“There’s no organization and there’s no committee. We’re just two citizens who are sick and tired of it all,” Ocean View resident Susan White told fellow citizens on Sunday afternoon at a rally to kick off a petition campaign aimed to get Gov. Ruth Ann Minner to order a state audit of the town’s finances, with which White and husband Richard say they have concerns.
“Some of the candidates interpreted the financial information to their benefit, to make the police department look as if it was over-budget,” Richard White said Aug. 10 of this spring’s Ocean View Town Council elections, in which Susan White failed to beat competitor Perry Mitchell in a bid to obtain the District 3 council seat.
Since then, Mitchell has worked with the revamped council to trim finances in the town, with cuts that have most strongly affected the town’s police department. It’s a change the Whites say compromises public safety, and one they argue is not justified since the numbers involved, they say, haven’t been entirely clear to everyone.
“I requested a copy of the audit report the next day,” Richard White noted. “The copy I received had hand-written note on it: ‘Not to be copied without express permission’ from the town’s auditing firm.” He said a call to the auditing firm indicated they had not requested any such note be put on the report.
That report indicated that the Ocean View Police Department had been $57,000 over budget last fiscal year, supporting criticism that the town has spent too much money on its police department in recent years, including the $2 million cost of construction the new public safety building.
However, the Whites say they have been told that the audit report has since been corrected to include $72,000 in police grants that were initially included in general funds and not under the police department’s budget. That number even tops the $40,000 initially budgeted for police grants in that fiscal year, they said.
And the Whites say town officials, including Mitchell, have kept that corrected figure from citizens, even though they are aware of it.
“They put the fear into all of us that we were out of money,” Susan White said. “I don’t think we’re in bad shape, but I want to know. … If we’re this bad off, you have to hold off spending money,” she added, pointing to expenditures since authorized by the council at the same time police expenses are being cut.
“Your coming out today lets them know you’re interested. If they can’t see people want answers, our only recourse is to the governor,” she said to a crowd of about 50 people, augmented by many whom came and went during the two-hour rally.
Some of those people were also concerned about the town’s decision to build a central water system, to require all properties not already served by town water to hook up to the system and about the costs involved. But the Whites had to defer on that issue, since their property is served by Bethany Beach’s town water system.
The petition effort received support on Sunday from former Mayor Gary Meredith, who was one of the featured speakers at the rally.
Meredith, who retired as mayor this spring having served his limit of two terms, said he has major concerns about the Ocean View Police Department’s treatment by the new council — particularly that it is affecting morale.
“The stated first intent of one of the town councilmen is to fire the chief,” Meredith asserted. “He’s one of the best in the state.” Meredith said local crime would be rising if not for the efforts of the force as it stood.
“I want to retain it at the existing level,” he said, noting that he had been told by one source that eight officers is the minimum needed for 24-hour-a-day, seven-day-a-week service in the town.
Meredith also stated opposition to a plan by the current council to move town administrative offices to the second floor of the new public safety building, saying he felt the town would be better off subdividing the meeting room at the existing town hall into new offices and holding town meetings at the public safety building instead.
Meredith said he believes the town might even be able to expand the town hall building now that state regulations for land use have changed. “If I was spending my money, I’d prefer to keep the office in that building.”
“I hope the town council can settle this business and start working together,” Meredith concluded.
With the floor opened up to the public, the Whites heard substantial support for their calls to reconsider some of the expenses the council has authorized or continued to authorize, including the town manager’s car and fuel for daily trips between his home in Denton, Md., and work in Ocean View.
Meredith said he believes the town manager’s contract expired in February, which would leave the council able to revoke that perk, which has remained controversial since it became public. Meredith said the council that hired Conway Gregory as town manager was told at the time that he planned to move to a location near Ocean View “if the job worked out.”
“If you’re going to cut a car, don’t cut it from the police department,” Susan White said. “The town manager won’t be the person who comes in for an emergency.”
