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Ocean Pines board  candidates clash over issues at forum

(July 2, 2015) Underground fiber optic cable, more civility on the board, spending issues and support for the Ocean Pines Association general manager system were among the topics covered last Wednesday at the Ocean Pines Elections Committee’s forum.
Moderated by committee Chairman Bill Wentworth, the forum allowed the seven candidates for two open seats in this summer’s board of directors election to present their views to a standing-room-only crowd at the Community Center.
Former board members Terri Mohr, Ray Unger and Bill Zawacki and newcomers Cheryl Jacobs, Thomas Herrick, Carol Ludwig and Slobodan Trendic also addressed questions asked by Wentworth and the audience.
Mohr, who worked as a medical practice manager for more than three decades, touted her previous board experience as an asset.
She also recalled her 2010-2014 term as a director, citing as accomplishments during that span the replacement of the golf green, the new yacht club the lowering of assessments in 2014.
Jacobs, a veteran prosecutor and professor of business law, who also has experience in the private sector, said she wanted to protect residents’ investment in the community, while Unger, a former police officer, said he was running again because of how much he enjoyed his service during two previous terms.
Herrick, also a former police officer, expressed disappointment with how the amenities are being run and Zawacki drew on his previous board service as president, vice president and treasurer, to criticize the current group of directors.
“One of the things that has brought me back to this table to seek your vote again was the way a lot of our finances have been handled,” he said. He contended that some of the amenities have been allowed to lose money while the current board seemingly expressed little interest in overseeing the work of the general manager.
Noting that the new yacht club lost $182,000 during its first year, Zawacki told the crowd that no plan existed to improve the community’s finances.
Ludwig, a member of several committees and the director of the Delmarva Chorus, offered a little advice to voters.
“If you would take the time to watch the board meetings … get your story firsthand,” she said. “It would be nice if we had everybody voting this year. You have seven people here – there should be someone for everyone … Get out there and vote.”
Trendic said the focus of the election was “the future of our 47-year-old community.”
The one-year-old yacht club, Trendic said, is losing a great amount of money, the community’s bridges are crumbling and the IT infrastructure “belongs at the MIT museum.” Meanwhile, he said, the general manager is eligible for a $40,000 bonus.
“This would make some of us think that everything is perfect … yet our community has a list of series issues and problems,” he said. “Achieving success and solving these challenges will not be the act of a single board member.”
He said it was his goal is to see the board’s seven members work in unison on improving the community.
Asked about the primary role of an elected representative in Ocean Pines, Zawacki said the board sets policy and provides oversight.
“The board needs to be measuring what is being done operationally and determine and make sure it’s being done according to policy, and that all policies are being followed, and that financially we are meeting our targets and our budgets,” he said.
“This past year, Ocean Pines Association took in $14 million … I don’t know how anybody can’t run a household or a business on $14 million and at least break even at the bottom,” he continued. “We didn’t. We had to take $182,000 out of our savings account to make our nonprofit actually come out nonprofit.”
Ludwig said board members should heed the advice of its many advisory committees.
“When they bring things to the board table, they have done their homework, and most of the time want you to listen and make a decision based upon that – and not micromanage,” she said. “If you step out of the board position to get involved with individual things like we have seen recently, it doesn’t bode well.”
Volunteers in Ocean Pines, Ludwig said, are “trying to take care of your investment” and should be treated accordingly by the board.
“Let’s face it, [for] most of us this is it,” she said. “All I own is right there, 5 Sandpiper Lane. All my money is right there. I want it to be there and be worth it for a long time. I want to live there happily, and that’s what I want for you too.”
Trendic said board members need “innovative leadership and strategic thinking,” along with “razor-sharp focus and flawless execution.”
“You’ve got to get things right the first time. You can’t afford $5 million mistakes,” he said, referring to the new yacht club. “The board is here to serve you as homeowners. Everything else becomes secondary. You pay the bills and you are the voice and we need to make sure we pay attention to what your goals, needs and priorities are.”
Mohr said she would, “like to bring the conversation back” to the board.
“One of the most disappointing things that I’ve seen this year on the board is they don’t communicate at all with one another,” she said. “And if they don’t communicate with one another, then they’re not communicating with you, and I think that is very, very sad.
“I’d like to see some civility and some respect,” Mohr continued. “I would like to see us work together, work [and] support the general manager and the job that he does … I want us to be able to get back to moving forward, working toward things that we have in common … I would really like to see us start talking to each other again.”
Asked how the candidates would set priorities in managing the “fiscal priorities of the association,” Herrick stressed the importance of upkeep.
“The longer we wait to maintain our facilities the more money it’s going to cost us,” he said. “If we continue to wait until we need replacement, the replacement will mean millions of dollars to the community. Let’s take care of what we need to do today so we don’t face a problem in the future.”
