Replacing Powell brings wave of Ocean City interest Mayor steps down

four candidates in race to replace him

September 24, 1996|By Dail Willis | Dail Willis,SUN STAFF

OCEAN CITY -- At 5: 01 on a sunny fall afternoon last week, a political era came to an official end: Roland E. "Fish" Powell, who has been mayor here since 1985, did not file for re-election before the close of business.

Instead, the 68-year-old Ocean City native says, he's going to go fishing and spend time with his family.

"In a way, it'll be nice to miss it," he says of the mayor's job. "If I want to cut my grass or go fishing, I can."

Powell's decision, rumored for months, has opened up one of the most visible mayoral jobs in the state. Although largely an honorary title -- the administration of the resort rests with a city manager -- the mayor of Ocean City historically has been an active player in Annapolis, keeping the General Assembly apprised of the town's interests and concerns.

Even before Powell's exit last Tuesday, this year's election has generated intense local interest and a lively political debate. Four candidates, two of them City Council members who resigned to run for mayor, will be on the ballot Oct. 15, and for the first time in anyone's memory, no Ocean City native is in the race.

Powell has made no recommendation about his successor, and the politicking has been fierce -- surprisingly so in a town with only 5,300 or so registered voters. "For a little town, this place gets hot," he says with a bemused smile. "Most places can't get enough people to fill the vacancies, but not here."

The four candidates seeking the mayor's job have been campaigning heavily since Labor Day. Campaign signs dot nearly every corner along the 10-mile length of Coastal Highway, and all four hopefuls have gone door to door at every opportunity.

No clear favorite has emerged. Even Powell, probably the town's most seasoned political observer, says he doesn't see a front-runner.

The candidates are:

45, one of the two City Council members who resigned to seek the mayoralty. Born in Baltimore, he spent childhood vacations in Ocean City before moving here in 1972 and taking over his father's arcade and pool hall business.

Mathias says the town is at a crossroads, and he wants to direct its future.

"Last summer was a wake-up call for me and I didn't like what I saw," he says of the summer of 1995. One Baltimore teen was killed in a dispute with a landlord, two others died in accidents, and a child was killed when a sand tunnel collapsed on him.

"I think it's time we defined where we're going as a city," Mathias says. Public safety and management of town resources are two important issues, he says. Like the other three candidates, he is opposed to any form of casino gambling, arguing that it will wreck the town's economy, which is largely built on small businesses such as his.

One of the livelier -- some call it trivial -- issues that has emerged is the commercialism of "wrapping" city buses, where the entire exterior of a bus (including windows) is painted with advertising. Two buses have been wrapped, one advertising a Coca-Cola product and the other promoting the city-owned Eagle's Landing golf course. Mathias says he doesn't object to the practice, because it raises about $3,000 each year per bus for the town.

also a former city councilman, says the biggest issue is bridges.

"The Route 50 bridge is over 50 years old," he says. Finding state and local money to replace it would be a top priority if he is elected mayor, he says, as well as building a third bridge at the north end of town to help handle the flow of 350,000 visitors the town gets each summer.

"It's a small town in one way, yet the infrastructure makes us a big town," says Feehley, 69. He also is from Baltimore, and was an Ocean City lifeguard 50 years ago. He has remained interested in lifeguarding, he says, and this year represented the United States in the International Lifeguard Competition held in Africa.

Feehley moved to Ocean City 40 years ago. His interest in the mayor's office grew from his service on the council.

"I've been elected to council four times -- I think I would be the logical one to run," he says.

He is dismissive of the bus-wrapping issue. "That's such a minor issue when you think about bridges," he says.

is the only woman in the mayor's race. She uses her own cartoons as political advertising and sees the major issue as a different kind of bridge.

"I'm a bridge builder," says Pillas, 49. "The voice of the people is falling on deaf ears again. I want dialogue about any issue that's difficult." Although she doesn't support casino gambling, she says it needs to be discussed before being dismissed.

Pillas, an administrator for a federal pilot program called Caregivers, also is from the Baltimore area and came to Ocean City as a child before moving here in 1984. Her husband, Perry, runs a clothing store on the boardwalk.

She has been using cartoons to illustrate her position on the issues, buying space in the town's newspapers to run the multipaneled drawings.

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