Bring Back Ocean City NJ Reform

Proponents of positive change in Ocean City can truthfully say, to paraphrase Mark Twain’s comment on his premature obituary, that the rumors of reform’s demise in this town are greatly exaggerated.

Not that there isn’t a large kernel of truth in them. Reform in Ocean City is certainly ailing, and it will die if more year-round and summer residents don’t do everything they can to keep it alive. But if you’re a reformer in this town—whether you’re fighting for sensible and humane development, preservation of our history and ecology, or fiscal accountability and responsibility—you now have a good opportunity to breathe new life into your activism.

Reform was not defeated in last year’s mayoral election. There were people in both major camps who favor one or another reform cause. The candidate with a proven reform record garnered a large share of the vote, and other voters favoring positive change may have been attracted by the newcomer’s promises or influenced by matters of purely personal preference.

Time has since shown the true relationship between reform and that election. Reform wasn’t defeated, but the winning candidate and his inner circle have attempted to hijack it. They have tried to divide the forces of reform, to redefine it, or to use it to cloak their administration’s return to “business as usual”.

This outcome has been especially pronounced in the areas of residential zoning, budget reform, and environmental protection. When I looked around Council chambers recently during a Planning Board discussion of the belated and upcoming proposal for a residential zoning ordinance, I was struck by the eerie resemblance of the key players to those who bulked up our housing in the first place. Add to this the dissonance between the nice noises candidate Perillo made about super-sizing in Stenton Place and the weak response to such super-sizing by the mayor and his administration.

The return to “business as usual” shouldn’t shock us all that much. Last year we lived through a mayoral campaign which lacked the one thing it most needed: holding up in front of everyone’s eyes the 10-year record of a city government which placed privilege and profit over the general public welfare, and which developed our neighborhoods at a breakneck pace too often detrimental to the quality of people’s lives.

Neither major candidate focused enough on that record, I believe. Hindsight is always better than foresight, of course, but when the eventually-successful candidate sought the blessing of his predecessor, might we not have guessed that the victor was not going to forthrightly address the problems he inherited? And when the two main candidates spent so much time in bashing each other and in detailed explorations of spurious issues, are we surprised that our community is not pulling together very well?

Since the election, people have debated whether Perillo is some sort of civic do-gooder who just happens to be surrounded by several hard-nosed power brokers, or is a full-fledged member of that grouping himself. Probably the folks with the best answer to that question are members of the Budget Committee and the Environmental Commission who joined these bodies because they believed the mayor’s promise to act on citizen input, then saw their recommendations dumped or disregarded.

The bright spot in all of this is that recent developments throw into sharp relief what we must now confront if we’re to make the positive changes we need to make. It’s clear, for example, that redefining reform as a set of modernization projects, as the administration appears to do, is not enough. Some of these projects are useful, but they compare with true reform as tinkering with a car’s engine compares with rebuilding it.

Too many times, it seems that administration projects are geared towards the housing, eating, and recreational preferences of the super-rich speculators and “players” who occasionally stay at their second or third addresses, and not towards the retirees, other year-rounders, and full-time summer residents who all still make up (cross your fingers and toes!) a vital element of Ocean City existence. (Remember the “residents and retirees” put-down in a previous administration?) It looks like frequent off-island shopping trips and the game known as Find the Restaurant will continue to thrive.

Also coming into sharp relief recently is the arrogance which too often besets our community. Whether this arrogance is bred by hailing from a particular neighborhood, having a certain socioeconomic status, or just being in power too long, it is hampering community togetherness and diversity. The mayor frequently reminds us that supporters of the drive for a new high-school have been a core group of his campaign and administration, and that’s fine. What is not fine, though, is the attitude which often accompanied that drive and which accompanies many recent issues—the attitude of “How could anyone believe differently? We’ve made our case, and we know best. So listen up!” The most effective antidote for this corrosive attitude is a healthy dose of tolerance and a search for the common good.

Reformers, for their part, need to be aware that the time is ripe for renewed effort, that renewal will only succeed if they unite, and that unity must go hand-in-hand with recognition and healing of reform’s self-inflicted wounds. These include reformers (or erstwhile reformers) trimming their sails too closely to the winds of political ambition, the narrowness of some reform efforts, and insufficient development of new reform leadership.

If reformers of every stripe see the present phase of “divide and conquer” for what it is and act accordingly, then divisiveness will fail, and the conquerors will be those in Ocean City whose voices aren’t being sufficiently heard or heeded.

By Kimball Baker

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