Zawacki slammed the board for passing a budget that he characterized as illogical. He also charged that General Manager Bob Thompson failed to explain budget variances, while Ludwig defended Thompson.
“As far as I can see, he does his job,” she said. “You can’t point the finger at someone if you don’t give them the responsibility that they should have to go along with the job. Give them the responsibility – don’t micromanage from the board of directors.”
Trendic said the community needed what he referred to as a proper plan that included capital investments and “a 10 or 20-year road map” for operations.
“For any large community … you cannot put any legitimacy in the budgeting process in how you fund your yearly operations or multiyear operations unless you have a proper plan in place. This is what we have to pay attention to as board members.”
He called the reserve fund “bloated” and suggested, because most board members and candidates may not have all the experience they need in certain areas, that they use advisory committees as a “think tank resource.”
Jacobs agreed with the call for a comprehensive plan, but leapt on Trendic’s suggestion that some of the candidates might need help during budgeting.
“Mr. Trendic questioned whether or not any of the candidates had the wherewithal – the qualifications – to serve on the board given what we might be facing fiscally. I do have those qualifications,” she said.
In the private sector, Jacobs said, she worked with a $60 million budget.
“I know about budgets,” she said. “The one major priority for me is going to be we have to have a comprehensive plan. I don’t know how Mr. Trendic can say that we have inflated reserves if we don’t have a plan. Is it enough? Is it too much? You know what, we don’t know the answer to that question, and that’s why the comprehensive plan is absolutely necessary and will be my priority.”
Asked about the most important issues facing the next board of directors, Herrick addressed what he called the dysfunction between the board and the general manager.
“I think that we need to elect people that will serve on the board that have an open mind, that know the meaning of the word compromise and understand how to debate with civility,” he said. “If we keep putting people that are on one side of a coalition or another … it’s never going to end.”
Zawacki agreed there was friction, although he largely placed the blame on Thompson.
“I think we have a GM who … does not react to what the board wants in a timely and effective manner,” he said.
Ludwig, however, said the board should be concerned with replacing lost funds from the county and state.
“We probably pay more taxes in this square area that anyone else in Worcester County, and maybe on the Eastern Shore,” she said. “That is a concern when we talk about reserves. That’s where my mind picks up – money for things … that normally we would look outside of Ocean Pines for that money – it’s not there and it’s not coming.”
Trendic again went to the yacht club, as well as IT infrastructure.
“You can’t run a business without proper IT infrastructure [and] we have proven over the years that we keep losing money with the yacht club – we don’t know how to do it,” he said. “Outsource it. Get the right private sector partners that know how to do it cheaper, faster, better and let’s focus on what we know how to do best.”
Mohr echoed the importance of a comprehensive plan, and stressed the need to maintain current facilities.  
“We promised you when we built this yacht club that we would never let that happen to another building again in Ocean Pines,” she said. “I remember hearing everyone in that room saying that. So we need to do that.”
She also said fixing the relationship between the board and the general manager was “not [the voters’] problem.”
“It’s our problem if we’re on the board, and we need to learn how to work together,” she said. “We are all adults.”
Jacobs, continuing one of the more popular themes of the evening, again drove home the need for long-term vision.
“If you’re crossing a bridge that’s likely going to fall down while you’re crossing it, I’d say that’s a pretty big challenge that has to be addressed,” she said. “That’s something that the budget has to address, and it’s part of what I keep saying we need in terms of this comprehensive plan to prioritize what are the most important things that we have to do first [and] how should we spend the money that we are collecting from all of the homeowners.”
Unger took a decidedly different tactic, insisting that Ocean Pines’ amenities “were never designed to be profitable.”
“I don’t think it’s possible unless we go out and all of us wave signs to people on 589, ‘Let’s go to the yacht club and have dinner,’” he said.
Halfway through the forum Wentworth passed around a plastic sand pail, telling the candidates to draw numbers and ask each other a question of their choosing. While most offered softballs, Jacobs went in a different direction after drawing Zawacki’s name.
“Mr. Zawacki, you talked to us about having previously served on the board as a president in the past. Therefore, don’t you bear responsibility for problems that went unchecked?” she asked.
“Cheryl, it would be easier to answer that maybe if you could tell me what the problem was,” Zawacki said, adding that he changed the way the board operated, offering workshop sessions that included public input.
Unger asked Trendic if he would raise membership fees.
“The simple answer to your question is no,” he said. “Those of us who have been in private sector, we know that raising prices or raising fees or dues is not always what I call ‘creative leadership’ or innovative thinking. I think there are other ways to run a fiscally responsible budget.”
Trendic added that he was against, “charging social clubs fees for holding their meetings,” drawing applause from the crowd.
