Ocean City Today

Task force has fewer options than it thought

Chief Buzzuro explains legal limits on what can be done to restrain vehicle events
By Greg Ellison | Dec 21, 2017
Photo by: Greg Ellison Bob Rothermel of TEAM Productions presents ideas to address concerns raised over the Cruisin’ classic car gatherings during the inaugural meeting of the Motor Events Task Force at the Roland E. Powell Convention Center last Thursday.

(Dec. 22, 2017) Talking tough about making life difficult for showoffs during Ocean City’s vehicle events is one thing, but being especially tough within the confines of the law and state regulations is another, Police Chief Ross Buzzuro explained to the resort’s new Motor Events Task Force last Thursday.

Buzzuro’s clarifications and advisories came during a three-hour discussion at the 27-member task force’s inaugural meeting at the convention center.

“Our position is we don’t have a position as far as the future of the motor events,” Buzzuro said, referring to suggestions last month from the Police Commission and members of the public that these rallies ought to be banned outright.

Those recommendations collided with the business community’s vocal support of motor events when the City Council in November was set to discuss the commission’s findings.

That eruption led to the creation of the task force, as well as some hypothesizing about what might be done to end dangerous driving whenever car events converge on the resort.

The most troublesome of these rallies have been Cruisin’ Ocean City, Endless Summer Cruisin’, OC BikeFest and the unsanctioned H2O International, which Buzzuro said all require an exceptional amount of assistance from allied law enforcement agencies.

He estimated the cost for the heavy police presence at the four events totals more than $866,000.

In response to the myriad solutions tossed about by numerous parties, including soliciting support from the National Guard, Buzzuro said legal limitations must be considered.

“The National Guard isn’t a possibility for us,” he said. “The governor would make the decision. In my career experience, there’s only been a handful of times the National Guard has been introduced, lastly in Baltimore in 2015.”

Another suggestion made by officials and residents was that troublesome drivers could be charged with reckless endangerment, but Buzzuro also discounted that approach.

“Reckless endangerment is a law that is criminal in nature and does not apply to motor vehicles,” he said.

Considering the preponderance of cell phone videos of burnouts and other road safety violations shared on social media, others wondered if the police could take a similar approach.

“There are literally hundreds of violations simultaneously taking place,” Buzzuro said.

“We prioritize enforcement and time management … we have enough to keep us busy.”

Buzzuro also told task force members if a bystander were to record a video of something significant, it would be investigated, but otherwise enforcement of garden-variety traffic offenses would be challenging.

“Most of our motorists are not from Ocean City,” he said. “That person has to be cited in person, — you just can’t mail them out citations.”

Buzzuro also cast doubt on the idea of arresting troublesome spectators for loitering, because that can involve constitutional issues, such as the right to freedom of assembly.

“It’s more [about] attempting to have control and handling it without making mass arrests,” he said.

Even charging motorists with reckless driving can be challenging, Buzzuro said.

“It’s hard to prove in court,” he said. “There has to be a wanton and willful manner … you have to have information about what the motorist was thinking of doing.

“On the criminal side, we’ve had opinions from States Attorney Beau Oglesby, and it doesn’t rise to that,” he said. “It’s not on the books, so to speak.”

While noting that Sen. Jim Mathias was formerly mayor of Ocean City, G. Hale Harrison of the Harrison Group Resort Hotels, suggested lobbying Annapolis legislators to amend the legal solutions available.

“Should we ask our state legislators?” he said. “Obviously, this is a problem [and] obviously people are being injured.”

During last October’s Endless Summer Cruisin’ event, a man was fatally struck by a Maryland State Police patrol car at 76th Street after allegedly running into the vehicle’s path. Another man was seriously injured after being hit by a 1998 Chevy Camaro on Coastal Highway near 54th Street.

The legal possibilities are continuing to be explored, Buzzuro said.

“We are looking at this, but we recognize it may be an uphill battle,” he said.

During his introductory remarks, Mayor Rick Meehan told the group that the initial purpose of events like Cruisin’ when they were introduced decades ago was to attract tourists during the off-season.

Since that time, he said, the growth of classic car events, OC BikeFest and the unsanctioned H2O International event also created a new set of problems.

“We need to find ways to make the events better and connect them with the town,” he said.

Bob Rothermel of TEAM Productions, which organizes the Cruisin’ events with Jack Hennen’s Special Event Productions, said the show launched in 1978 as the Ocean City Hot Rod and Custom Car Show and the Cruisin’ moniker was adopted in 1991.

While only 250 cars registered for the first year, Rothermel said organizers now limit that number to 3,200 vehicles.

“How many cars are in town? I’ve heard numbers of 5,000-6,000 or more cars in town that weekend,” he said. “Many of these cars are coming just because they can come to town.”

Rothermel said the Cruisin’ event paid more than $118,000 to Ocean City this year in rent for the convention center and inlet parking lots, in addition to associated trailer permit fees.

“We like to take solace in the fact that we created one of the major events in Ocean City on a weekend that had no economic impact to the town,” he said.

While noting that the event promoters are quick to ban registered participants who break traffic laws, he acknowledged the extended crowd needs to be addressed.

“I’m aghast with what I see on Baltimore Avenue,” he said. “Something has to happen to the people who are not in the event.”

Although reducing the number of registered vehicles has been discussed, Rothermel questioned the effectiveness.

“When H20i canceled [its] event, did it stop anyone from coming?” he said. “If we reduce the number of participants, does that really stop the cars from coming, or does that alienate other people?”

Rothermel suggested the inclusion of activities, such as concerts, to provide distractions for the overflow crowds.

“Maybe that’s something we can do to alleviate that pent-up energy that seems to happen now,” he said. “There’s got to be a way of addressing and lowering their need for speed.”

He also said preliminary negotiations are underway with the US 13 Dragway in Delmar to provide a gathering spot for car enthusiasts.

“Maybe it’s time to go back to what we used to do many years ago at Ocean Downs when we did controlled burn-outs,” he said.

Rothermel said his organization is prepared to take various measures to keep the events in town.

“What we’ve had is an event that had a great reputation in town getting sullied by the hangers on,” he said.

“We want [police] to arrest people and get them off the streets if they are a problem.”

The Motor Event Task Force plans to meet again in January and eventually will take recommendations to the mayor and council for consideration.

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