BERLIN – The town’s department heads shared their challenges and accomplishments with Berlin’s newly elected officials during an orientation this week.
The director of each municipal department met with Mayor Zack Tyndall and Councilmembers Jay Knerr, Shaneka Nichols and Jack Orris — who were all elected this month — in an orientation session Wednesday.
“This is a very informal session,” Town Administrator Jeff Fleetwood said. “It’s designed for everyone in this room to share about their department.”
Department leaders each provided an overview as far as their duties and addressed what they considered highlights and challenges for the town. Several longtime employees, including Deputy Town Administrator Mary Bohlen and Police Chief Arnold Downing, talked about how the town had changed over the decades. Bohlen addressed the array of information now available to everyone with the internet and encouraged officials to ask questions when they didn’t understand something.
“Keep in mind that people don’t understand as new councilmembers you’re not magically granted knowledge the moment you are elected,” Bohlen said. “You have a lot to learn. Please don’t hesitate to ask questions.”
Downing, who has worked in town 29 years and spent the last 18 as police chief, said that what had started as a small department had to grow when a hospital, schools and countless medical offices came to town. He said the primary issue his department faced was recruiting new officers, which is now a challenge nationwide. Downing said that he tried to be creative, offering flexible schedules and education opportunities, to attract new officers.
“We have to sell ourselves, we have to sell the town,” he said.
He added that the town still needed to do its best to offer competitive salaries to ensure officers weren’t gobbled up by larger departments.
“A police department means nothing if you don’t have anybody in it,” he said.
Downing also brought up the issue of capital spending, which has been curtailed in recent years. He said if vehicles and equipment weren’t replaced regularly they’d all need to be replaced at once which would be a big expense for the town.
“We’re going to have to catch up,” he said.
Like other department directors, Downing also encouraged frequent communication between elected officials and town staff.
“If you have a question or concern I shouldn’t hear it from the dais,” he said. “I should hear it at three o’clock in the afternoon when it becomes an issue.”
He said if officials approached him when they had a concern he could address it immediately or do any required research and get back to them.
“If you go ahead and surprise me here (in council chambers) it’s not going to be good,” he said. “If you surprise anyone else here, it’s not going to be good. Because the answer’s not going to be something you want to hear…if it’s a true concern we wouldn’t wait two weeks to go ahead and address it.”
Directors of the town’s electric utility and water resources departments encouraged officials to tour their facilities to grasp a better understanding of the town’s infrastructure. The town’s electric department, which has focused on lowering rates and increasing reliability, just added a new natural gas engine. The town’s water resources department operates the largest spray irrigation system in Maryland using treated effluent.
“It would be beneficial if you saw the town’s infrastructure and what we do on a day to day basis,” said Jamey Latchum, stormwater and wastewater superintendent.
Ivy Wells, Berlin’s director of economic and community development, said that while she didn’t have anything tangible to show officials she helped find grants, keep commercial spaces occupied and promote Berlin as a destination. She said she’d also worked to grow the town’s social media and search engine presence.
“I think social media became the new town square,” she said.
Councilmembers thanked town staff for the insight.
“I’m very excited for the new responsibility and opportunity as a newly elected councilmember,” Orris said.
Knerr said he was inspired by the teamwork he saw among staff.
“I look forward to working with you,” he said.
Nichols said she was trying to take in as much as she could about the municipality so she’d be able to serve her constituents well.
“Learning the town from the inside out is a great thing,” she said.
Tyndall, who spent the last four years as a councilman, said he’d benefited from visiting the town’s facilities and echoed Latchum’s suggestion of tours. He also said that even though they each represented a district, the councilmembers should think more broadly.
“Yes you run in a district, but once you’re elected you represent the whole town,” he said. “The decisions you make affect people that live in all the districts.”