Dig at councilman on OC Flooding page leads to flap over city program

Posted: Wednesday, June 5, 2019 8:29 am

OCEAN CITY – Suzanne Hornick was bothered by flooding in her neighborhood so much that she approached city council years ago to complain.

In 2015, those complaints led to Hornick forming the OC Flooding Committee, a citizen group advocating for flood mitigation from periodic tidal flooding.

Hornick, a West Avenue resident, said frequent tidal flooding damages homes and vehicles.

The city responded with flood mitigation projects throughout the island, which includes building pumping stations, replacing crumbling drainage pipes, elevating roadways and installing new check valves.

These measures have lessened the severity of floodwaters, but flooding still occurs in low-lying streets and alleys, causing headaches for property owners and motorists.

Hornick said while the city is doing a lot, it’s still not enough from her perspective.

She went to the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) and asked if the city could participate in the Coastal Keepers flood monitoring program.

The pilot program uses pole-mounted bands that measure the depth of floodwaters: minor, moderate and/or major. During tidal flooding, neighborhood volunteers take photographs of the water levels against these bands and send the results to the DEP.

“The data provided will be shared with the City of Ocean City and with the residents of Ocean City to build a positive relationship that creates an understanding of the flooding and the issues/impacts associated with the flood waters,” according to information the DEP sent the city.

Hornick said she assembled volunteers and identified locations for the reflective bands. The city bought the bands and the city installed them on poles.

According to information the DEP sent the city, the 27 flood monitoring point locations include: the end of Oxford Lane, Victoria Lane, West Avenue and 47th Street, West Avenue and 42nd Street, Bay Avenue between Waterway and 30th streets, Haven Avenue between 35th and 34th streets, Haven Avenue between 33rd and 32nd streets, Simpson Avenue and 32nd Street, Simpson Avenue and 30th Street, Haven Avenue and 27th Street, West Avenue between 6th and 4th streets, Pleasure Avenue between 7th Street and 6th Street, Fifth Street near the Boardwalk, Fifth Street next to parking lot, and Corinthian Avenue and Fifth Street.

The resident volunteers record information on data collection sheets and submit them with their photos to a special Coastal Keepers email address.

“The DEP has already started to engage citizen participation up and down the coast to help monitor and track flooding in different communities,” Ocean City Chief Financial Officer Frank Donato said. “What they’re looking to do is engage citizens to educate about flooding and also to use the data that they collect to track the frequency and severity of storms.”

Though the Ocean City Flooding Committee was working with the city, Hornick said it came with a specific condition.

“It started out because it was a contentious relationship with the city that the DEP said we will work with you but you can’t be mean to the city on Facebook,” Hornick said. “And I did not point out that was a violation of my right to free speech and said OK, fine.”

Hornick said the Ocean City Flood Committee’s group Facebook page has 3,500 members that comprise residents, property owners and visitors. The page displays photos of flooded streets and properties, taken by residents who share these images.

But it wasn’t a photo of waist-high flooding that landed her in trouble with the city.

In April, Hornick posted a link to an article about why it’s dangerous to drive through flood waters featuring a picture of a man in a speedboat driving down the street.

Along with the article, Hornick wrote, “This makes me think of our drunk councilman Tony Wilson when he wrecked his boat on Labor Day. But it’s a good reminder to never drive (or boat) on flooded roads. In addition to damaging the vehicle it damages surrounding property. Also, our flooding is salty.”

Wilson, who represents the Third Ward, was charged Sept. 3, 2018 with operating a vessel while intoxicated in an incident that injured Ocean City resident John Albertson. According to State Police, Wilson’s boat struck a sandbar and Albertson was forcefully ejected from the vessel.

Wilson is scheduled to appear before Superior Court Judge Rodney Cunningham tomorrow, June 6 for an initial deposition conference in Atlantic County Criminal Court in Mays Landing.

Needless to say, the city wasn’t happy.

