Some Berlin Citizens Seeking More Transparency

BERLIN — Upset over current affairs in Berlin, a group of citizens, led by Councilwoman Lisa Hall, are looking to encourage other residents to get more involved in the town. Mayor Gee Williams, while agreeing that more residents need to become involved in government, called the group’s criticisms “frivolous” and believes Lisa Hall is motivated by personal reasons.

Lisa Hall and her husband, Bill Hall, and citizen Donald Bunting issued a public call this week to Berlin residents asking them to become more active in what’s happening in their town. In their opinion, many aspects of government are being handled privately when they should be dealt with in public, a claim the administration denies.

“I am hoping people will start taking more of an interest in our town,” Bunting said. “We are trying to wake the people of Berlin up. We have people moving out of town and houses are going up for sale all over the place. People are just letting their homes go because of the economy.”

In June, Bunting filed a Freedom of Information Act request with Town Administrator Tony Carson, seeking salary information for Berlin employees. Bunting received the information a few weeks later and shared the figures with this newspaper.

“People were surprised to see these salaries and particularly when they are getting raises,” he said. “Nobody else in this country is getting raises and they are getting raises. Look at Ocean City, Worcester County [no raises] …”

Lisa Hall agreed that salaries are out of line when compared to other towns with comparable salaries.

“We are so upside down. We have a budget with towns three times the population of ours. That’s what really sticks out to me,” she said.

Williams, however, said that Bunting and Lisa Hall are viewing the issue illogically.

“Should I change my personal budget based on my neighbor’s circumstances?” he asked.

Berlin is its own entity, continued Williams, and its budget does not and should not reflect what is going on in surrounding towns. As for the raises, Williams reiterated that the group led by Lisa Hall is comparing apples to oranges. Berlin’s budget is independent of Ocean City and other towns, he said. Even if those municipalities couldn’t afford to give raises, Berlin could and did.

“I think the salaries are in line with our budget … and our budget is in the best shape it’s been in years,” said Williams.

Other concerns raised by the group include having an excess of employees, specifically police and electric utility workers, given the population of Berlin. Williams responded to the criticism by asserting his belief every employee the town currently has is vital, especially police. Public safety, he said, “is our number one obligation to our citizens.”

“As a safe community, there’s hardly a better place to be [than Berlin],” he said.

As for the utility department, Lisa Hall contends the employees don’t have enough to do during the offseason.

“There’s nothing for the electric company to do during the winter,” she said. “We are not generating power then.”

Williams replied that the number of employees working at the plant has decreased during his term. Additionally, he said that line operators in the utility department have their hands full year-round, responding to utility emergencies at the drop of a hat, among their other duties.

According to Bunting and the Halls, there is a concern among many citizens that Berlin is being controlled by a select few in the town: Carson, Williams and Councilman Troy Purnell. It’s a claim that Lisa Hall has maintained for months and also one that Carson, Williams and Purnell deny emphatically.

“These guys run the town, and the rest of us are left trying to find out what’s going on,” Lisa Hall said. “The public needs to know that because they just shut me down over and over again.”

Bill Hall added, “We need them to be more transparent.”

According to Williams, Lisa Hall is making wild accusations just to stir the pot.

“I think her motivations for this are political, not practical,” he said.

For her part, Lisa Hall pointed to her effort to obtain financial data on the town’s electric plant for the last three years as an example of how the administration stonewalls her.

“I have asked over and over how much money have we spent on the electric plant since the day Gee became interim mayor,” she said. “How can they give me spreadsheets now that we spent all this money and the electric plant is making money? No, no. I’m not an accountant, but no, we did not turn the electric plant around and spend millions and millions of dollars.”

Communication problems, said Williams, do exist. However, he claims that Lisa Hall is the one being uncommunicative with the administration and other council members.

As for overall transparency, Williams welcomes any concerned citizen to inquire about any aspect of the town. He referenced how quickly Carson provided Bunting with the salary information he requested as a prime example.

One thing that both Lisa Hall and Williams agree on is that town residents shouldn’t hesitate to become active in government. Lisa Hall said it’s imperative to let citizens know they have to express themselves at city meetings or privately to their elected officials. Otherwise, the leadership will assume the community is happy with everything.

“They don’t want to come [to the meetings] because they feel it’s a waste of time and that we are going to do what we are going to do anyway,” she said. “The thing that disturbs me the most is it’s constantly coming up the dais that ‘we treat everyone the same.’ No we don’t., no we don’t, and it’s obvious.”

Williams disagreed entirely with Lisa Hall that people felt speaking out or attending meetings is a waste of time.

When people come in to speak “they are treated with respect” and allowed to give input to the council during meetings, said Williams. He pointed to the recent drafting of new town ordinances dealing with vacant buildings, lawn care and rental properties, all of which were heavily influenced by citizen comments, to back up his point.

Bunting and the Halls left Williams with a challenge against the administration’s claims that Berlin’s finances are thriving.

“I’d love to see a complete audit,” said Bill Hall.

Williams also welcomed an audit, saying that he expects the results to be the best they’ve been “in years, if not ever.”

In response to Lisa Hall’s claims she has substantial support within the town, Williams is ready to lay the cards on the table.

“We’ll find out [if people agree with Lisa Hall] when we have the election,” he said.