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Ocean Pines candidates discuss issues ahead of election

Ocean Pines Board of Directors candidates Sherrie Clifford, Jeff Heavner, Rick Farr, Amy Peck and Jerry Murphy  made cases for election to voters at a public forum last week.

OPA candidate forum

Ocean Pines Association Director and election candidate Jeff Heavner addresses the crowd at a public forum on June 13.
Tara Fischer / Bayside Gazette

By Tara Fischer, Staff Writer

Ocean Pines Board of Directors candidates Sherrie Clifford, Jeff Heavner, Rick Farr, Amy Peck and Jerry Murphy addressed voters at the Thursday, June 13 election forum.

Current president Farr and director Heavner are gunning for reelection. Peck, who served on the governing board from 2021 to 2022, Clifford and Murphy are challenging the incumbents for the board’s two available seats.

The forum began with opening statements from the competitors.

Clifford expressed her support for the community’s current leadership.

“As a proud homeowner for almost four years, I have had the privilege of witnessing the many successful developments produced by our general manager, John Viola, and his team,” she said. “I am dedicated to supporting their continued success.”

The candidate continued, outlining her priorities as a prospective director. Upholding Ocean Pines’ governing documents, partnering with the volunteer fire department, and “revitalizing committees through inclusive decision-making processes” are among Clifford’s concerns.

Clifford has experience in contract negotiation, project and database management, and software development. She believes her skills cultivated through building and maintaining team environments, advanced technology proficiencies, informed decision-making processes, and multi-level organizational collaboration have prepared her to be an effective seat-holder on the Ocean Pines Board of Directors.

“I am a strong advocate for a board that listens to our homeowners and prioritizes communication and transparency,” Clifford said. “This election is important and will determine if homeowners in the future are included or excluded in all aspects of our community. All homeowners should have an opportunity to serve and should not be excluded for their differences of opinion. I am confident that we can tackle the greatest challenges we currently face together.”

Heavner gave homeowners insight into his personal and professional background. He is a native Marylander who grew up in Dundalk and spent his summers working at his parents’ boardwalk business in Ocean City.

The candidate graduated from the Naval Academy and served as a United States Intelligence Officer in the military branch, “entrusted with the highest level of information that this country holds.” Heavner then spent 30 years at Exxon Mobil before retiring to the shore.

“My wife and I do a lot in Ocean Pines,” he said. “We garden at the community garden center, we bowl on an Ocean Pines league, I enjoy walking the Pines, and we spend a fair amount of time in volunteer service.”

If re-elected, Heavner assured voters he is committed to the community’s growth. Negotiating a deal for the new South Side Fire Station, securing a multiyear contract with Viola, succession planning for an equally talented future general manager, working to obtain a long-term agreement with the Matt Ortt Companies so they may continue to provide Ocean Pines’ food and beverage services, completing the Racquet Sports Center Clubhouse renovations, Compliance, Permit, and Inspections violation education, and a focus on secondary drainage are among his priorities.

“Those with an incredible vision created Ocean Pines,” the incumbent director said, addressing the voters. “… Its preservation and growth, however, requires leadership from our general manager and board of directors to plan and spend your money wisely. Fortunately, we have a very talented general manager and president of our board.”

The governing body’s current president, Farr, said, “This board has done outstanding service to the Ocean Pines community, which has delivered one of the most successful and prosperous times in its history. This has been a team effort with the collaboration and professionalism of six other directors that Ocean Pines membership voted to serve, along with unwavering support and partnership with our general manager,” he continued.

This success, Farr said, has included a positive year-to-date variance of over $1.2 million, a reduction of yearly assessments “while ensuring that all our amenities are well funded,” an increase in salaries and retirement contributions for Ocean Pines police officers, and a golf course operation revenue of over $400,000 before depreciation.

Additionally, Farr claims that the new Yacht Club Tiki Bar, which opened on Memorial Day Weekend, has generated record sales, and the community’s amenity memberships are over $100,000 more than last year.

Farr served two decades in combat operations in the United States Air Force. He holds a bachelor’s degree in business administration and a master’s in human resource management and currently serves as the chief human resource officer for Easton government. The candidate, who has been an Ocean Pines homeowner since 1999, is also a Worcester County Veterans Memorial Foundation director.

Challenger Peck said that her decision to run comes from her passion for protecting the community’s legacy.

“I am ready to start as a director on day one with institutional knowledge and experience,” she said. “… Wanting the best has me here today. Homeowners deserve a choice, and I did not want an unopposed election because I believe effective governance includes a respectful, open discussion with multiple perspectives, ideas, and solutions. I see the value of committee expertise and listening to the homeowners.”

The candidate said she wishes to protect Ocean Pines from a 6-1 or 7-0 board majority “that blindly votes ‘yes.’”

She hopes to prioritize improved collaboration and restore the group’s relationships with the Ocean Pines Volunteer Fire Department and the advisory committees.

Murphy rounded out initial statements. The competitor came to Ocean Pines in the early 1970s, where he built houses with the Helicon Design Group before opening McDonald’s next to Stephen Decatur High School and on 28th Street in Ocean City.

Murphy returned to Baltimore and began a paper and packaging distribution company. The resident is now a top realtor for Long and Foster Real Estate.

He also serves on the board for a historic building across the bridge.

“Ocean Pines is a place I have seen for 50 years plus evolve into the great community it is today,” the runner said. “I am here to expand on what is going on. We have seen tremendous progress in the last two or three years…I look forward to serving you.”

