In a move that surprised some, enraged others, and all but rocked the town government, the Ocean City Council voted 4-3 on Friday morning to ask for City Manager Dennis Dare’s resignation.

If he doesn’t resign by close of business Friday, he will be fired.
Dare was not present at the special session held Friday morning at City Hall, but his wife Elizabeth was in the second row, fighting back tears before putting her head in her hands in disbelief as Council President Jim Hall read the wishes of the council majority calling for an end to Dare’s 29-year tenure with the city.

Dare declined to comment, as he is being advised by his legal counsel as to his next move, but said he would speak out on the council’s decision “when the time is right.”

Hall said Dare had done a “wonderful job” over the years but his only explanation for what many are calling a hasty and harsh move was that the council majority wants to “move the town and the management of it in a new direction.”
Mayor Rick Meehan responded to Hall’s sentiments after the meeting, “It’s a new direction alright.  It’s taking this town backwards.”

An unscheduled meeting was called late Thursday night where the first steps of this plan were allegedly discussed behind closed doors.  At that meeting, Dare, and City Solicitor Guy Ayres were not invited to attend, which is unusual practice at City Hall.  But, when the council reconvened Friday morning, there were almost 80 angry residents, business owners and tax payers in the room demanding explanation for a big personnel move with very little explanation.

“We don’t know what’s going on, and it’s terrifying as voters”, said Patti Miller, “when the question is asked, ‘why’, there is no answer or explanation and it’s been happening since day one of this new council majority.”

And this “new direction” the council majority wants to take the town in is no secret, although the specifics of that direction have yet to be revealed.  As Friday’s meeting wrapped, Joe Hall, Margaret Pillas, and Brent Ashley all darted for the side door all but ignoring questions and comments from the public.
After essentially running after them to get a comment, Pillas and Ashley declined with non decipherable  grunts before ducking out the door of City Hall, while Joe Hall simply stopped and said in a deadpan voice, “we have been very clear since we took power that we have an agenda, and this is a step in that agenda”, he said, “we are headed in a new direction in Ocean City.”

Yet, the reasoning or even the need for such a direction change is being questioned and scrutinized, as Dare was instrumental in holding the city’s constant yield tax rate throughout the recession ravaged economic landscape of the region.  His “rightsizing” budget cuts trimmed millions from the city’s bottom line, helping the town to flourish, albeit slightly, in a time when other competing resorts up and down the East Coast were seeing double digit declines in visitors and revenues.

“(Dare) has been the backbone and stability of Ocean City”, said Dr. Leonard Berger of the Clarion Fountainbleau Resort; “we have the largest surplus that we’ve ever had, in a time when many city and state governments are running deficits.   This is not a time for change, this is a time to consolidate, work harder and make sure the economics and the financial stability of this city are sound.”

Council Secretary Lloyd Martin echoed Berger’s remarks, saying that the town should not be shaking things up when things were going as well as they have been. 
“This is a sad day in Ocean City”, he said.
Since Brent Ashley beat former council President Joe Mitrecic in the last election by 24 votes, this new council majority has been shaking things up, eliminating the Tourism Commission in lieu of a Tourism Advisory Board, refused to vote on or for some city matters until the town agreed to restructure salary and benefit packages for new employees, and there have been accusations of private meetings and pre-determining their votes outside of City Hall.  Last fall, phone records of the council majority were pulled and researched finding that in some cases, they were conversing on their city issued cell phones for long periods of time.
This meeting to eliminate Dare, who is the highest paid town employee at almost $170K a year, also was shrouded in secrecy, as Mayor Meehan claims he wasn’t notified of either meeting, half-jokingly stating that he found out about it “on Facebook.”
Ironically, some residents who voted for this new majority are recalling their campaign platforms that promised transparency, and crying “foul.”
“They ran on the platform of the sunshine law of transparency and they came in from day one with an agenda”, said Miller, “and began disassembling key parts of our city government that are en-route to changing something that is so successful, and that is so irrational.”
And reports coming from the backroom of the council chambers seem to indicate that there was very little explanation or discussion about the move to oust Dare either.
Councilmembers in the room on Thursday recall Jim Hall simply stating the wish to terminate Dare, and calling for a motion from Joe Hall and Brent Ashley with very little discussion.  Reportedly, when there was a call for explanation, Hall replied, “I have four votes, I have the power, and I’m going to do what I want.”

Now, questions are arising on not only where this new direction of the council is going but also, where it’s coming from, as some have claimed the marching orders for the council majority’s strategy are coming from outside city hall.

“We don’t want a renegade council that are being influenced not by the facts or the successes of records and staff that they are trying to get rid of, because this agenda is being created by some other outside force”, said Miller, “we are questioning the dark room behavior of council members we as taxpayers voted in.”

But despite the accusations of back door politicking, power struggles, and differences of opinions in town strategy, the fact of the matter here is that Dennis Dare’s reign in Ocean City may be coming to an end.  The terms of his release do, however, include his full pension, retirement, and full pay until the end of the 2011.

However, Dare has a contract with the town of Ocean City.  It was drawn up in 1996, and automatically renews itself each April, unless the council calls decides not to renew.  That being said, Dare is under contract with the town of Ocean City until April 2012.  Sources say there is no buyout clause on the contract, but the town’s charter states in C-1001 that “the city manager will be appointed by the Council and serves at the council’s pleasure.”

Mayor Rick Meehan will assume the duties of the City Manager, as per the town’s charter, until the position is filled.
Meehan said late Friday afternoon, that he disagrees with all of what happened on Friday,  but especially the fact that a legal matter involving a contracted city employee was done in a swift and secretive way without the proper paperwork in hand (Council President Jim Hall said he “was unaware” of Dare’s contract) and without the presence of City Solicitor Guy Ayres, who was in Baltimore throughout the whole process.

“This is not something you would expect to happen in a very small, friendly, and successful community, and it seems like it’s only being done to appease personal egos”, said Meehan.

So in the eyes of many living in this coastal community, the cataclysmic event that many predicted would happen with Hurricane Irene, seemingly happened two weeks later, as the council majority altered the town’s direction in a smash and grab power move, cutting ties with one of its most dedicated public servants, and now are comfortably in the driver’s seat, facing less opposition to drive as fast they can in some unknown direction, while the public sits in the backseat, blindfolded, wondering where it is that Ocean City is actually going.  
Editor's Note:
ShoreBread is a coastal lifestyle magazine.  We bring to light stories that impact the lifestyles of those who live here.  The decisions of Ocean City's elected body without question influence those who reside here, own businesses here, and down the road, vacation here too.  We thank Special Correspondent Bryan Russo for his contribution.
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