Council tables vote on disbanding ethics board

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OCEAN CITY — Proponents for keeping the city’s ethics board won a large victory on Thursday evening as City Council decided to table a vote on an ordinance to disband the local authority.

After hearing a number of residents speak out in favor of the board at the Feb. 9 council meeting, Mayor Jay Gillian asked for a 10-minute recess where he pulled aside Council President Michael Allegretto to discuss his suggestion to table the ordinance. Upon returning from the brief recess, Gillian said that he wants the residents of the city to know they were heard.

He asked council and Allegretto to table the ordinance and reinstate the members of the board so that it can resume business.

“I’ve always gone by my gut and I’m not comfortable,” Gillian said.

Allegretto asked council to vote on tabling the ordinance; the vote was unanimously in favor.

The attendees of the meeting applauded the decision.

Following the meeting, Allegretto explained that the board, which has not had a quorum since the beginning of the New Year and therefore has not been able to meet, will be able to resume working after council appoints one member at the next meeting. The other two vacant seats will be advertised for and appointed at a later date, he said.

Solicitor Dottie McCrosson said that the ordinance would not only eliminate the ethics board, but also remove the code of ethics from the city’s code book.

“It also removes from our administrative code the ethics code, which is provided for in the state law,” she said. “It would not be relevant in our administrative code anymore.”

Public employees are still accountable under the state ethics law, she said.

During public comment, residents asked that council not move forward with eliminating the board.

Ed Price said that the Local Finance Board, which is the state authority that handles ethics complaints, is inefficient. Price said he has gone to the local finance board on two occasions before the city started its own board.

“Two different occasions, the local finance board would not deal with a complaint that a citizen had,” he said. “I’m really asking you to reconsider that vote.”

Steve Schmidt of West Avenue said that the ethics board is the best way to maintain accountability.

“The problem is, how do we hold people responsible?” he said.

Schmidt suggested “some sort of license” may help solve the problem, like a drivers license. He said that when you make someone accountable, they will mind their actions.

“While there may be nothing unethical about eliminating the ethics board whenever you like,” Steve Cole of Oxford Avenue said. “It seems to me that there is an appearance of some chicanery or deception … going on behind our backs.”

Cole said, “when you were elected, the citizens of Ocean City placed their faith in you,” but by eliminating the ethics board, council is betraying that trust.

One resident, who did not identify himself, asked that City Council table the vote and put it on the ballot as a nonbinding question.

Jim Rybicki of Asbury Avenue, a member of the ethics board, thanked council for giving him the opportunity to serve the city.

“I doubt anything said tonight will change your minds. I get it, I think we all get it,” he said. “I don’t agree with it. I think it’s shortsighted.”

Rybicki said that the Local Finance Board is “woefully understaffed” to deal with the complaints that comes to it. He said it “defies common sense” to believe that complaints from Ocean City are going to receive the appropriate attention they deserve.

“Since being appointed to the board, I’ve talked to a number of concerned citizens,” he said. “They sought me out. They formally expressed a number of concerns.”

Rybicki said the common theme was that the residents are frustrated.

“They feel that the heads are shaking, but no one is listening to them,” he said.

Julie Baumgardner said that she talked to members of the Local Finance Board, many of whom are former politicians.

“Politician policing politicians; I don’t know how beneficial that is,” she said. “We need our local ethics board.”

“If you’ve been listening to your constituents you will find a way to keep the local ethics board,” she said.

Jim Tweed said that if the state could provide effective oversight at no cost to the local taxpayers he is all for it.

The issue with the local ethics board arrived in late 2011 when a request for several thousand dollars appeared on the council agenda. At the time, council members wanted more information on why the ethics board needed about $15,000. Former ethics board Chairman Stanley Pszczolkowski explained that the money was for an attorney for litigation the board was involved in due to an appeal of its finding against Lifeguard Operations Chief Tom Mullineaux.

City Council decided to not reappointment the members of the board whose terms had expired as the conversation about the viability of the board moved forward. In January, Allegretto placed an ordinance on the agenda to disband the board so council would make a decision either way on the board for budgetary purposes.

“This is a way to move that discussion forward,” he said at the Jan. 26 council meeting.

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