BERLIN — While a surprise write-in candidate for mayor shook up what was expected to be a quiet election in Berlin this week, the last-minute effort was not successful enough to change the composition of the council.
After voters hit the polls Tuesday, Mayor Gee Williams, District II Councilmember Lisa Hall and District III Councilmember Elroy Brittingham emerged victorious in their re-election bids. Of the three, Hall was the only one to have an official opponent on the ballot, Ronald Marney, who achieved 68 votes to her 169. Brittingham ran completely unopposed.
The big surprise of the day came in the mayor’s race, however, with write-in candidate Ellen Lang managing to secure 122 votes. Williams earned 335 votes, but still expressed deep irritation at the manner in which Lang came out of nowhere to almost perform an election upset. According to Williams, it wasn’t an underdog story but an unethical attempt by a special interest in the town to purposefully setup an uncontested election and then take advantage of low voter turnout to throw a coup for mayor.
Williams accused the Berlin Fire Company (BFC) of attempting to “ambush” him by not finding a candidate to declare an official run for mayor and campaign but instead waiting until the election appeared all but won before conducting a massive write-in effort.
“It has been verified that the Berlin Fire Company is campaigning today to have another town resident,” claimed Williams in a statement posted to his Facebook, “who has not filed for election, be elected by write-in vote as Mayor of the Town of Berlin. Rather than openly encourage and support a candidate to run against me, they are trying this underhanded and behind the scenes tactic, to eliminate me as Mayor.”
Williams went on to call for all residents who care about “responsibility, respect, and the truth,” to head to the polls and vote their support in what they likely thought was supposed to be an uncontested election. He went on to describe the entire situation as a “sneak attack” and labeled it “not only unorthodox but unprecedented around here.”
A few days after Williams’ accusations, the BFC issued a statement denying any involvement in the election.
“The Mayor’s accusation is false,” read the statement. “The fire company has not participated in support of any political campaigns, as is our formal policy.”
The statement went on to note that individual members of the company are free to support any candidate they wish but that the BFC doesn’t ever lend “organizational support” to any member’s campaign efforts.
“Mayor Williams should recognize the distinction,” continued the statement. “The fire company’s policy of non-involvement in elections is clear and long-standing. … Of further concern is the fact that individual fire company members were approached by candidates at the polls, asked their names and asked to disclose for whom they voted – and going so far as to take pictures – merely because they wore a fire company tag or had a fire company sticker on their vehicle. No candidate should be entitled to press any voter for such information.”
Williams was skeptical that the campaigning for Lang by BFC members happened without the knowledge and consent of company leadership, which Williams has repeatedly called “irresponsible” in the way they are handling the situation between the agency and the town.
The public issues between the town and the BFC are relatively recent. Allegations of employee harassment last February in the company led the town to step-in and conduct an investigation which resulted in the eventual dismissal of a veteran member of the BFC and an increase in involvement by the town in day-to-day company operations. This in turn didn’t set well with BFC leadership, which claimed the council’s presence was interfering with the company’s first priority of public safety. The BFC then severed all authority the council held over it, prompting the council to cut all town funding to the company to the tune of about $600,000 a year.
It is Williams’ belief that this split was the basis of the BFC’s alleged covert campaign to oust him.
“It was a referendum, as I see it, on Berlin’s future,” said Williams, who later said “a lot of people went to the polls to make a statement … I think many citizens who voted are appalled by the tactics and intent of the fire company.”
However bumpy the election might have been, Williams said that he has already put it behind him and is excited in approaching his new term. He outlined three early goals that he would like the council to work toward including expanding parking downtown, fighting to lower the non-residential electric rate, and setting up a stormwater utility to deal with Berlin’s long-running flooding issues.
Coming off her own recent victory, Hall also announced that she believes stormwater is a priority issue in Berlin, though she didn’t go so far as to advocate for a separate town utility as is Williams’ plan.