor of Salisbury, a great guy.
In the late ‘70s, the ubiquitous Sam Taustin, another Ocean City pioneer, who allowed me to sit in his office at the Bonfire during a difficult period for me.
Of course, there was my father, Chris, who I penned a book on and, after he passed at the end of the last century, I was mentored by Brice Phillips, of the same cloth as my dad and lastly after the turn of the century King Burnett, what a wise man.
Some of the names may not be familiar to many readers.
Today the Open Meeting Compliance Board has been formulated to protect the public from nefarious “backroom politics” however the rub is clever attorneys have inked 15 carve-outs that, if invoked, allow politicians to go to the darkness of a backroom, denying the public any visibility.
Even when politicians are found guilty there is no consequence unless a prosecutor [chooses] to use the violations in a criminal complaint.
The pier property used to be where I played in the ‘50s and early ‘60s. There has never been a day when I did not consider the pier property the most valuable 6.5 acres in all of Ocean City.
When I confronted Mr. [Councilman John] Gehrig, who along with members Knight and Dare met for 18 months in closed sessions with Mr. Buddy Jenkins where they hatched the new 35-year pier deal, I asked Gehrig one question.
“As the landlord and representative of the town why didn’t you review the subleases Mr. Jenkins had entered into?”
My thinking was the council would never have agreed to such a ridiculously low-price, not to mention a 25-year extension if they had reviewed the many hundreds of thousands of dollars of subleases Mr. Jenkins’ company had put in place.
They would have known the price was too low.
When I asked Mr. Gehrig, he said “I was not supposed to look at the subleases.” At that moment my opinion of Mr. Gehrig’s business sense went down the drain.
I have never heard of anything so ridiculous where a landlord who entered into a lease with a tenant would not have the right to review and approve any sub-lease his tenant entered into.
In this case, a review of the subleases would have informed the members of the inadequacy of the monies they were being offered as rent.
I firmly believe that if the public were involved and other bids were sought the city would have benefited by two or three times the money it was offered in the Jenkins deal.
For example, Six Flags or a comparable company would have started the bidding at $1 million a year. So instead of the city getting $9.1 million over 25 years the city might likely have left $20 million to $25 million on the table, over the next 30-plus years.
On June 3, three attorneys on the Maryland Open Meetings Compliance Board found the Mayor and Council had committed egregious multiple violations of statutes of the Open Meetings Act.
Without a consequence the mayor and council apologized and promptly retired, once again, to the backroom to discuss their violations of the Open Meeting Act, a bit ironic.
Within a few days, they retired to the backroom yet again to discuss with MGH, our advertising contractor, the strategy of spending advertising dollars this summer, which ended on Sept. 5. Judging by the quality of our summer guests this season public hearings wouldn’t have hurt this year’s MGH advertising campaign at all.
Recently Mr. Gisriel requested the minutes from the 18 months of backroom meetings with Mr. Jenkins over the pier deal, the council refused to produce them causing one to wonder what they were hiding and bringing even more attention on the dubious backroom dealings.
Legal opinion was the members didn’t have to make the minutes public. Maybe it’s time to change the legal advisor to the city as well.
This is by no means a derogatory statement against either Buddy Jenkins or Rick Laws. They are both very good businessmen.
Mr. Jenkins contributes generously to fight addiction and is the largest donor to my children’s charity, Brian’s Christmas, named after my late son.
Transparency is a crucial underpinning of government oversight. It ensures the citizens’ right to know the whole truth about public issues.
Armed with adequate information, people can keep government accountable. Preventing the public from knowing the full reason for government decisions hinders effective oversight and accountability.
For responsive effective government sunlight is the best medicine. Time for change!