Donato sent an email with the screencapture of Hornick’s post to Rick Brown, NJDEP Office of Coastal & Land Use Planning, who worked with Hornick on the Coastal Keepers program.

“I know your office has monitored the content of the Ocean City Flooding Group Facebook page from time to time to verify that the postings are strictly flood related. You shared with me your concern on behalf of the State that a public partnership with groups like this should stick completely to the subject matter with any and all outreach. A concern that we absolutely agreed with,” Donato wrote. “Unfortunately, the screen shot below is a posting from today. At this point this is the last straw for our Mayor in regards to the City participating in projects with her group.”

Donato told the Sentinel that the post about Wilson was the second one in which Hornick engaged in politics instead of discussing flood mitigation.

“The content of the Facebook page was to remain strictly about flooding. At the end of the day, it wasn’t,” Donato said. “The DEP called her about another issue that was politically motivated that was on the Facebook page and warned her to keep the content strictly about flooding.”

Donato said Hornick has sent the city requests for public records about the city’s response to her Facebook post.

“It was the mayor’s instruction to me to send the email to the DEP and it’s unfortunate. That’s why there’s personal Facebook pages and group Facebook pages and certain things belong on personal pages and certain things belong on group pages,” Donato said.

Brown did not return the Sentinel’s phone request for an interview.

DEP spokesman Larry Hanja told the Sentinel that Hornick could still submit photographs and participate in the Coastal Keepers program; she was reprimanded for misrepresenting the OC Flooding Committee’s Facebook page as a DEP-sanctioned page.

“We continue to welcome her photos. We just advised her that she shouldn’t represent the Facebook page as being sanctioned by the DEP,” Hanja said.

Asked why she mentioned Wilson at all on the page, Hornick replied, “because I’m stupid. I don’t know. It was just tongue and cheek. It was not a moral judgment, it was simply a statement of fact, of public record by the way.”

She said the city didn’t alert her that her post was a violation of the agreement she made with the state.

“If they had said to me ‘that’s not nice,’ I would have said, ‘you are right’ and I… would have put an apology saying while the information is factual, it was mean and I apologize,” Hornick said.

She said the whole ordeal is impacting her health, and that she put “hundreds and hundreds of hours of work” into the project, along with time, money and effort.

Hornick said some residents are reticent to participate because they’re afraid of retaliation.

“I have a lot of people saying, ‘We can’t do this because if the city finds out we’re involved, they’ll hurt our business.’ I heard that a lot. All of these business owners they can’t all be off the wall. There has to be some basis in truth for that that people are scared of the city,” Hornick said.

Hornick said the Ocean City Flooding Committee wanted to partner with the schools on flood mitigation education. Such a program would make potential grant funding available to the local schools, as well as provide possible educational resources, Hornick said.

Hornick requested electronic copies of all correspondence between the city and the DEP including screenshots or photos that concern her and Ocean City Flooding Committee group or the Coastal Keepers program dated from Jan. 1, 2018 to April 22, 2019.

The city sent her three compact discs filled with emails, some of which she surmised were “redacted.”

“The whole thing is ridiculous and it’s a huge violation of my civil rights among other things. You don’t get to tell somebody what they can and cannot say and then penalize them,” Hornick said.

City public relations officer Doug Bergen said the city had “very little to do with that project or that decision (to banish Hornick from the project).”

“It’s a DEP program,” Bergen said. “Roger Rinck helped put up the bands, but there’s really not much other involved with the city on that.”

Rinck, the city’s engineering manager, did not return a phone call for an interview.

The OC Flooding Committee in March announced its split from Fairness In Taxes, a local taxpayer advocacy group.

“We will continue to develop partnerships we have formed with the city, state, school district, scientific community and national groups that will help us advocate for OC and all its residents,” Hornick wrote in an email March 3 to FIT.

Those partnerships would apparently be quashed with one Facebook post.

“They’re putting the needs of a drunk driving councilman who has yet to apologize to the city for his illegal behavior that he was arrested for over the needs of the citizens,” Hornick said. “I just want to make the city a better place.”

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