BERLIN — Mayor Gee Williams officially announced his campaign for re-election this week.
“I pledge to do all within my ability to continue to promote Berlin as a community steeped in traditional American values while also embracing all the technological advances that create opportunities for economic development and the conveniences of life in the 21st Century,” wrote Williams in a press release confirming his bid for re-election next month.
During Williams’ years as mayor, Berlin has seen a significant boost in business growth and town development. However, the mayor and the town have also been embroiled in a few cases of controversy and criticism in that time as well.
Elected to the council in 2003, Williams’ run as mayor began in May 2008 when he took over after then Mayor Tom Cardinale’s death. After serving as interim mayor for less than a year, Williams won a four-year term that fall.
Since then, Berlin has seen some big changes. Whether or not town leadership can be directly credited for the boom, it’s impossible to deny that business in Berlin, especially the downtown area, has expanded aggressively, all despite a sluggish national economy.
“This has created a level of private investment and new jobs unlike anything Berlin has seen before,” Williams said. “Through the belief, commitment and vision of a variety of entrepreneurs and with the full cooperation and support of the Mayor and Council, Berlin has gone from a quarter century of revitalization into an era that many are calling Berlin’s Renaissance.”
In the downtown sector alone, the number of businesses has doubled from 30 to 60 within Williams’ term. Many new business owners have cited town cooperation being important in allowing them to open.
Besides growth in the private sector, Berlin has also seen reductions to its budget.
“All of this has been accomplished while putting the town on the best financial footing Berlin has ever seen,” reported Williams. “We have reduced the annual budget during my first term from $16.3 million to the current level of $13.4 million while also making more numerous and strategic investments in our future than ever before.”
Even with the reduction to the town budget, taxes and utility rates have also gone down. The property tax rate dropped 5 cents per $100 of assessed value this summer while residential electric rates have also decreased. Likewise, town is currently seeking approval from the Maryland Public Service Commission to lower non-residential rates as well.
Berlin has experienced another boom as far as special events go.
“I pledge to continue seeking support for special events for Berlin because I know they are helping to drive economic development in our community,” said the mayor. “By expanding the number and variety of events that can be enjoyed by people of all ages, we are expanding our appeal to a more diverse range of people in terms of demographics and from a wider region than ever before.
Despite the signs of success, Williams’ management of Berlin has seen a fair share of critics.
Under Williams, the town has found itself in the middle of a number of controversies; most recently over the decision to sever all funding to the Berlin Fire Company (BFC) based on a disagreement over personnel management and allegations of harassment within the BFC. Besides causing a schism between the town and the fire department, the incident has put Berlin on the business end of a wrongful termination lawsuit by a former BFC employee.
Likewise under Williams’ leadership, council disbanded one of its own agencies, the Berlin Utilities Commission (BUC), a controversial move that brought up claims of the government becoming opaque and leaving residents out of decisions. Additionally, while special events have seen a boost in attendance, the town has also drawn criticism, sometimes from council members, over the fact that more and more events are being granted permission to sell alcohol on town streets.
It should be noted, however, that no serious alcohol related incidents have yet been reported during any town event.
Perhaps the largest shadow over Williams’ term came in the fall of 2010. After Berlin’s Historic District Commission (HDC), ruled that the Atlantic Hotel had violated town code by installing vinyl windows on their property without permission, Williams made the controversial and unexpected decision to order town employees not to enforce the HDC’s ruling.
Williams’ interference directly caused then HDC President Bob McIntosh to resign in frustration and prompted a written rebuke from the Maryland Attorney General’s office.
While the mayor may have detractors, he has always been quick to point to the success of Berlin in terms of business growth and benefits for residents as proof that current policies are working. If re-elected, Williams said he plans to focus on projects such as establishing a Stormwater Utility and managing town growth in such a way as to preserve the historic appeal of Berlin while accommodating an influx of business and development in the next four years.