Wichmann censured despite support

Ocean View Town Council voted 3-2 on Tuesday to censure Bill Wichmann, despite overwhelming public support shown for the councilman at the meeting. Mayor Gary Meredith cast the deciding vote to censure Wichmann for 12 charges related to the violation of town procurement codes, organizing a cover-up and threatening a town employee.

“I found that extremely tough,” Meredith said of his vote, calling Wichmann a good friend. “I voted for it hoping that this will put an end to this fiasco.”

Councilmen Roy Thomas and Eric Magill also voted for the censure, while Wichmann and Norman Amendt dissented. Thomas sent a letter to town officials on July 5, announcing his intentions to call for censure of Wichmann on 11 charges related to the procurement and installation of the backup generator at the temporary police station.

A charge regarding threats allegedly made over the phone by Wichmann to Town Manager Kathy Roth was added before Tuesday’s meeting.

At the meeting, Thomas read the 12 charges over sighs, people mumbling under their breath, and Wichmann’s supporters occasionally interrupting the first-year councilman, shouting, “resign from your council seat; do you want this filth in our newspaper?”

Some even laughed as Thomas read the charge about alleged threats made to Roth in a phone conversation. At one point during Tuesday’s meeting, Thomas turned to Meredith and asked, “You can’t hold order?”

Threats to Roth

After learning of Thomas’ intentions and receiving his letter on July 5, Roth had called Wichmann — who had been on vacation and was thus unable to answer claims made by Thomas to both the Delaware Wave and Coastal Point — and told him of the charges.

Roth said that during the phone call, Wichmann told her to “wear body armor” to Tuesday’s meeting.

“I want to let you know that I do feel threatened by his comments and the tone of the conversation,” Roth wrote in the memo to town officials dated July 11. “I am fearful that his behavior may escalate to an uncontrollable or violent state. Based on Town Council’s history of inaction to incidents of hostility and aggression, I feel compelled to go on record concerning this threat.”

Wichmann said Tuesday that his comments were taken out of context; that he said “we should wear our flack jackets on Tuesday” and meant it as a figure of speech. Roth didn’t have any further comment about the situation.

The alleged cover-up
By his own admittance, Wichmann violated town code by personally authorized the nearly $16,000 installation of the backup generator at the temporary triple-wide police station off Central Avenue without receiving other bids, consulting the town or obtaining a purchase order.

The move translated into an unsafe installation of the 130 kw generator, according to the manufacturer and an inspector, that jeopardized the town’s receipt of DEMA funds, almost caused a lawsuit and put the town in a financial bind of having to hire inspectors and engineers to evaluate the situation.

“Here’s my mistake,” Wichmann said at Tuesday’s meeting, “I said, ‘How long will it take to connect (the generator)?’ I should have said, ‘I need to go get a purchase order.’ It was not on my mind at this time.”

Thomas, through one of the charges on Tuesday, contended that Wichmann asked Ocean View Chief of Police Ken McLaughlin to request a purchase order for the installation after the work had already been completed, to cover-up the violation of town code.

McLaughlin responded on Tuesday, saying that the request with his name was sent by his secretary to Roth after receiving the installation invoice. Roth denied that request in an April 11 memo addressed to McLaughlin, writing: “We would be happy to process the purchase order you’re requested … but we cannot do so until we receive written proposals from at least three vendors.”

McLaughlin said his staff handled the purchase order request as “business as usual” and he never even checked the invoice.

“In this instance, Bill Wichmann did not request I get a purchase order,” McLaughlin said Tuesday. “The invoice came to my secretary and the secretary handled it as business as usual.

“You didn’t even know what was taking place at your building?” Thomas asked, also asking McLaughlin if he would realize if someone was painting the building without a purchase order. “I find it difficult to understand the thought process.”

Wichmann, talking about the alleged cover-up earlier, agreed with McLaughlin.

“I don’t know what else to say. I failed to get the purchase order,” Wichmann said. “But I didn’t attempt a cover-up. I didn’t attempt to strong-arm anyone.”

The reaction

Though Thomas said that there is a “silent majority” in the town in favor of a censure, no one on Tuesday spoke in support of Thomas. From the beginning of the meeting, Wichmann supporters petitioned Meredith for time to talk, sighed in disbelief during the proceedings and spoke in favor of the now-censured councilman.

“Mr. Wichmann didn’t do anything criminally wrong,” Frank Twardzik said. “I think this is a travesty of justice. This is a joke.”

Others in attendance Tuesday seconded Twardzik, calling the “attack” on Wichmann an embarrassment and a disgrace.

“This guy didn’t commit murder,” said Kathleen Brendel. “I’m embarrassed by what I read in the Coastal Point. It’s like a hanging jury. I’ve never seen anything like this before. I can’t wait to see Friday’s paper.”

Twardzik, Brendel and others questioned Thomas’ motives for sending the motion to the local newspapers — the Coastal Point and the Delaware Wave — while Wichmann was on vacation. Stories without comment from Wichmann ran in both papers last week, creating much uproar at the meeting.

“I’m not sure what Thomas’ motives are,” Wichmann said. “But (the censure) is not something that’s going to make me quit. If anything, it’s going to make me work harder.”

Thomas — despite seemingly having little to no public support and after being personally called a disgrace and an embarrassment to the town – said that Tuesday’s meeting was a “victory.”

“Tonight was a victory for honest and open government,” he said. “But the town paid a high price.”

“Tonight three council members voted to conduct business as legally established and said there will be consequences if you don’t,” Magill added. “The other two voted to continue violating the law,” he said pointedly.

Vote to dismiss\

Tuesday’s motion to censure was nearly struck from the agenda before Thomas announced his charges at the meeting. At the beginning of Tuesday’s debacle, Wichmann motioned to strike the censure motion from the agenda and was seconded by Councilman Norman Amendt.

After that vote lost 3-2, both also voted to instead handle the business in executive session, against the advice of the town solicitor. They again lost that vote, however, with Meredith casting the decider. Despite conflicting feelings, Meredith said that Wichmann should “accept blame” publicly and take the censure, which he called a “slap on the wrist.”

“Unfortunately, I think some things have been blown out of proportion,” said Meredith, who was taunted after casting the deciding censure vote. “I think he was overzealous in trying to get something done from the town. Unfortunately, he did some things wrong.”

But, the mayor added, “I think some things were added to the fire by putting things in the paper. I think that was an attempt to dishonor Bill Wichmann.”