By DONALD WITTKOWSKI
Ocean City’s governing body gave final approval Thursday night to an ordinance that prohibits businesses that cultivate, manufacture, test or sell marijuana.
Looking to preserve its family-friendly image, the city will ban the sale of marijuana in the aftermath of New Jersey’s legalization of cannabis in February.
Approved by City Council by a 6-0 vote, the ordinance bans marijuana facilities within one-quarter mile of a school, church, recreational or sports facility, the Boardwalk and any residential area. It would effectively outlaw businesses from selling marijuana, hashish or pot paraphernalia in all parts of town.
“The Mayor and City Council believe there is no area of the city which can safely house a business selling marijuana, cannabis or hashish or the paraphernalia that facilitates use of the same,” the ordinance says.
On Feb. 22, Gov. Phil Murphy signed three bills to legalize pot in New Jersey for adults 21 and older and to decriminalize it for people under 21.
From the start, Ocean City’s Council has objected to marijuana’s legalization, passing an ordinance in 2019 to ban the sale of pot in a town that bills itself as “America’s Greatest Family Resort.” At that time, the governor and state Legislature were discussing the possibility of legalizing marijuana.
City Solicitor Dorothy McCrosson explained that Ocean City’s 2019 ordinance became invalid once New Jersey formally legalized cannabis. However, the new state legislation gives municipalities 180 days to reinstate their prohibition of marijuana sales, prompting Ocean City to approve a new ordinance Thursday.
As a “dry” town, Ocean City has banned alcohol sales since its founding as a Christian seaside resort in 1879 by a group of Methodist ministers. The ban on alcohol sales is a centerpiece of the city’s image as a safe, family-style summer vacation retreat.
Now, the city will prohibit marijuana sales and dispensaries.
“We don’t allow any alcohol. We shouldn’t allow marijuana or cannabis,” Councilwoman Karen Bergman said.
Alluding to the legal use of marijuana in the Netherlands, Councilman Michael DeVlieger added, “I have no desire to live in Amsterdam.”
Council members have repeatedly expressed concerns that the city’s family-oriented reputation could be harmed if marijuana is sold in town and people simply begin smoking pot in popular tourist areas, such as the Boardwalk.
McCrosson noted that Council will consider a companion ordinance at its next meeting to ban the use of marijuana and hashish in public areas.
Ocean City already prohibits the smoking of cigarettes and cigars on the Boardwalk, beaches, city parks, playgrounds, athletic fields and other public facilities.
Although he voted for the ban on the sale of recreational marijuana, Councilman Jody Levchuk expressed concerns that people who need medical marijuana might be blocked from getting the drug.
“My only concern about this is limiting anybody with a prescription for debilitating diseases,” Levchuk said.
Levchuk suggested that perhaps Ocean City could allow one dispensary where people could pick up their medical marijuana. Other Council members floated the idea that possibly an exception could be made to allow the delivery of medical marijuana in Ocean City from a dispensary in another town.
After consulting with McCrosson about the parameters of New Jersey’s marijuana law, the Council members indicated they will consider the delivery of medical marijuana in follow-up discussions.
In other business at Thursday’s meeting at the Music Pier, Council voted to reject the award of a $224,000 engineering design contract to the consulting firm ACT Engineers Inc. following questions about the company’s billing practices.
ACT, based in Robbinsville, N.J., has been awarded $7.3 million in city contracts since 2015 while serving as a consultant overseeing Ocean City’s dredging projects.
However, the community taxpayer group Fairness in Taxes singled out ACT’s billing practices in a recent letter to Mayor Jay Gillian regarding invoices for two “similar” projects, one in Ocean City and one in Brick, a community in Ocean County.
There was a difference of $60 per billable hour for ACT’s principal rate between the two towns, according to 2020 figures cited by FIT. Brick was charged $140 for the work, while Ocean City was charged $200 per hour.
Angered by the discrepancy in ACT’s billing rates for the two towns, City Council President Bob Barr wants Ocean City to stop doing business with the company. At Barr’s behest, Council is expected to consider a formal resolution at its next meeting to disqualify ACT from future city contracts.
“I cannot, in good conscience, support another contract to be given to this firm. Never,” Barr said.
Referring to the difference between the billing rates that ACT has charged Ocean City and Brick, Barr called the company’s actions “borderline taxpayer abuse.”
At Thursday’s meeting, ACT was in line for a $224,000 contract for engineering design work for a stormwater-mitigation project to help reduce chronic flooding in the area of West 17th Street.
