By DONALD WITTKOWSKI
Sparks flew Thursday night during a City Council meeting that included some testy exchanges between members of the governing body over two contracts.
In separate action, one of the contracts was tabled, while the other was approved by a 4-2 vote following heated debate.
Early on, tensions were high among the Council members, but the tone quieted down later on and became conciliatory near the end of the meeting at the Ocean City Music Pier.
Council President Bob Barr likened the atmosphere to a family argument.
“Sometimes, family disagreements are healthy,” he said.
Despite their differences, the Council members insisted that they simply wanted to act in the best interest of the city and its taxpayers.
“The mayor is a tremendous person. Every member of Council is a tremendous person,” Barr said in comments to calm down the emotions.
Much of Council’s disagreement focused on a $17,000 professional services contract to make sure the city is complying with state and federal permitting requirements for a project to restore the eroded shoreline of an adjacent island.
Ocean City has created a 1,700-foot “living shoreline” consisting of shellfish colonies on a bay islet known as Shooting Island. Shellfish habitats have helped to stabilize the 150-acre Shooting Island’s eroding shoreline and also serve as a storm barrier for Ocean City.
ACT Engineers Inc., a Robbinsville, N.J., environmental and engineering firm that has overseen the city’s Shooting Island project, was in line for the no-bid professional services contract.
Barr tried to table the contract, but Council approved it by a 4-2 vote following a debate over whether the city should have sought bids from other companies for the work.
Barr and DeVlieger cast the dissenting votes for awarding the contract to ACT. Barr said he thought it would be best to solicit formal proposals from other companies to see if the city could get a better price.
DeVlieger said he believes ACT is probably the most qualified company for the Shooting Island contract, but he opposed it because it did not go out to public bid.
ACT Engineers has served as a key Ocean City consultant since 2015 for an array of flooding and dredging projects. In all, it has secured 40 contracts totaling $7.3 million from the city since then, according to Dave Breeden, president of the community taxpayer group Fairness In Taxes.
In recent months, however, ACT Engineers has drawn criticism from groups such as the Ocean City Flooding Committee for the amount of money it has charged the city for its consulting work.
“We’re not getting our money’s worth,” Suzanne Hornick, founder of the Ocean City Flooding Committee, said in public comments at the Council meeting in opposition to the contract to ACT Engineers.
“The fact is, ACT Engineers has not done right by the city and we need to stop doing business with them, in my opinion,” Hornick added.
Three months ago, during a debate over another contract for ACT Engineers, Council agreed to create a pool of prequalified vendors that would compete for the city’s engineering work. Council said competition among the engineering firms would help the city obtain the best prices for contracts.
The Council members indicated Thursday they were growing impatient with Mayor Jay Gillian’s administration for not having the plans completed yet for the pool of prequalified engineering firms.
In response, City Business Administrator George Savastano assured Council that the administration is working out the details for the plan and will be submitting it for their review by next week.
In the meantime, Savastano urged Council to approve the no-bid contract for ACT Engineers for the Shooting Island project. He said the company has the most experience with the project and should be hired to oversee the next phase of work for the permitting requirements.
“To me, it makes eminent sense to put this before you,” Savastano told Council of the ACT contract.
Leading up to the 4-2 vote to approve the contract, Councilman Peter Madden praised ACT for the work it has done for the city in the past and expressed frustration that the latest contract was being questioned.
“Council is stopping progress,” Madden said. “This is just slowing down the work that has been done.”
Madden maintained that Council should defer to ACT’s expertise for the Shooting Island project.
“We’re getting in the way of people who know how to do the job,” he said.
In a separate matter that also produced some strong objections, Council tabled a proposed $50,000 contract for special litigation services that would be performed by the Ocean City law firm of McCrosson & Stanton. Dorothy McCrosson, a partner in the firm, also serves as city solicitor.
Council voted 4-2 to table the contract at DeVlieger’s request. DeVlieger said he wanted to delay the contract for two weeks to give Council more time to discuss the details with the administration. He said he felt the matter was being rushed.
“It is no reflection on our solicitor or her firm,” DeVlieger said.
However, Councilwoman Karen Bergman thought that the delay was “disrespectful” to McCrosson. Bergman said the special litigation services contract is routinely approved for McCrosson every year.
“I can’t even believe we are tabling this,” Bergman said in exasperation.
Bergman and Madden voted against tabling the contract.
As part of the special litigation services contract in the past, McCrosson has represented Ocean City in negotiations to comply with the state’s affordable housing requirements.
Bergman praised McCrosson for the work she has done for the city on affordable housing. In 2018, Ocean City reached a court settlement to provide its “fair share” of state-mandated affordable housing.