Berlin Ethics Commission Finds No Issues With Appointment; Five Complaints Were Filed

Berlin Ethics Commission Finds No Issues With Appointment; Five Complaints Were Filed
File photo by Chris Parypa

BERLIN – The town’s ethics commission on Wednesday dismissed complaints filed regarding a recent planning commission appointment.

The Berlin Ethics Commission met Wednesday to review five complaints filed regarding the appointment of Austin Purnell to the Berlin Planning Commission. Purnell was nominated by Mayor Gee Williams and approved by the town council on Monday.

“The ethics commission unanimously voted there was no violation,” Town Administrator Jeff Fleetwood said.

Citizens Jason Walter, Marie Velong, Kim Holloway, James Meckley and Mary Hedlesky filed complaints related to Purnell’s appointment to the planning commission. In her complaint, Velong cited the section of the town’s code that said trust was eroded when town business had improper influence or the appearance of improper influence. She pointed out that Purnell is the son of a sitting councilman and works with his father, who is heavily involved in local real estate. She said Purnell companies had an interest in many properties throughout Berlin and around it.

“Austin Purnell’s position on the planning commission would always be suspect in any decisions that were made whether he recused himself or not,” her complaint reads.

Fleetwood said the ethics commission reviewed each complaint separately Wednesday and confirmed that the code included language addressing the need for officials to recuse themselves when necessary.

“The commission found Mr. Purnell was legally nominated by the mayor and confirmed by the council,” Fleetwood said. “The commission voted to dismiss the complaint after determining that there are insufficient facts alleged upon which to base a determination of a violation of the ethics ordinance.”

Walter expressed his disappointment with the commission’s decision.

“Under the manipulative hand of Mayor Williams, the elected leadership of Berlin has routinely failed the taxpayer,” he said. “Today the appointed members of the ethics commission fell in line with their appointer’s wish, a local developer/councilman gets another ‘in’ and the taxpayer will again be left to suffer the consequences of poor leadership.”

Williams, however, maintains that he would not have nominated Purnell for the position if there was any question regarding ethics.

“I would have never nominated Austin if I thought there were any ethical issues involved,” Williams said. “Based on my experience as a journalist and as a public servant, this is a totally appropriate nomination and I think it received the approval it deserved. I stand by what I said Monday. If you must have no relationship with anyone in this town to serve, then I don’t think you are qualified. I’d rather have people who understand what is happening, where we’ve come from and where we’re trying to go.”

Walter believes that rather than appoint Purnell on Monday, the council should have supported the efforts by Councilman Zack Tyndall to table the appointment until after Berlin’s election.

“Though technically legal, this appointment does not reflect favorably on the town of Berlin,” Walter said. “Purnell’s ties to local real estate development, … within our municipal limits presents a clear, assured and unavoidable conflict of interest. It is impossible for him to participate in the discussion as a commissioner without bias, without conflict or receipt of personal benefit. There are many intelligent and capable folks residing in Berlin that could have filled this seat.”

Walter also quoted Maryland Municipal League suggestions regarding ethics policy.

“’Ethics codes address the basic situations and issues that face a city or town and its officials,” he said. “’However, in many situations the community will demand a higher standard. Successful city/town administrations will recognize and conform to these higher standards. One general guideline is to avoid doing those things that may be technically legal but would not reflect favorably on the town or the official if published on the front page of the local paper.’”

About The Author: Charlene Sharpe

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Charlene Sharpe has been with The Dispatch since 2014. A graduate of Stephen Decatur High School and the University of Richmond, she spent seven years with the Delmarva Media Group before joining the team at The Dispatch.