After drawing Herrick, Trendic asked how he would tackle “what you believe is the single biggest problem” facing Ocean Pines.
“I still believe it’s this dysfunction between the manager and the board of directors,” Herrick said. “If they do not work together … our community cannot reach its full potential … We all have to learn to get along and do what’s best for the community. I will stress that. It’s very important that the board gets along, has a great working relationship with the general manager and fosters a relationship with the community.”
Herrick asked Mohr about her position on the proposed policy change that would require volunteer hours or pay in order for community groups to use Ocean Pines facilities.
“That seems to be the hot topic,” Mohr said. “I think it’s a really tough one, but I actually think it’s kind of a good problem to have. That means we have a lot of people that want to use a lot of our facilities.”
Mohr said she was kept busy with volunteer requirements while her daughter attended Catholic school.  
“I think the volunteer thing might be a good thing … I don’t think it’s the whole solution,” she said. “I think that we have groups that want to use our facilities [and] if they want to use our facilities they should pay to use our facilities, because we pay to keep them the way they are.”
She added that residents should be able to use facilities for less money than outside groups, but that she wasn’t sure if they should use those facilities strictly for free.
“The problem [is] we have so many groups,” she said. “I think we need to talk about this a little longer and come up with a better solution and hear more from the people out there.”
Ludwig, a member of the committee studying the facilities, reminded voters, “There is no policy that has been set,” and urged people to watch video of the committee’s presentation to the board.
“Bob [Thompson] felt as if he had to take his committee and the ideas to the board of directors because they were threatening to do their own type of thing – micromanaging as far as I’m concerned – about how to handle individual groups using … any of our facilities,” she said. “That’s what stepped up trying to find a fair, easy and nonthreatening way to use the facilities.”
She added, “Ninety percent of the people on the list [the committee used] probably already fulfilled what was being asked of these groups as volunteers.”
Jacobs, addressing whether residents should be required to perform community service or pay to use amenities, drew on her previous work experience.
“When I hear ‘doing community service hours,’ that reminds me, as a prosecutor, of what we offer people instead of going to jail,” she said. “I appreciate the work that the community is doing, and I surely hope that what we’ve been told so far does not turn out to be the policy because we do pay out of our dues to be able to use the facilities that are in our great community. I don’t don’t want to have to keep people out of jail by making them do community service.”
Herrick questioned some of the numbers presented by Thompson and the facility use group.
“They said we had 18,000 requests – that would be 50 requests a day for this building,” he said. “I come here in the afternoon, I don’t see lines [of people] coming in and out of these doors. I talk to various clubs and they tell me anytime they ask [to use the facilities] there’s never been a problem with them getting a room.”
The subject of a comprehensive plan came up yet again during a community question about Ocean Pines’ aging infrastructure.
“If you understand the importance of a plan and you’ve been in positions in the past and you say, ‘We talked about it, we talked about it’ … but you don’t have a plan, something’s wrong,” Jacobs said. “We need to stop saying ‘we need a plan’ and get people on the board who finally make that happen.”
Unger suggested the board approach the county when addressing infrastructure issues.
“Believe it or not, that’s where the big bucks come from, and the important stuff that needs to be done on our roads and everything are coming from the county,” he said. “We have nothing to do with the roads.”
When Herrick moved to Ocean Pines, in 2010, he said he found himself thumbing through an old newsletter that made mention of a comprehensive plan dating back to 1998.
“In 2009, we started a 10-year task force [to] prioritize maintenance, to do a study on the funding of it and, in fact, schedule and implement the plan to get the work done,” he said. “Here we are six years a later taking about a capital improvement plan, talking about additional studies … We continue to kick the can down the road. It’s time to do something about it.
“My fear is six years from now we’re still going to be talking about another plan that another board is trying to devise,” Herrick continued. “It’s time to finalize the plan, fund the plan, and let’s aggressively pursue having that come to fruition.”
During closing remarks, Herrick underscored the importance of the election.
“Electing board members that work for certain factions or to serve a special interest group would not be in the best [interest] of the community,” he said. “I believe we need someone that has an open mind, we need to elect somebody that’s willing to get along, knows the meaning of the word compromise [and] understands the need to debate with civility. I would be honored to serve as a representative of this community on the board, and I would do so in a reasonable, courteous and professional manner.”
Trendic encouraged voters to select the two candidates with “the winning combination of skills, broad experience and the ability to successfully represent our community interests.”
“If you do not approve [of] how some of the board members are voting or addressing critical issues don’t be silent,” he said. “Stay engaged. Keep the pressure on those members. Remember, our board does not have absolute power – the people do.”
Mohr’s message was simple: “get everybody to vote.”
“It’s really important for our community that we all vote,” she said. “Please make sure that you get all the facts [and] read as much as you can … It’s your voice, your choice and your vote.”