Councilman Cleared Of Ethics Charge In Closed Meeting

BERLIN – The ethics complaint against Berlin Councilman Troy Purnell fizzled out last week when complainant Marge Coyman refused to participate in the Ethics Commission hearing.

While the complaint will no longer be pursued, the matter never got a full public airing.

“I certainly would have liked to have gone through the process so everyone could have had all the story, not just her allegations,” Purnell said later.

Purnell said he had not been worried about the outcome of the hearing.  “I know I did nothing wrong,” Purnell said.

The saga began March 5, 2009 when Coyman filed an ethics complaint against Purnell alleging that he should have recused himself, as a local developer with projects in Berlin, from discussions and voting on a new method of charging for wastewater capacity on Feb. 23, 2009.

Town attorney Dave Gaskill advised Purnell twice that his participation in the discussion was legal, however, since the subject was not Purnell’s projects specifically, but a new policy that would affect all development in Berlin.

In a closed session last summer, the commission determined Purnell had violated the town’s ethics law.

Mayor Gee Williams felt the decision could not stand since Purnell had not been given an opportunity to defend himself. New procedures were then modeled on existing ethics complaint procedures in the state.

Before the hearing started on Thursday, Coyman questioned why the meeting was necessary. “My opinion is you’ve already given an opinion,” Coyman said.

Commission Chair Paul Gorman said that the hearing would be held that night. The meeting was then closed to the public.

According to a report issued by the commission, Coyman refused to take part in the hearing and left.

The commission then considered the complaint withdrawn and thus dismissed and did not render an opinion on the alleged violation.

Questions have been raised over the closure of the meeting to the public, which consisted on Thursday night of four local journalists. The press was informed of the meeting by the mayor. The accusation that an elected official committed an ethics breach should be aired in public, some felt.

The commission intended to hear the complaint against Purnell in open meeting, Gorman said, but decided after Coyman indicated she would not testify to support her complaint to close the meeting to the public.

“The board was not trying to hide anything, truly. What the board was trying to do was follow through on the new procedures,” said Gorman.

Williams later said the decision to close the meeting is in the hands of the commission and he stands by that decision.