It's time to let Ocean View citizens have their say


This past week was Thanksgiving week, and it is only natural at this time of the year to take account of our blessings. I, for one, am glad to live in the beautiful little town of Ocean View, where – absent the bustle of summertime traffic on Route 26 – things are quiet, peaceful and harmonious, and people are focused at this special time on the welfare of others, selfless acts of kindness and the fellowship of man…

Well…

OK. Not so much.

Though in recent months I have continued to get questions and comments from residents of other towns on the seemingly endless political tempest in Ocean View, I have a hard time imagining what this situation must look like from the outside. Embarrassing? Spectator sport akin to the worst of reality TV? An out-of-control mustang flailing about in an effort to remove its burden and, as a result, putting everyone in the vicinity at risk of becoming a casualty?

I know what my neighbors are telling me, what they’re asking me. They’re baffled. How did things get to be so bad? How much worse can it get? Is the council listening to the citizens at all? What are the motivations driving the various parties? Can any of them be trusted to work for the best interests of the citizens of Ocean View, rather than on personal agendas and personal power plays?

I wish I had some of these answers. At least then I’d have an idea when – and if – and maybe even how things will work out.

Goodness knows my call some months ago for finding a compromise or center stance on these divisive issues for the sake of the town and its people was largely ignored, no matter how many have told me – and continue to tell me – they agreed with what I said back then.

And in the intervening months, things have only gotten worse. Despite what might be suggested by the recent compromise on the police reporting hierarchy, any hope Ocean View citizens had of a resolution of controversy and a cessation of hostilities over these issues when they went to the polls last April has been exhausted.

Indeed, it seems that many who voted in hopes of bringing about such a reconciliation deceived themselves or were deceived that a restoration of civility was what they would get. I’ll admit that I’m among the guilty there, and I couldn’t tell you which of those things was the case. The end result is the same.

So why the continued heated tempers and passionate defense of the various positions on these issues? Well, that’s easy enough to figure out. Everyone has different agendas and goals, and they’re important enough to those people to fight it out – nearly literally, unfortunately.

There’s no question that many in the town love Chief Ken McLaughlin as a stand-up guy and devoted, professional protector of the town and its citizens. He inspires loyalty in his officers and in most who deal with him.

And I think anyone would be hard-pressed to place blame on a police chief for trying to get the best equipment, pay and perks for his police officers. He knows you get – and keep – the best officers by offering them better than they can get elsewhere. Most successful managers know this to be true. And the chief’s not considered one of the best in the state for no reason.

While purse strings have been tightened in Ocean View since the public safety building and its future-ready design were approved, anyone seeking to punish the chief or his department for a prior council’s approval of spending requests needs to reconsider who’s really taking the hit for the punishment they’d like to mete out.

The chief, for sure… His officers, definitely… The nearby residents who might have obtained a little extra safety with a presence of an Ocean View police car in a neighbor’s driveway, sure… The other town employees who have gotten caught up in the battle… The volunteers who have given of their own time to try to help the town and our neighbors…

And let’s not forget the citizenry at large, who not only have to deal with reduced morale at town hall and from their police officers but who have to acknowledge that their town has become a spectacle. There are plenty of people who can’t bear to attend council meetings anymore, for the acrimony displayed so readily there or out of fear of what will be said or done, and even have to worry about possible criminal complaints if they address their council members too vehemently.

As I warned the mayor back in April, police are now needed to protect the partisans and innocent bystanders in a dispute over the police. There’s irony enough there to make its own story.

But the greater irony seems to be that while efforts to make cuts to the town’s public safety budget may have saved some on the bottom line, the very same people who have so devoted themselves to rhetoric about fiscal responsibility are very eager – perhaps even meriting the term “desperate” – to throw money at a minor space shortage at town hall, right now, and, to perhaps a lesser degree, a modest need for better housing for the town’s public works department. That rush continues, despite very vocal opposition from a significant number of the town’s taxpayers.

Let me make this plain: We can’t go back and take a few hundred thousand dollars from what was spent on an award-winning public safety building and re-allocate it to public works and town administration. The building was designed and its construction is complete.

As much as we might like, in hindsight, to have spent a little bit (or a lot, depending on your point of view) less, we can’t chip off a few rooms and end up with what some might consider a better apportionment of space and funds, like chipping a corner off a gold coin. In fact, only by spending a lot more – not $50,000 or $100,000, but even more than that, when all is said and done – do we even accomplish the kind of retroactive change that some might have liked to have seen in the first place.

Notably Ocean View taxpayers had considerably more say about the design and cost of the police building in advance of its approval than they’ve been given about the relocation of town administrative offices and the construction of the public works building, with multiple meetings and hearings held specifically on that subject, outside of regular council sessions.

This recent rush to approve a contract for one portion of the work that will be needed to reconfigure the public safety building and to site a new building on existing town property that it may not be well suited for – and is, indeed, opposed vehemently by nearby neighbors and many others – is also noteworthy.

It suggests a conscious effort by the current council majority to ensure that the changes they would like to see are made irrevocable by the time the citizens have the ability to state their wishes on these issues in a way a council member cannot contravene – at the polls in April.

If it were otherwise, there would be no such rush, no offhand rejection of reasoned pleas to put all significant capital projects on hold until the current economic situation has had more time to become clear in its impact on the town or even to turn itself around.

No, if they approve a portion of a contract for construction to start before April and have made significant changes by the time voters go to the polls, perhaps even a council with different views will be reluctant, or even unable, to reverse course to what the citizens might prefer. And if they didn’t fear the outcome of that election would reverse their decision, they would be willing to wait that long, even if just to prove by virtue of the election results that they had popular support all along.

