OCEAN CITY – Seven of nine City Council candidates were approved by the Mayor and City Council Monday night while former Councilman Joe Hall and newcomer Philip Ufholz’s residency and domicile requirements were challenged.
Monday evening at 5 p.m. was the candidate filing deadline for this year’s municipal election to be held on Nov.4. During Monday’s Mayor and City Council meeting, City Clerk Kelly Allmond announced a total of nine candidates had filed to fill four open council seats, and Mayor Rick Meehan filed for re-election and will be unchallenged.
The only incumbent to file for re-election for council is Council President Lloyd Martin, who has been in office in 2002. Councilman Brent Ashley, elected in 2010, and Councilwoman Margaret Pillas, elected in 2006, have decided not to seek another term, and last week Councilman Joe Mitrecic submitted his resignation as he runs unopposed to represent Ocean City on the Worcester County Commission. Mitrecic served on the council from 2002-2010 and after losing in 2010 was elected back to the council in 2012.
The nine candidates running for council are Martin, Joe Hall and Joe Cryer, Tony DeLuca, Wayne Hartman, Matthew James, Christopher Rudolf, Philip Ufholz, and Nancy Bolt, the only female candidate who filed on Monday.
Ashley made a motion to approve the list of candidates and Pillas seconded the motion.
Following the motion, local attorney Jay Phillips, representing the Citizens of Ocean City group, challenged the residency of Hall and Ufholz.
According to the Town of Ocean City Charter, to qualify for election as Mayor or City Council the candidate must be a qualified voter in the Town of Ocean City, and must be a resident of and domiciled in the corporate limits of the Town of Ocean City for four months preceding the election, which in this case is July 4.
“We feel that they do not meet the test, which is set forth in the charter … and that is they are residents and domiciled in the State of Maryland, Ocean City for the requisite period of time,” Phillips said. “We are doing this because we want to make sure the candidates that are put out there for the voters to consider are people that meet the criteria of the charter, and then the voters will have the opportunity to vote as they please.”
City Solicitor Guy Ayres suggested the council approve the candidates not being challenged and the council schedule a public hearing for those making the challenge and those being challenged to present their case.
“The individuals that are being challenged have the right to rebut what is being offered against them to show they are residing and domiciled in the city,” Ayres said. “Remember, you can have multiple residences but you can have only one domicile.”
Ashley offered an amendment to his motion to approve the candidates not being challenged and to schedule a public hearing for Hall and Ufholz whose residency was being challenged. Pillas did not amend her second.
“I will not amend my second because it implies that these people are not registered voters and it implies they do not live here. You are giving people the impression that these people are not legitimate, and I do not believe so. Certainly, Joe Hall has lived in this town all of his life,” Pillas said.
According to Pillas, who reviewed the 2008, 2010 and 2012 voter roll, both Ufholz and Hall voted in the past three elections.
“Worcester County says they are residents because they allow them to vote here in all three elections, so that proves they are an active member of this community,” Pillas said.
Phillips asserted because Hall grew up in Ocean City and both Ufolz and Hall voted in the past three elections does not provide enough evidence to qualify residency and a domicile in Ocean City four months prior to the election.
Hall moved to North Carolina sometime after the 2012 election and in October of 2013 began working as a banquet chef at The Speedway Club in Concord, N.C., according to his Facebook page, which also indicates he started working at Johnny’s Pizza in Ocean City in August. His move south was reportedly to be closer to his children who moved from the resort area to North Carolina with his ex-wife. Prior to finishing in seventh place in 2012, receiving 806 votes, Hall had served 10 years on the council.
“I will second the amendment because I think that when we have people who have taken the time to come down here to challenge then the candidates have the right to sit in front of those people and state their case. I will definitely second it as long as we have a speedy hearing for these two candidates,” Mitrecic said.
Councilman Dennis Dare said he was glad to have citizens step forward to run for City Council despite negative ads run by an incumbent during the 2012 election and scathing comments made towards the council by certain citizens during weekly meetings.
“I am just glad there is citizens who want to expose themselves to that kind of behavior,” Dare said. “On the other hand, I also feel strongly that those people who do come forward to serve need to be fully invested in the community, and I think that is the intent of the code. I, too, question those two candidates as well, and I agree it needs to be speedy because if they can prove that they are qualified, time is of the essence.”
