Posted on July 7, 2021
OCEAN CITY — A week after declining to vote on a new contract with the firm ACT engineering, and more than a month after pulling the same contract from an agenda, City Council last week approved a $67,500 deal for engineering services with the Robbinsville company.
The 6-1 vote came at council’s July 1 reorganization meeting, an annual event typically reserved for routine business and electing the council president. In election years, it is also when the successful candidates take the oath of office, but there were no races this year.
Instead, council had an extensive discussion about the ACT contract after Councilman Peter Madden brought forward a motion to add it to the agenda. The resolution was approved in a 6-1 vote, with Council President Bob Barr voting no and other members offering reluctant support.
The meeting also saw a rare challenge over who would wield the gavel as council president over the next year.
Barr just completed his first year as president. Madden, the former president, nominated Councilwoman Karen Bergman for the position, but not before Councilman Keith Hartzell put Barr’s name forward for another year. Barr was approved in a 5-2 vote, with Madden and Bergman voting no.
Much of the meeting was spent on the contract with ACT engineering to perform a bathymetric survey of the back bays, the first step in planning for future dredging projects to keep the waterways free of silt. It involves measuring the changing water depth in the lagoons.
For years, the city has worked with ACT on dredging, with the city administration also recommending the firm for drainage and paving work. But the firm has come under fire this year, with members of the local watchdog group Fairness In Taxes arguing it charges Ocean City more than other towns for similar work.
Some members of council now want all engineering work to go to bid. City Business Administrator George Savastano said he is working on that, but it takes time.
“When you have a company that we’ve worked with for six years and then you say you want to change horses in mid-stream, It’s going to slow things down a little bit,” Savastano told council members.
Residents raised the issue at the June 24 meeting, imploring council to speed the process of keeping the back bay lagoons clear of silt and passable to boats. They said previous efforts have kept the waterways clear after years of delay, and asked the city to continue those efforts.
“Right before the last dredging project, it was so bad that I saw kayaks run aground in the mouth of the 16th Street lagoon. So it was a problem,” resident Jack Davidson said at the June meeting. “The dredging effort really paid off. My concern is the project moving forward.”
Hartzell said residents also complained on social media. He suggested the complaints grew out of an organized effort. He and Councilman Michael DeVlieger said council members want to see the dredging work continue.
“There’s a lot of good people here that got snookered into coming in to complain about something that I don’t think anybody up here has any intention of stopping,” DeVlieger said.
The city administration denied any effort to organize neighbors.
According to Savastano, the resolution was originally set to be voted on May 18 but was removed from the agenda at the request of council members. Madden pushed for a vote at the June meeting but did not get enough support on council to bring the matter for a vote.
He was more successful Thursday, handing out copies of the resolution to council members at the meeting.
Only Barr voted no on the contract.
Madden argued that ACT has done a great job on the dredging projects so far. The largest portion of the cost is the contract to perform the work, he said, not the engineering firm that designs the project, and he said ACT has covered a significant portion of its own costs through grants.
Some of those members who voted in favor of the resolution expressed frustration with the city administration. Council members DeVlieger and Jody Levchuk said it would be the last time they voted in favor of a contract without a competitive bid.
“I’m not going to do it again,” said DeVlieger. “A no-bid contract for a paper clip, I’m not going to approve it.”
ACT Engineering helped shepherd an earlier multimillion-dollar effort to clear the city’s back bay lagoons of silt and mud, a project that won enthusiastic praise.
“It makes the people on council look like the bad guys if it doesn’t go through. And that’s nonsense,” said DeVlieger. “Everyone sitting at this table agrees, dredging is very good. It’s needed.”