It’s logical, politically astute and utterly disproportionate in its impact on the town’s long-term future for what could turn out to be a one-year majority on the council as a direct result of such votes. But I guess if you can’t go back and undo the work of years with a wave of your hand, the next best thing might be to make changes in that direction that will be as much irrevocable as you can make them in the time you have power.

The base of the problem here, now, is not just this rush to costly change in a time when the town was supposed to be aiming at a more conservative handling of its capital spending but the impression that this council – the mayor and Councilman Wichmann aside – leaves with the public that it does not care how many citizens publicly state their opposition to these actions.

I can’t count the number of times I have been told that a silent majority approves of the votes by these three men. Now, I’m told this silent majority is remaining silent because they’re scared.

But while I’ll credit some may actually fear harassment after the shameful and off-the-charts reactions of some people with a stake in these issues, I have a difficult time believing that so few of this oft-touted majority have taken a second to speak to one of our reporters, our editor, publisher or myself, or to anyone we know – off the record, anonymously and in private – about their feelings on the issues. (If you’re out there, please do come talk to us…)

In fact, of all the people who I’ve personally spoken to in the more than half a year since this controversy was freshly stirred, I can count only two who told me they fully agreed with the council’s actions. The proportion of exasperated citizens to proponents of those actions is staggering.

I can accept that people may only be comfortable confessing their opinions to people they know feel similarly. But as a proponent of a civil middle way, I’ve found in the last six months a consensus only of those dismayed by how three council members have treated their peers, a respected police chief and his officers, taxpayer dollars and the citizenry at large.

The exception to this rule has been concern about the actions of some of the members of the Citizens Auxiliary Patrol, though those CAP members, themselves, are the exception to the rule. That the entire program – a standout in the state, head and shoulders above the rest – became a casualty of this debacle is yet another shame for the town to live down. Throwing out the baby with the bathwater, indeed.

I can’t say as I blame CAP members for their decision to resign. In reading the changes to their operating manual that council recently adopted, I was shocked at how it appears to limit their involvement in town politics and even their right to free speech. If I were a volunteer in an organization where I couldn’t personally campaign for anyone running for any political office without ceasing to serve with that group, I’d find another group to belong to, too.

Very little is so precious in this nation as our right to free speech, as little as the content of that speech seems to mean to some of the Ocean View council. It’s more a shame that that right itself seems to mean so little here as well.

People put up signs on their own property, expressing opposition to the town’s location in its new historic district for a proposed new building to house heavy equipment, and those signs quickly get removed – though it was later labeled a “miscommunication.” Taxpayers call their council members to voice objection to their official actions and get threatened with harassment charges. You lose your temper and toss down a piece of paper near a council member, and the police are called.

What’s next? A rule outlawing all public statements of opposition to the council’s actions? No signs or displays of any kind in our own yards without formal approval in advance by the town? I wish I thought that was something that would never cross the minds of this council.

But while the current council majority appears to be occupied with trying to stifle or ignore public opposition to their agenda, they might want to try one idea: listen to what the people are trying to tell you. You’ll rarely get voted out of office or be asked publicly to resign if you really listen to everyone. In fact, I think that’s a great idea: listen to everyone!

It’s easy to do. Just put things on hold for a month or so, take a few of those dollars you’ve been spending on in-house studies and outside counsel and officially survey every citizen of Ocean View as to how they feel about these issues. Let them respond online and by mail, just as Bethany Beach is planning to do on the issue of widening their boardwalk – something I’d say is no bigger an issue to that town than these issues are in Ocean View.

Do Ocean View citizens really want town hall to move in above the police facility? Would they prefer to expand the existing town hall? Or perhaps reconfigure it? Would they rather wait on any capital expense for more administrative space until the town has more revenue coming in?

Would they like to again offer to lease some of the police space to various other police agencies, to garner some revenue for the town for space that will be used by its own police in the future? Would they like to again explore partnering in policing with Millville?

Do they want a new public works building? Do they want it right now? If they do, do they think it should go on the proposed property or somewhere else?

While we’re sending out a survey, how do they feel about trying to save everyone some money with a municipal trash hauling contract? Or encouraging recycling on a townwide basis? I’d even be interested in knowing if they think the town needs a youth program. I’m told many don’t, but Councilman Mitchell seems to think it’s a much-needed feature for the town. I’d like to know if others think so, too.

When all is said and done, how much of the strife, acrimony and off-the-handle actions could be – or could have been – eliminated in the town if we just sat back and did an honest assessment of how the citizens really feel about the issues?

I won’t suggest they rise to the level of a referendum, but putting the decisions in the hands of citizens on such major and long-lasting project as the location of the town administration and public works would seem to be an idea that can’t go wrong. Let the town – not three men who inherently represent the citizens less accurately than their collective opinions – determine its own future.

This isn’t just about asking citizens to OK spending $50,000 to add office space for a couple people (or $100,000, or $300,000). It’s about whether the council is really representing the citizens of the town when they make these long-lasting decisions on their behalf. If the council wants to prove they really are taking part in a representative democracy rather than an oligarchy, it’s well past time for them to make a decisive step to prove that the town really is behind them.

Given the open opportunity to speak their minds like that, citizens can longer be labeled as silent, nor the vocal left to feel ignored. And that, I think, will go a long way toward restoring the town of Ocean View to civility and respectability. I’m more than ready for that to happen. What about you?