The signature count is coming down to the wire.
Proponents of an initiative to allow "bring your own bottle" (BYOB) restaurants in this dry town have very little time to finish collecting 747 valid signatures of registered Ocean City voters on a petition that calls for a Nov. 8 public vote on the issue.
In order for it to be included on the ballot for the Nov. 8 election, City Clerk Linda MacIntyre must submit the public question to the county clerk by Sept. 6 (a Saturday). Before she does that, she must verify all the signatures on the petition, a process she has 20 calendar days to complete. If she finds inconsistencies, the petitioners would have 10 days to address them. Then MacIntyre would have to verify any changes.
The variables are too many to pin down an exact deadline for the BYOB petitioners to submit their signatures. But counting 30 calendar days back from Sept. 6 (20 for verification of signatures and 10 to address any potential issues) yields a rough deadline of Saturday, Aug. 7.
MacIntyre said Monday that her entire staff is prepared to work on the verification process, but because her office has never handled a petition of this size and because she has no idea how many potentially questionable signatures the petition might include, she can't estimate how long the process will take -- it could be shorter than 20 days.
One of the chief proponents of the BYOB petition, Bill McGinnity, owner of Cousin's Restaurant, refused Sunday to say exactly how many signatures he and his committee have collected.
But McGinnity, an Ocean City native who now lives in Linwood and cannot vote in the referendum, added supporters continue to collect signatures this week and they feel certain they will have enough valid signatures to trigger a referendum.
But Richard Stanislaw, a major opponent of the BYOB initiative, doubts there will be enough.
"This is a specific ordinance that includes booze on the boardwalk. We don't need that. But we would be opposed to any BYOB. You don't mess with success. This place is different," said Stanislaw, a city resident for nine years and visitor for 50.
If there are enough valid names collected, a political action committee will be formed to raise money and organize voters opposed to the proposal, Stanislaw added.
"I'm thinking they won't have enough signatures," Stanislaw, president of the Ocean City Tabernacle, said after a Sunday Tabernacle service.
Stanislaw said the Tabernacle's charter requires upholding the town's founding principles, including temperance.
"Those early guys meant no alcohol when they said that," he said, alluding to the Methodist ministers who founded the city.
"The city's working fine the way it is, that's the bottom line," Stanislaw said.
The Tabernacle has also devoted a website page to opposing BYOBs. The site urges several actions, including posting lawn signs and contacting city politicians, who have already preemptively opposed the BYOB option.
Stanislaw also said on Sunday that after he told one petition supporter, Michael Carlin, that he was "disappointed" that Carlin was supporting the petition, Carlin quit the committee.
Carlin had previously said he quit after he was confronted at the Tabernacle and also at St. Peter's Methodist Church in early June, but he had declined to say who had spoken to him at either institution. Stanislaw said he was "careful" to do no more than express his disappointment in Carlin. He said he did not know who else may have spoken to Carlin, nor what, if anything, they said.
Stanislaw acknowledged that non-profit religious organizations such as the Tabernacle are not allowed to substantially involve themselves in political activities under federal guidelines.
"But we're not doing much," other than distributing signs opposing changing Ocean City and hosting the anti-BYOB webpage, said Stanislaw.
"A PAC would be formed if we did more. But it would not be us directly. We would encourage the formation of a political action committee," should enough signatures be validated to trigger an election, he said.
A PAC is necessary because the Tabernacle, an untaxed religious organization under Internal Revenue Service guidelines, is prohibited from "substantial lobbying."
Known as a 501(c) (3) organization, organizations such as the Tabernacle "may engage in some lobbying, but too much lobbying activity risks loss of tax-exempt status," according to IRS guidelines.
The federal guidelines continue:
"A church or religious organization will be regarded as attempting to influence legislation if it contacts, or urges the public to contact, members or employees of a legislative body for the purpose of proposing, supporting, or opposing legislation, or if the organization advocates the adoption or rejection of legislation.
"Churches and religious organizations may, however, involve themselves in issues of public policy without the activity being considered as lobbying. For example, churches may conduct educational meetings, prepare and distribute educational materials, or otherwise consider public policy issues in an educational manner without jeopardizing their tax-exempt status."
McGinnity said supporters, many of them members of the city's restaurant association, feel "targeted" by the actions of opponents, including a call to boycott restaurants supporting the proposed change.
"I've thought about wearing a T-shirt with a bullseye on my chest," he said, but he added he does not believe the boycott has worked.
Sharon Hoffman of Captain Bob's Seafood on 55th Street, one of the places collecting signatures, isn't so sure.
She said she's missing a few regular customers, but she's unsure if that's due to a dismal economy or the boycott.
And as to collecting signatures, she said it "is a slow process" that is "shrugging along."
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