Councilwoman Questions Berlin Practices

BERLIN — Discussion over updating Berlin’s Town Standard Preface led one council member to harshly criticize some of her colleagues this week and to question how the town’s government operates.

“It’s all smoke and mirrors,” said Councilwoman Lisa Hall.

Many of those criticized, including Mayor Gee Williams and Coucnilman Troy Purnell, were dismissive of Hall’s accusations, asserting that they were completely without merit.

“We’ve got the best team we’ve ever had,” said Williams, referring to Berlin’s current crop of officials and department heads.

In Williams’ opinion, Berlin is in the best financial condition it has been in years. And in light of the national economy, that success is something he finds especially impressive. Hall, however, wasn’t as satisfied with the state of the town.

“You’ve got Troy and Gee and [Town Administrator] Tony [Carson] running the show,” she said. “If Gee’s done what he’s said he’s done these last three years, we need to vote him for president.”

Hall was less critical of the other members of the council, but still remarked that they were too complacent, voting “safely” and allowing Williams and Purnell to helm most decisions. Councilmen Dean Burrell and Elroy Brittingham, however, are beginning to become more vocal, said Hall.

“They’re finally starting to roll with me,” she said.

Williams called the idea of the council being led by two people unrealistic and stressed that all six Mayor and council members have an equal vote which neither he nor Purnell ever attempt to solicit.

Monday’s debate over updating the Town Standard Preface, while just one in a serious of clashes between Hall and the council, served as the catalyst for Hall to make public comments about a number of problems she said have long been boiling over. The update, which would allow Carson, the town’s engineering firm Davis Bowen and Friedel, and any “appropriate personal,” to okay alterations to materials and plans during development, was considered a minor “housekeeping” issue by the council, but caused Hall to cry foul.

By allowing developers to change aspects of their plans without coming before the council, Hall asserted that a shroud is being thrown over transparency in government, permitting town officials to sneak alterations that benefit the developer without the public noticing. Hall asked the council how far Carson’s powers would extend, and what is in place to stop a developer from just deciding to change the placement or size of a road, among other things.

“That is so farfetched,” said Purnell.

According to Purnell, the update in preferences is something that has been anticipated from the start, and should be re-examined annually to further incorporate any new changes.

The vast majority of cases covered by the update, said Purnell, will deal with minor substitutions in materials and the replacement of items that may no longer be in production, relatively simple calls that he doesn’t believe need to be delayed for a week or two before the council gets a chance to see them.

“We need to find a balance between being practical and what should be the responsibility of the Mayor and Council in building the town and applying standards,” said Williams.

Purnell found the idea of the town and a developer conspiring unlikely and questioned what kind of developer would arbitrarily attempt to make massive changes to any project. Even if they tried, continued Purnell, Carson and the rest of the administration wouldn’t allow it.

“They’re hired to protect the town,” said Purnell. “The engineer is certainly not going to put the town in a precarious position.”

Williams added that Carson and the rest of the staff have done an incredible job in the last few years, not only helping the town survive but to actually generate a surplus.

“What more could you ask? They’re human, not magicians,” said Williams.

Councilwoman Paula Lynch pointed out that the town could end its relationship with Carson or the engineering firm at any time if they decide an inadequate job is being done, a statement Carson himself heartily agreed with. Despite the assurances, Hall remained skeptical.

Her harshest criticism for the night was reserved for Purnell, a developer in the area along with his duties on the council.

“You continue to represent the developer,” she told Purnell, “I’ll represent the rate payer.”

After Purnell protested that he also represented the rate payer, Hall stated that she would have to “agree to disagree with [him] on that one.” Hall has accused Purnell of divided loyalties before, but recently revealed that she is considering lodging an ethics complaint against him. As a developer, argued Hall, Purnell has no business serving on the council, and should recuse himself from every discussion involving development.

“Troy should not be allowed to vote or speak on any business pertaining to developments,” she said.

Besides questioning his motives as an elected official, Hall was also critical of Purnell as a developer, remarking that he has “ruined the most beautiful, scenic entrance into Berlin,” with work he’s done on Broad St.

For his part, Purnell felt Hall’s expectations and definition of “conflict of interest” were overblown and pointed out that he does recuse himself from any council business dealing directly with a project he is working on. As for matters involving development in Berlin in general, Purnell noted that decisions made by the council affect all developers equally, both his company and competition, and thus do not present a conflict of interest to him personally.

When Hall questioned the legality of the situation, town attorney Dave Gaskill sided with Purnell, agreeing that as long as Purnell recused himself from agenda items dealing with his own projects, he had every legal right to vote on matters dealing with development.

Gaskill’s opinion wasn’t enough to convince Hall however, and she told The Dispatch that she is still considering filing an ethics complaint. One part of that complaint, she added, would be concerned with the times when Purnell recuses himself from discussion over his projects, but stays in the room and comments. She referenced one incident in particular, discussion over the Cottages at Berlin, when she says Purnell, “spoke non-stop from the front row.”

“Technically, he shouldn’t even be in the room,” said Hall.

Whether Hall will pursue an ethics complaint despite Gaskill’s legal opinion is yet to be seen, but she said she will be looking into other areas in town leadership where she believes problems exist.

“Gee’s all about pretty, shiny things … He’s not looking out for everybody,” said Hall. “We don’t treat everybody the same.”

Though Hall has a laundry list of things she believes are wrong with how the town is run, when questioned, she boiled her goal down to an effort to see every council seat, including her own, contested during the next election.

“I’m going to change that dais,” she asserted, adding that she would do it at the cost of her own seat if that was necessary. “Next year is going to be another good election.”

While Williams evidenced frustration during the meeting over Hall’s accusations, he maintained later he respected her right to an opinion. Williams did stress, though, that it was just an opinion, and one he doesn’t believe is shared by the majority of the town. Williams underlined how successful he felt Berlin is becoming under the current leadership, pulling in state and national recognition, awards and grants.

“You don’t get those grants by asking for them,” he said. “You have to earn them.”

Williams fielded Hall’s criticism with good humor at times, noting that his job “doesn’t have many perks, but has plenty of criticism.”

At the end of the night, the council voted in favor of approving the updates to the town standard preface, with Hall the lone opposing vote.