By Donald Wittkowski
What had been a quiet election campaign in Ocean City erupted into accusations Tuesday that Mayor Jay Gillian is using the construction of taxpayer-funded public bathrooms on the Boardwalk for the benefit of his private amusement park business.
Gillian immediately denounced the allegations by his mayoral opponent, former City Councilman John Flood, as “toilet politics.”
“I’ve heard of gutter politics, but never toilet politics,” Gillian said in a statement.
The controversy began when Flood issued a press release Tuesday claiming that the mayor’s Boardwalk amusement park, Gillian’s Wonderland Pier, will directly benefit from a large new public restroom facility under construction next door at Sixth Street.
“It makes sense the mayor would want more restrooms at Sixth Street. Amusement park customers waiting in line for the restrooms aren’t buying and spending tickets on rides,” Flood said in the release.
Gillian, however, said the city-funded restrooms will serve an area that is crowded with people from the Boardwalk, the beaches, the Ocean City High School complex and Carey Stadium.
“The bathrooms at the end of Sixth Street are a small part of a $100 million capital plan, and they serve an area that is busy with traffic from the beach, Boardwalk, school complex, Carey Stadium, and many events throughout the year,” Gillian said in his statement.
The restroom facility is expected to open in mid-April, according to construction workers at the site. It replaces an old public bathroom that was at the same location and has since been demolished.
Improvements to the Boardwalk, including the new bathrooms at Sixth Street, are part of Ocean City’s $100 million, five-year capital plan. The capital plan is a sweeping blueprint for the city’s critical infrastructure needs.
Flood said the new restroom project and related improvements will cost more than $1 million by the time they are completed. The low construction bid for the restroom was $690,537, far more than the city engineer’s estimate of $400,000, he said.
An additional $426,000 for street improvements related to the restroom’s construction will boost the total price tag to more than $1 million, according to Flood.
The bathroom facility will include 21 stalls for women, 10 stalls and six urinals for men and two family-style bathrooms. It will also have three showers to allow beachgoers to wash off sand.
Flood said he supports the idea of having more bathrooms on the Boardwalk, but alleged that the new restroom project was done by the mayor “under the cloak of darkness” and violated the public trust.
“The Sixth Street restroom project is an example of self-serving backroom deals that are deliberately hidden from the public and cost the taxpayers greatly,” Flood said.
In his statement, Gillian called the restroom facility an example of the important public projects he has pursued during his eight years as mayor.
“For eight years I have tackled long-neglected projects that benefit the entire community, and I will continue to do so,” Gillian said.
The bathroom project is expected to be a focal point of a public debate between Gillian and Flood scheduled for April 27 at 7 p.m. at the Ocean City Public Library. The debate, the only one scheduled so far before the May 8 municipal election, will be hosted by the community watchdog group Fairness In Taxes and moderated by the League of Women Voters.
Until Flood leveled his accusations at Gillian on Tuesday, the mayoral race had been a relatively low-key affair. The election for Ocean City’s top office features a clash between two experienced, high-profile politicians whose families are deeply rooted in the local business community.
Gillian is seeking his third, four-year term. He easily won election in 2010 and 2014. He followed his father, former Ocean City Mayor Roy Gillian, into politics. His family’s Boardwalk amusement business, Gillian’s Wonderland Pier, which was started by his grandfather, David, in 1929.
Flood served on Council from 1988 to 1996 and briefly returned to the governing body in 2011, when he was appointed to fill the unexpired term of former Councilwoman Susan Sheppard after she won a seat on the Cape May County Board of Freeholders. Sheppard now serves as a Superior Court judge.
Flood is a lifelong Ocean City resident. His grandparents came to the resort about 100 years ago. His grandfather, Emil Palmer, founded the former local Chevrolet dealership in 1933. The dealership, which was later sold to other owners, was in business for decades before closing in January.