Ocean City Today

Council debates events’ impact on cop morale

Councilmen Dare, Hartman suggest weekend work one cause of OCPD staff issues
By Katie Tabeling | Sep 21, 2017
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(Sept. 22, 2017) What would have required the routine approval of a race and a half-marathon Monday night instead spiraled into a heated conversation about Ocean City Police retention, as members of the City Council argued whether assigning police officers to traffic detail for such events damaged department morale.

For months, councilmembers have expressed concerns with the difficulties of maintaining a complement of 105 officers. Seven officers left the patrol division between March 2016 and 2017, citing “quality of life” issues. The fiscal year 2017 budget included $45,000 to hire an additional officer, although some councilmembers advocated hiring three, one for each shift.

Councilman Dennis Dare said the council would have to consider ways to keep officers in the resort sooner or later, and suggested that one way to do that could be asking promoters to require less police involvement.

“We hear it time and time again, that they don’t get their time off. Some overtime is one thing, if they’re working a weekend once a month, but [police] work 24/7,” he said during Monday’s council session. “Lots of things happen on a weekend, like a wedding of a best friend.”

Dare singled out two events that require OCPD assistance: the Island to Island half marathon and the Sea Side 10/5K Halloween Fun Run. Both events ask police to assist with traffic control.

The memorandum of understanding for Sea Side 10/5K states that “OCPD shall provide officers and supervisors for a special order, detailing the race route and officer assignments, including one bike officer to lead the 5K.”

The race is scheduled for Oct. 26, 2019 and would require staff to be there from 6 -10 a.m. The Island to Island race, which runs from Assateague Island, across the Route 50 bridge to the inlet, would run from 7-10 a.m.

“When we approve something like this, there’s not enough officers on shift to do it. We need to think about this in the future, not just these two events,” Dare said. “If we’re going to make their lives better, this is something that has to be taken into consideration.”

Special events go through a vetting process that includes several department heads, including the police department, before it goes before the council. The city’s Special Events staff has had no complaints about the officer detail, according to Special Events Coordinator Lisa Mitchell.

Councilman Wayne Hartman, however, said that complaints he’s heard through the Police Commission paint a different picture.

“I can tell you we’ve lost officers for this reason, as we’ve heard complaints through exit interviews of leave being cancelled,” he said. “It’s not often I agree with a suggestion from Councilman Dare, but we should consider at least starting the half-marathon in Ocean City.”

Some councilmembers pointed out that having the Island to Island race end in Ocean City economically affects businesses, since runners stay to shop and eat at restaurants. Councilman John Gehrig was incensed that Dare and Hartman suggested altering longstanding events.

“We spend a lot of time talking about events and rebranding Ocean City, finding promoters that bring healthy, new ideas that bring people to town, and this is what we get,” he said. “We try to replace what we don’t want, and there’s always a reason why we can’t accommodate, when really, it’s just fear. Why would any promoter come here when all we do is kick them around?

“There are a lot of people who want a job,” Gehrig continued. “We’ll find the officers who want a job.”

Mayor Rick Meehan agreed with Gehrig to a point, noting the city’s longstanding relationship with race promoter Chris Klebe of OC Tri-Running.

“We can ask them to meet with us and discuss getting more volunteers for this. I agree with the overall issues in hiring officers, but I don’t think this is where you draw the line,” Meehan said. “This is the kind of event you need to encourage.”

Hartman said he and Dare wanted to work toward a compromise that would help the officers and OC Tri-Running.

“I don’t think anyone’s saying they don’t want the events,” Hartman said to Gehrig. “The best thing is when people have an open dialogue, and sometimes what’s proposed isn’t the best for everybody.”

“’Not the best thing for everyone?’ We don’t know if [officers are] quitting over working a morning detail over the weekend. Are we even serious about rebranding?” Gehrig said, thumping the dais. “We shouldn’t be messing with promoters, we should be making it easy for them and the crowd they want to bring.”

“I encourage you to visit Human Resources and see the exit interviews,” Hartman said to Gehrig.

“Then keep hiring,” Gehrig interjected, raising his voice. After a moment, he apologized for the outburst.

Meehan diffused the conversation by again recommending passing the events as proposed.

“I’m not sure this is an appropriate point of conversation, and we have the Police Commission thinking about how to maximize officer numbers,” Meehan said. “We can have a cordial meeting with the partner to reduce the impact on staff. It’s gone through the system, and I don’t see why it wouldn’t be approved.”

Ultimately, the two races along with the 2018 Komen Race for the Cure and Free State Corvette Weekend in 2018 passed unanimously. The council agreed to the idea of working with Klebe for event adjustments, even possibly moving the date for the Sea Side 10/5K.

“Just because you have a hold date in a MOU doesn’t mean it’ll happen,” Dare said. “This issue is beyond races.”

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