Harry Kelley, the inimitable mayor of this seaside town, has no quarrel with any suggestions that he is "rude, crude, irascible and abrasive." But the loquacious pepperpot is hotter than usual these days about a local newspaper that he claims has a "personal vendetta" against him.
Kelley was so mad, in fact, that he took out a paid advertisement in which he invited the publisher and editor of the twice-weekly Maryland Coast Press to "join me in the ring where right (my fist) can be master of might (your pen)."
Before doing that, Kelley circulated a memo to his department heads instructing that no advertising be bought from the paper. "You must realize that the owner and publisher have a personal vendetta," Kelley wrote in his third-person prose. That being the case "it is his (Kelley's) prerogative that we do not support such a chronicle.
Sitting back in his chair during a recent interview, shoes off and feet on the desk, Kelley recounted the other weapons in his arsenal against the 12,000-circulation tabloid. With the zeal of a car dealer advising customers about his rivals, Kelley counted off all the dirty little stories he said he knows -- and will spread if necessary -- about Richard Lohmeyer, publisher of the Coast Press.
What did this newspaper do to incur such wrath?
Kelley says it is simply the result of a continuous stream of hostile editorials, stories that create "bad morale" for the city, and the deep personal hostility the publisher feels for the mayor.
The most recent act of unkindness was a series of stories suggesting the mayor had been improperly "fixing" parking tickets for preferred visitors to the beach resort.
The story began late last month when the Coast Press pursued a tip on the matter from inside the police department. The paper, according to Editor John Trumpower, came up with 10 tickets specifically left unprosecuted on the request of the mayor:
A story was scheduled for Aug. 13, but the mayor, not to be upstaged, called a press conference two days earlier at which he not only admitted but boasted of fixing selected tickets. He said that he wanted every newspaper to get the story rather than allowing one to "get a scoop" on the others.
The tickets, Kelley said, had been issued to cars owned by firemen attending their annual convention in Ocean City. "It's been common knowledge for 25 years," insisted Kelley, that all parking tickets issued to visiting firemen could be voided upon request.
Kelley said it was tradition, based on a well-known agreement set up under his mayoral precesessors. Despite some commentary to the contrary, Kelly said it was "unbelievable people say they didn't know anything about it."
"I've been doing it for 10 years now," he said defiantly, "and it'll be 11 if I'm reelected." (Kelly is up for reelection Sept. 15 against two minor opponents.)
If the firemen weren't accorded a bit of special treatment, he said, they would find another resort for their convention of 3,000 people. "We've get to offer them a little more," he told the Coast Press. It was "a little ice cream on the cake."
The Coast Press dutifully printed the mayor's side of the story, noting the mayor said he had a special place in his heart for firemen -- who, he said, are "more important than ambassadors or diplomats in what they give to the people."
The paper did add a few flourishes to the account. Its first move was to splash an enlarged photo of a check written by the city to cover one of the tickets across almost half of the front page. And in later issues the paper took note of every related detail and possible inconsistency in the mayor's story.
On Aug. 22, it printed a story detailing the suspension of two police employes, and it reported that "department sources say the suspensions are result of Mayor Harry Kelley's directive . . . to "get rid of the stoolies."
On Aug. 27, it printed a story detailing three other voided tickets, clearly not belonging to visiting firemen.
"We don't hate the mayor," said Lohmeyer at his office, "I was even considering backing him for reelection -- not because he was good but because we couldn't support the others."
That aside, the publisher said, "we just print the news. I've made the previous mayor say I hate him too, but I haven't written a word about him since he's been out of office."
"When the mayor says 'right,'" said editor Trumpower, "we tend to ask for the 'left.' We'll ask for the other side. For instance, when the mayor started bulldozing to control beach erosion, I called people in Miami to see if they had any luck with their program. "A guy down there told me they'd quit two years earlier, and I included that."
The Maryland Coast Press, say the two, is friendly if skeptical. Nothing personal, they say, and the editor begs that their relationshp with the mayor not be labelled "a feud."
Indeed, the paper's editorial position notes that "the relationship between Mayor Harry Kelly and the Maryland Coast Press is often tenuous at best," but maintainsd that "we're not 'after' the mayor and bear no grudges, nor crosses for that matter.We simply print the news and limit our opinion to the editorial page. Those who think otherwise are foolish."
Such conforting words notwithstanding, the mayor remains certain that Lohmeyer "doesn't like me . . . I know who's with me and who's against me."
When it comes to newspaper, Kelley said, "the bigger the press, the better they like me." His office is testimony to the attention he's received over the past 10 years. Hanging on his wall, for instance, is an issue of the Baltimore Sun's Sunday magazine featuring him as the cover story and describing him as the "scrappy" mayor of Ocean City.
He also has press clippings from all over the country recounting his effort last year to bury 26,000 gallons of gaoline, which he billed "insurance" for tourists worried about the availability of gasoline on the shore.
On the eve of this Labor Day weekend, he was anticipating encounters with the Baltimore Sun and a Washington television station, both of which have treated him favorably.
"Oh, they might flex their muscles once in a while," he said. "But I know I still got a good relationship with them."
The Ocean City papers, in contrast, "don't have any ability to write good human features stories. They got peanuts for brains, and they got no credibility.
"I run this city," he bellowed again and again. "This is my city and I make the rules. You treat me right and I'll give you anything you want. You treat me wrong, and I'll give you nothing."