Following the opening statements, the candidates randomly selected resident-submitted questions. Competitors were not given access to the inquiries beforehand. 

Ocean Pines has approximately 8,500 properties and only two or three CPI inspectors. Clifford was asked if she supports increasing the number of personnel who assess violations. 

“I am all for our enforcement of CPI and keeping our property values high,” the candidate said. “… However, I know we have a Design Management Associates (DMA) reserve study coming up, and we need to make sure we have the proper funding in all areas, so we need to be careful where we spend and do it efficiently and effectively. Having 8,500 homes and only two people to support going around with the violations is low…I would have to work on a study and figure out what we have and what is involved…but I think it’s low…it’s important to keep our home values high and beautiful.” 

Regarding the claim the board often makes decisions contrary to the community’s bylaws, Heavner maintained that the governing body refers to the documents during decision-making. 

“…I read all those documents thoroughly,” he said. “I understand most of them very thoroughly. I constantly read our resolutions and our bylaws. Contrary to what my opponents say that we don’t have independent thinkers on the board, we all are independent thinkers.” 

“All of us try to abide by our rules and regulations,” Heavner continued. “Most of the people on this board have a common vision…A vision of exceptional safety, finances, value, and quality of life. How we get there is by investing in our amenities…we strive for that every day. We may not be perfect, but we strive to abide by our bylaws. And if we don’t, we can learn from it.”

Farr assured voters that OPA has emergency reserve funds. In the case of a natural disaster, the community would first utilize insurance claims, but additional savings are available for unforeseen circumstances. 

When asked how she would prepare for Ocean Pines Board of Directors meetings, Peck emphasized her support for posting agenda packets online in advance. The candidate also intends to ask questions, research, and use data in decision-making. These practices, she said, are necessary to sustain transparency. 

Murphy was asked how he may increase favorability for residents during upcoming contract negotiations for the Matt Ortt Companies. The current agreement, which provides for a half-million payout to the food and beverage service and a $19 per property owner subsidy by the Ocean Pines property owners, is nearing expiration. 

“Matt Ortt and his operations have been doing a fantastic job,” the challenger said. “The Yacht Club used to never have any good food. Matt has put together an operation that attracts…I would like to see it continue. I don’t think any homeowner would have an issue with a $15 assessment to keep Matt on board…Ocean Pines is the benefactor of his operations.” 

In the forum’s final round, candidates were allowed to pose questions to their opponents. 

Murphy asked Peck, who has spoken about her desire for a board with differing perspectives, what value diversity provides when the current governance is in unison. 

“That is how you come up with the best decisions,” Peck answered. “You have someone asking, ‘Where is the data? What is the return on investment? Why is this project costing so much per square foot?’ We do not hear that from this board as a community. It is just hands up ‘yes.’ When coming to decisions, it should be a collaboration. As an independent thinker, I would be asking those questions.” 

Following an inquiry from Peck about OPA’s relationship with the fire department, Farr said that the board is “currently in negations with the fire department as far as where we are going with a new building” and that the association’s communication with the station has “increased immensely.”

“Once a decision has been made, it will be brought to the community,” the president said. “This is something the leadership of the fire department, the board, and the general manager are working through. It is happening as we speak.” 

Farr asked Clifford about her decision to welcome former Ocean Pines police officer Chris Tarr, who was ethically compromised for improper ammunition and firearm custody, onto her community podcast. The episode was released in September 2023. 

“He had something to say, and we gave him the platform to say it,” Clifford said, responding to her opponent’s inquiry. “I value the police department and our fire department. I also believe in giving people a voice so their side of the story may be heard. We are open to communication…” 

Candidates had the opportunity to address voters after the forum. Clifford emphasized her commitment to a board dedicated to integrity, transparency, and accountability. 

She also argued that eliminating advisory committees is detrimental to the community. Notably, this statement comes after the racquet sports group was dissolved in April after mold allegations were proven false. 

“Ocean Pines is a wonderful place to live that should not be governed by a super majority that excludes those that speak or disagree,” Clifford said, addressing the crowd. “Your voice and vote are important and can make a difference when electing board members. Ones that work for you, the homeowner.” 

Heavner emphasized the successes of the current governing group. “…Our amenities continue to be invested in…our beautiful community,” he said. “The board’s responsible for protecting and enhancing this positive momentum. I believe I have demonstrated the ability to keep your trust as a director.” 

Farr reiterated the positive developments the current board has secured. The golf course is profitable, renovations for the racquet sports center building were approved, a local law firm with expertise in HOA regulations was hired, and the community remains financially sound. 

“There has been talk and discussion about a 6-1 majority,” the president said.  “I will remind the candidates here that the Ocean Pines residents voted for this board…” 

Peck maintained that a shakeup in board representation is needed to give homeowners greater transparency. 

“If this election had gone unopposed, the super board majority, where it appears decisions are being made via email and behind closed doors, without…discussion and respect for the committees, would continue …,” she argued. 

Murphy, who ran for the board last year, said he is running to be a part of a successful team. “I commit myself to transparency, integrity, commitment to our property owners and all the residents,” the challenger said. 

The ballot deadline for voters is Tuesday, August 6, by 4 p.m. The results will be announced on Thursday, August 8. 

This story appears in the June 20, 2024, print edition of the Bayside Gazette.