The official start of summer dawned over Ocean City like a resort publicist’s dream—alabaster clouds drifted lazily across the blue-ribbon sky—and Richard W. “Rick” Meehan was gearing up to take a break from selling real estate and join a charity golf tournament he had marked on his calendar weeks earlier. But the clubs would remain in the bag that late June morning. Instead, Meehan would spend the day on the back of a fire truck, riding with (and welcoming) the thousands of firemen from around the mid-Atlantic who had flocked to Ocean City for their annual parade down Baltimore Avenue.
Rick Meehan is the new—and somewhat unplanned—Mayor of Ocean City for the summer of 2006. The former city council president was promoted this past June after then-Mayor James N. Mathias Jr. was appointed by Governor Bob Ehrlich to fill the vacancy in the House of Delegates created when Worcester County’s Bennett Bozman died in April. Meehan’s current term is a brief one: He’ll have to win the October 17 town election to serve a full four years.
Meehan first laid eyes on Ocean City when his family, which had moved to Towson in 1959 from Cleveland, vacationed in the resort town in the summer of 1962. He was 14 years old and something—the salt air, the sweet taffy, the beach—flipped a switch inside him that’s never been turned off. Beginning in the mid-1960s, he spent every summer at the beach, usually working as the “change guy” at the Funcade casino-arcade on the boardwalk.
“It was a different world back then,” he says. “Everybody knew everybody. The town basically stopped at 28th Street [Ocean City now ends at 146th Street]. I was the most visible person on the boardwalk at 9th Street. There weren’t cell phones then. If you wanted to transfer information to anybody, people came to see me. I knew where all the parties were.”
Meehan moved to Ocean City for good in 1971 after graduating from the University of Baltimore. It was a watershed era for young entrepreneurs; he and a pal opened O.C. Rags, a now defunct unisex clothing boutique. He hung out with a group of friends whose names are now synonymous with successful Ocean City nightlife and leisure—John Fager, Macky Stancil, Billy Carder, Buck Mann.
“There was opportunity here,” he says. “We saw a place that was just beginning to evolve in many ways.”
That evolution owes its success to the town’s mayors. And with the exception of Baltimore City, no top official of any municipality in the state is more recognizable than the mayor of Ocean City. That’s partly because they tend to keep their seats for a long time. Harry W. Kelley was the town’s mayor and chief figurehead from 1970 until he died in 1985, while on vacation in Florida. His elected successor was Roland E. Powell, an avuncular man better known to countless beachgoers as “Fish,” who served until he retired in 1996. Powell was followed that same year by Mathias.
But longevity in office is not the only reason we recognize the mayor of Ocean City. In a town where the year-round population of about 7,200 residents sometimes rockets beyond 320,000 vacationers, the mayor is nearly omnipresent. Whether seated on the viewing stand before a river of parading firefighters, welcoming attendees at the Ocean City Convention Center, greeting sunburned throngs on the boardwalk, or assuring TV viewers that the resort has survived the latest hurricane, the mayor is the very public face of the town.
Those who work with Meehan say he’s likely to be soft-spoken, articulate, and better at accommodating dissenting opinions than his predecessor. As council president, Meehan set public meeting agendas and ran the council with a gentle hand. “If I was ever criticized as council president,” he says, “it was because sometimes I let people talk for too long. My philosophy was that I wasn’t going to let anybody walk out of that council room and say, ‘They didn’t give me a chance.’” Meehan says he’s aware that the office can make a man seem bigger than life, but he says he’s not sure what his particular persona will be.
Just how important Ocean City is to Meehan became apparent a few years ago when he was making a sales call in a new $600,000 condo that had been built next to the boardwalk. “I could stand out on the balcony and look next door at the place where I used to work for 90 cents an hour—and my son was working there,” he recalls. “I looked the other way at the Alaska Stand, and my daughter was working there. So here I am, 30 years after I arrived, and I’m on the same block and both of my kids are working there.”