By a 5-1 vote, Council refused to award the contract. Bergman was the only member to vote in favor of giving ACT the contract. She said ACT has provided the city with quality work on other projects.
ACT competed with three other firms for the contract and submitted the lowest price, but Councilman Keith Hartzell joined Barr in criticizing the company’s billing practices. Hartzell also said that ACT lacks experience with flood-control projects, although it does have a long track record with the city for dredging projects.
Hartzell also disapproved of the way that ACT submitted its proposal to the city, noting that it lacked a breakdown of the costs for specific work it would perform under the contract for the West 17th Street project. ACT’s proposal included just a lump-sum price, he said.
“This page is blank. I don’t know where the information went,” Hartzell said while holding up a copy of ACT’s proposal that he had enlarged for public display at the meeting.
Hartzell also asserted that ACT lacks the same level of engineering experience for flood-mitigation projects of the other firms that competed for the West 17th Street contract. He wants the city to award the contract to Michael Baker International, an engineering firm that has extensive experience with Ocean City’s flood-control projects.
“I’m going with the safe bet,” Hartzell said, referring to Michael Baker International.
Among the companies competing for the work, Michael Baker International submitted the second-lowest price for the West 17th Street contract at $228,500.
At Hartzell’s urging, Council will consider awarding the contract to Michael Baker International at its next meeting.
City Business Administrator George Savastano, the top official in Mayor Gillian’s administration, gave a lengthy defense of the quality of ACT’s work in the past and the firm’s billing practices during comments to Council explaining the contract for West 17th Street.
“ACT Engineers has been transparent in the submission of hourly rates to Ocean City,” Savastano said.
Savastano said that ACT complied with all of the city’s requirements for submitting a proposal for the West 17th Street flood-mitigation design contract. He also said ACT submitted a breakdown of its costs for specific work it would perform under the contract when the city requested that information later on.
In the end, the Gillian administration recommended the award of the contract to ACT based on its proposal for the lowest price, Savastano pointed out.
However, the administration pulled the resolution for the contract from Council’s agenda to allow Savastano to explain ACT’s proposal.
Despite Savastano’s explanation, Council remained dissatisfied with ACT, particularly its billing practices. A lengthy discussion concluded with Council’s vote to reject awarding the contract to ACT and to consider giving the contract to Michael Baker International at next month’s meeting.
In other business, Council voted to discontinue using the Ocean City Sentinel as the city’s official newspaper for legal ads and the publication of other city business. Instead, the Atlantic City Press was designated the city’s newspaper of record.
Council members stripped the Sentinel of its designation as the official newspaper because a local resident made them aware that it is not printed in New Jersey. By state law, a town’s official newspaper must be printed in New Jersey, McCrosson said.
McCrosson told Council that the Sentinel is making arrangements to be printed in New Jersey. The Council members indicated they would be willing to consider designating the Sentinel as the city’s official newspaper again if that happens.
Last month, the governing body condemned the Sentinel for publishing guest columns that appeared to threaten the life of two elected officials, Councilman DeVlieger and Congressman Jeff Van Drew.
Council approved a resolution in March formally demanding an apology from the Sentinel’s editor and publisher, David Nahan, and from John McCall, a guest columnist who wrote two inflammatory opinion pieces printed in the weekly newspaper on Jan. 13 and March 10. Nahan later apologized.
DeVlieger, noting that he was one of the targets of McCall’s vitriol, abstained from voting Thursday on two resolutions to remove the Sentinel as the official newspaper and finding it in violation of the requirement that it should be published in New Jersey.
In his columns, McCall alleged DeVlieger and Van Drew, whose South Jersey congressional district includes Ocean City, committed “treason” against the U.S. government for their support of former President Donald Trump.
“Like all Trump loyalists, Van Drew and DeVlieger are guilty of subverting the peaceful and equitable functioning of our government. This is not just a moral failing. This is treason. And the penalty for treason is execution,” McCall wrote in his Jan. 13 column.
DeVlieger pointed out that Nahan personally apologized to him this week for any anguish the columns may have caused DeVlieger or his family.
“I don’t hold any hate in my heart for David Nahan or the Sentinel,” DeVlieger said.
The Council members repeatedly said that they weren’t punishing the Sentinel for the controversial columns or for political reasons by removing it as the city’s official newspaper. Instead, they said they were obligated to uphold the legal requirement that the city’s official newspaper must be printed in New Jersey.
“This isn’t us trying to punish the Ocean City Sentinel,” Councilman Tom Rotondi said.