OCEAN CITY — About 75 people turned out Tuesday night for a 70-minute debate program featuring all five candidates vying for three open at-large council seats in the city’s May 13 municipal election.
It was the third time in two weeks the men have come before the public to answer questions on the issues and explain why they want to serve the next four years on City Council.
Held in the auditorium at Ocean City High School and co-sponsored by the town’s Democratic and Republican clubs, the forum gave the candidates an opportunity to respond to queries along the lines of “Where do you see Ocean City in 20 years?” and “How would you attract families to an island where the population has decreased from 15,000 to 9,000 in the last 14 years?”
As in the previous two forums, the two incumbents tended to answer questions by referencing their records of the last eight years while the three challengers responded by pointing out some of the shortcomings of the current council.
Topics discussed were public safety, lagoon dredging, beach replenishment, road repairs and drainage improvements, the city’s downtown business and historic districts, zoning, ideas for the 50 percent of the city’s coastline that faces the bay, what skills each man possesses to persuade his colleagues to support his proposals, and the high costs of maintaining the Fire and Police departments.
Councilman Keith Hartzell, running for his third four-year term, stressed the importance of involving residents in making decisions that affect their neighborhoods. He said he has knocked on 1,800 doors during this campaign in an effort to familiarize himself with the issues that exist across the city, and he has always preferred going out to the people to solicit their input rather than invite them to meetings.
“Value people in the neighborhoods and bring them into the mix,” he said. “People who live in an area see things professionals miss.”
Listening to the people was a theme echoed by each of the challengers. Eric Sauder said his running for office was the fulfillment of a commitment he made to those people who attended a series of community meetings he hosted in February and the opportunity for those people to continue to have their voices heard; Peter Madden said it was a quality his parents taught him, and Michael Hyson said asking visitors what amenities they wanted was a way to learn what would attract them to Ocean City.
Incumbent Michael Allegretto, also running for a third term, said a strong school district was the key to attracting families to the resort, and he thought the characterization of the city’s downtown as “struggling” was inaccurate. Hartzell, who said the two businesses that rent Asbury Avenue properties from him are doing well, concurred, putting the empty number of storefronts between Sixth and 14th streets at nine out of 119.
Police and fire personnel represent one of the top expenses in the city, and while all agreed there is a need to contain those costs, Hyson had the most ideas for how to do so. In addition to the usual solutions of collective bargaining and contract renegotiations, he suggested the city look into surveillance of remote locations.
“I don’t go with the notion that to support cost-efficiency lowers public safety,” Sauder said in recommending the city look at state and federal pay standards as a guideline to bringing the Fire and Police departments’ compensation in line. “We’re well in excess of both.”
Hartzell said Ocean City has 4.9 police officers for every 1,000 residents, comparing that favorably to Sea Isle City’s 10 officers per 1,000 residents. It is not clear what population number he used in determining Ocean City’s average as he expressed surprise when asked how he would reverse the decline in year-round residents from 15,000 in 2000 to 9,000 in 2014.
“I was not aware it had dropped since then,” he said, mentioning the 2010 Census figure of 11,700 before answering that council has addressed the plummeting population problem by approving the rezoning of several parcels in town from commercial to either single-family or multifamily in an attempt to encourage residency.
Madden, the father of four young children, said he is living proof families will buck the trend and relocate to Ocean City. But Sauder argued that the steps council has taken to rectify the loss of year-round families are insufficient and have led only to redevelopment and increased density.
As to dredging the city’s lagoons, which at low tide are unnavigable, the lack of a spoils site was most frequently named as the reason the project hasn’t moved forward.
“I can’t believe Ocean City is unique in having nowhere to put dredge spoils,” Hyson said. “We need to look at other communities to see how they are handling it.”
The final debate, one for the two mayoral candidates, will be held 7 p.m. May 7 in the high school auditorium and again will be co-sponsored by the city’s Democratic and Republican clubs.
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