One supporter suggested the town place officers for the mayor and at least one council member in the two rooms at the far back of the town hall, where public restrooms are located.
“They’re dealing some pretty stinky politics,” said the man, who declined to be identified.
Opponents also in attendance
The Sunday rally wasn’t without opposing voices.
Some urged the Whites to focus their displeasure about some of the expenses – including the town manager’s car and subsequent raise, and the water system – on the former council that authorized it in the first place.
“Where was the concern when the money was spent by the previous council?” one man asked.
But Susan White said she was focused on the current council because, after being elected on a wave of support for change and fiscal responsibility, they had not made cuts such as taking the town manager’s car. She said the notion of moving town administrative offices had spurred an increase in concerns.
“If they were serious, they would have taken it the night they took the cops’ cars,” she added of Gregory’s car. “If this town council wanted to act, we wouldn’t have the problems going on now,” she said.
Another critic of the Whites’ petition called out members of the Citizen Auxiliary Patrol — another focus of changes made recently by the town council — asking how many of the Whites’ supporters were CAP members. Five raised their hands among the more than 50 people present at that point.
“That’s a silly program anyway,” the man commented, as arguing broke out between critics and supporters of the program. “You’re just rent-a-cops,” he added.
After the rally, in response to the Whites’ allegations in an Aug. 8 Coastal Point article, Mitchell issued another of his “newsletters” to some town residents, in which he states, “With all due respect to Ms. White, she indulges in more fiction than fact.”
For example, Mitchell wrote: “On page 12 of the auditor’s report, of which she has a copy, revenue such as grants is reported and deducted from expenses. The net expenses are given for the PSD which is $839,250. On page 34, the final budget is listed as $826,796 and the actual is listed as $884,403 and the overage is $57,607. You be the judge.
“She alleges that this error is being kept quiet. I don’t know of anyone keeping this quiet and just to make sure, I am saying it here. How is it being kept secret when the Town made a copy of the auditor’s report available to her in May?”
Mitchell also disputed allegations from the Whites, Meredith and resident Elaine Birkmeyer that employee morale has been suffering.
“She alleges that the morale of town employees is suffering. I have to say that the morale of the town employees is high. If it isn’t, they certainly have done an excellent job of concealing it from me. I will say that town employees work very hard for the town.”
As to the White’s report of varying finance numbers mentioned during the council campaign, Mitchell wrote, “Regarding her allegations of shortfalls, I don’t recall any official of the town making those projections.”
The Whites question investigation by the town of the possible need for a new generator. Mitchell wrote, “She alleges that the Town is purchasing a new generator. This is false. The resolution provides for the town manager to monitor the situation with a generator which has broken down several times and running a high repair bill.”
Mitchell, who attended Sunday’s rally, as did Mayor Gordon Wood, also lists in the newsletter a number of other areas in which he disputes the Whites’ allegations and the basis for their concerns.
Fellow Councilmen Richard Nippes and Roy Thomas, both supporters of the council’s recent actions, both offered “town council report cards” as letters to the editor this week, similarly disputing some of the allegations and inviting those in agreement to voice their support publicly.
But the Whites have kept their focus on the obtaining the vocal support of those dissatisfied with the current council and those wanting questions answered.
Resident and fellow unsuccessful council candidate Wally Brown was among those invited to speak at the rally and concluded the featured speakers with words on the subject of the first amendment rights of Ocean View citizens.
On that topic, White also reported Sunday that a call for police officers to come to the couple’s home this past week for official business had been difficult to get through, because police were reluctant to have her speak to anyone but the police chief, she said.
The Whites say they believe that town employees have been told not to talk to the couple or are unwilling to do so lest they get in trouble with the council or their superiors.
That is among a laundry list of complaints on many topics that the couple have included in their petition and a related letter to Minner that was sent last week.
They now hope to accumulate as many as 500 signatures on their petition calling for the state to audit the town’s finances and to place in escrow its taxes until that audit is complete. Many of those in attendance at Sunday’s rally took the opportunity to sign that petition.