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OPA candidate forum explores backgrounds

By Greg Ellison

Hopefuls talk about their expertise and accomplishments

(June 25, 2020) Although unable to stage a face-to-face debate because of covid-19 safety restrictions, the three OPA Board of Directors candidates vying for a pair of open seats addressed roughly a dozen questions during a virtual election forum last Wednesday.

The 2020 Ocean Pines Election Forum, which was coordinated by the Elections Committee and moderated by Chairman Steve Habeger, launched online at 7 p.m. and ran for a little more than an hour.

In addition to incumbents Doug Parks and Dr. Colette Horn, first-time candidate Stuart Lakernick, whose spouse is former board member Esther Diller, participated in the online question-and-answer session. Each candidate also provided brief biographies of themselves.

Horn said her initial involvement as a board candidate in 2016 was based on what she perceived to be dissension within the group and questionable financial directives.

Once elected as a board member, Horn said, her focus was fostering professionalism, ethics and teamwork.

“We got a lot accomplished and had a $500,000 surplus to end this fiscal year,” she said.

Horn was instrumental in securing the contract with current General Manager John Viola.

“We took our first step in the development of a succession plan for our GM position by specifying the characteristics needed for success,” she said.

OPA President Doug Parks, who has been a fulltime resident since 2013 after purchasing a home in 2007, highlighted business acumen, teamwork and prior board experience as primary assets for candidacy.

“I continue to run because I still have desire to use my time … energy and … focus to … serve our community,” he said.

Lakernick, a Pines property owner since 2013, is approaching retirement after operating a chiropractic functional neurologist practice outside Philadelphia and specializing in traumatic brain injuries.

“The last two boards have made great progress in fixing a financial nightmare and improving our amenities,” he said. “I want the opportunity to offer a fresh set of eyes and continue to involve community groups in the decisions.”

The first question related to the current covid-19 pandemic and potential guiding principals to manage future actions of the association.

Parks said the unprecedented economic problems stemming from the pandemic makes establishing contingency plans difficult.

“You really have to adjust in real time in order to address those kinds of issues that come up,” he said.

Despite the increasing desire to transition from a societal lockdown to normalcy, Parks stressed the need to stick with state and federal health mandates.

“Safety is paramount,” he said.

Reopening plans for OPA amenities should balance the desire for access with the financial impact on association members, he said.

Lakernick, highlighting experience as a medical professional, reiterated the importance of wearing face coverings and practicing social distancing.

“We all want to reopen, but we need to do it smart,” he said. “My experience as a doctor can help maintain the safety of the community.”

Horn also cited a safety-first policy in terms of amenities reopening.

“The board needs to … set a positive example for observing those mandates,” she said. “We’re the public face of the association and the community.”

Horn said the board should continue closely monitoring revenue and expense ratios to mitigate negative financial impacts.

Another inquiry raised the issue of financial expectations that amenities are either operated self-sufficiently or underwritten by membership.

Horn said association governing documents mandate that member fees, to the extent possible, should finance amenities.

“The most important thing is to balance the quality and the access to the amenities with the cost,” she said.

Lakernick said amenities are primarily intended for the community.

“We need to do everything we can to subsidize the cost of them,” he said. “This may not be popular, but outside folks using our amenities pay for them also.”

In addition to potential raising fees for non-members to access amenities, Lakernick also proposed developing marketing plans for golf operations and the recreation department.

Parks noted OPA Resolution M-02 requires that amenities be operated in a business-like manner.

“We had talked about a couple years ago [and] I would like to stay focused on the use of an amenity by an OPA member and … by a non-OPA member,” he said.

Echoing earlier discussions, Parks noted the price difference for outside users is not significantly higher and should be reexamined.

“It’s also important for the membership to know that, indeed, the outside use of these facilities is, revenue-wise, helped by people not in the association paying for it,” he said.

In response to a question about developing a strategic planning for the OPA, Horn said the issue has been a vexing problem.