Martin offered scheduling the public hearing for Friday.
“Basically you are shorting them a week to put ads in the newspaper while everybody else will be able to do that. That is unbelievable. Joe Hall has served on your council here for years,” Pillas said.
Mayor Rick Meehan responded it is not about advertising campaigns but following the righteous process, to which Council Secretary Mary Knight agreed.
“If the two being challenged feel strongly and believe in their candidacy and their domicile here, they will put their ads in the paper and know that they will be accepted,” she said. “The paper has nothing to do with it. I believe in the process. I believe in our charter.”
Pillas stated she would not be available to attend a public hearing on Friday at 1 p.m. In turn, Martin offered Thursday at 2 p.m., and although Ayres is not available the council agreed to hold the hearing at that time, hoping assisting City Solicitor Heather Stansbury would be available.
The council voted 6-1, with Pillas opposed, to approve Martin, Cryer, DeLuca, Hartman, James, Rudolf and Bolt as eligible candidates in the 2014 election and to hold a public hearing on Thursday at 2 p.m. for the challenge of Hall and Ufholz residency and domicile.
“I would hope during these next few months we look at our code. I think four months of domicile is utterly ridiculous. It is not enough time to say that you are invested in this community. It should be a year minimum to me in my mind,” Knight said.
Ayres reminded the council the 2016 elections will be conducted by the State Board of Elections and in the next two years the Town of Ocean City will have to update their charter to abide by State requirements.
“That gives ample time to have that discussion and make charter changes,” Ayres said.
On Tuesday, the city reported that Ufholz’s challenge would be heard on Thursday at 2 p.m. but that Hall’s public hearing would be held on Tuesday at 4 p.m. because he would be in North Carolina. Interestingly enough, the Ocean City AARP Chapter is hosting a forum from 5-7 p.m. for all Mayor and Council candidates.
Yesterday afternoon, after considerable testimony and comments, Ufholz was denied as a candidate by the council in a 5-2 vote, with Ashley and Pillas opposed.
At the hearing, Phillips questioned specifically the regulation within the code stating, “to qualify for election … must be a resident of and domiciled in the corporate limits of the Town of Ocean City”,
Besides reviewing several case laws, and the definitions of “residence” and “domicile” in relation to Ocean City’s code, Phillips primary piece of evidence was Ufholz’s State Department of Assessment and Taxation (SDAT) form.
According to the form, Ufholz’s Ocean City address is not listed as his primary address. An address in Bethesda is listed as the primary address as well as is the address where tax bills are to be sent. The form is dated Sept. 24, 2014.
According to Ufholz his family purchased the property in Ocean City in 1975, and when he retired he became a permanent resident in Ocean City in 2008, although his wife remains a resident in Bethesda.
Ufholz provided an Ocean City senior bus pass, a driver’s license with his Ocean City address listed, his voter registration code being a registered voter in Ocean City, where he has voted in the past three elections, a letter from a neighbor stating he has been a permanent resident in Ocean City for the past six years and a copy of his most recent State of Maryland tax return listing his Ocean City address.
“As far as I am concerned, I don’t think Mr. Ufholz has proven that he resides here in Ocean City … it comes down to the SDAT as far as I am concerned,” Councilman Joe Mitrecic said.
Dare added, “He says his vehicle registration is in Ocean City and he receives his mail here but we have not seen any proof of that … and I know his utility bills are actually sent to Bethesda but he stated that he receives them here. However, on the other hand he has presented his tax return and driver’s license with this address, and he voted in the last three elections. So I am trying to weigh whether that documentation meets the test of totality.”
Ashley made a motion to approve Udholz as a candidate in the 2014 municipal election but only had Pillas as a supporter.
“I would like to point out that its participation that counts and a lot of towns around here have trouble even getting candidates,” Ashley said. “Here we have people who want to participate. If you want to weigh things out I think the evidence for Mr. Ufholz is far greater than against.”
Knight made a motion to deny Ufholz as a candidate in the 2014 municipal election and the council voted to approve with Ashley and Pillas in opposition.