“Our Strategic Planning Committee in the past has struggled and went off track,” she said.

Horn said the advisory committee is in the midst of being revived under the leadership of board liaison Camilla Rogers.

“We need to think about what other services and amenities we may want to consider to enhance the quality of life for our members,” she said.

Lakernick took that sentiment another step noting demographic shifts.

“Part of our Strategic Plan has to be to cater towards a younger group that seems to be moving into our community,” he said.

Lakernick also stressed the importance of preventative maintenance to alleviate drainage problems from excessive storm water runoff as well as preserving bulkheads.

“I’ve heard from folks … they’d like to see streetlights [and] that’s something we can look into,” he said.

Developing a succession plan for the general manager position was another issue raised by Lakernick.

“[John Viola] is doing a great job. However, we need to plan for the future [so] if the general manager does turnover or moves on, we don’t miss a beat,” he said.

Parks said there have been concerted efforts in the past year to revive the Strategic Planning Committee.

“One of the things we discussed during those meetings was having … Strategic Planning … not just as an advisory committee to the board but reaching out to the community,” he said.

In response to a question about improving cell phone service in the Pines, each candidate noted any solution would likely involve installing additional towers.

In response to a question about alleviating traffic congestion at the Mumford’s Landing Boat Ramp, Lakernick suggested installing a card access gate.

“We need to be able to monitor access [and] maybe have a camera … or put a guard [there],” he said. “Maybe we can charge a fee … that might deter some of the folks that use it.”

Parks said the Marine Advisory Committee, which had previously gathered usage data for the White Horse Park Boat Ramp, could again be enlisted in finding solutions.

“Mumford’s is a little different … in the community outside of Ocean Pines there are more commercial folks that understand that’s a really good way to get their boat in the water,” he said.

Horn backed the suggestion to involve the Marine Advisory Committee.

“There are a number of things that we could do at both the boat ramps to address the access issues [and] getting a little bit of revenue … to pay for themselves,” she said.

In a surprise move, the candidates were also permitted to pose a question to another candidate, starting with Horn asking Lakernick to share insights on addressing the Pines’ drainage challenges.

“We need to have two, maybe three, people dedicated to ditch maintenance,” he said.

Noting the pines contains more than 200 miles of ditches and roadways, Lakernick highlighted the importance of performing preventative maintenance.

“You’ve got people that have waterfront property that didn’t buy waterfront property,” he said. “We need to help them.”

Switching roles, Lakernick asked Horn to share her thoughts about subsequent general manager hires.

“I have been talking about succession planning pretty much since the day I joined the board,” she said.

Horn stressed the importance of identifying the qualities needed for future GM candidates to succeed.

“Not repeating those mistakes of the past, in which people came on the board with [a] plan to get rid of the seated GM … but having no plan in mind,” she said.

Parks used his turn at the plate to ask Lakernick what board level changes he would support if elected.

Enhanced oversight of the general manager position was the area of focus mentioned by Lakernick.

“We can’t let the GM run our board,” he said. “We are the board and the GM answers to us.”

Lakernick, who was selected first to provide a closing statement, said despite being the “new guy” this election, past volunteering efforts should provide ample evidence of earnest commitment.

“What I lack in experience I make up in years of community service,” he said.

Parks highlighted past accomplishments as a board member, including outsourcing food operations to the Matt Ortt Companies, negotiating a service contract with Comcast and completing capital improvement projects such as the new Golf Clubhouse and in-progress Police Building expansion.

“I’ve worked with this group that has collectively worked very diligently to right the ship,” he said. “For the first time in years we’re going to finish in the black this year and that’s a testament to all involved.”

Horn expressed a desire to help build on the track record of recent successes by the board.

“Diverse backgrounds and expertise makes a well balanced and strong board,” she said. “Each of the current candidates has unique knowledge and expertise that undoubtedly is going to add value to the board.”