Berlin Tweaking Meeting Procedures After Violations

BERLIN – Elected officials opted not to hold a closed session meeting this week after expressing concern about the lack of public notice.

Less than a week after being advised of prior violations by the state’s Open Meetings Compliance Board, the Berlin Town Council voted unanimously not to hold a closed session meeting Monday. Councilman Dean Burrell pointed out that while a closed session had been advertised, the public hadn’t been aware the meeting would begin in open session.

“Because this meeting was not publicized as an open session meeting, would it be appropriate for us to go into closed session now?” Burrell said. “Because although we have had notice out there that this was going to be an executive session meeting, the general public did not know to attend.”

Unlike previous closed session council meetings, Monday’s began in open session. Mayor Zack Tyndall advised the council the purpose of the closed session would be to discuss a negotiating strategy associated with selling a portion of Heron Park. Before a motion to go into closed session was made, however, Burrell voiced his concerns. David Gaskill, the town’s attorney, agreed with his interpretation and the council proceeded to vote not to meet in closed session on Monday.

“For tonight’s purposes the one thing we did not do was advertise that we were going to be in open session at 6:30 prior to entertaining whether we were going to closed session,” Gaskill said. “It needs to be advertised to the public.”

Tyndall said the town had only just become aware of certain practices related to open meetings that it hadn’t been following. He said that officials were committed to being open and transparent in the future.

When the regular open session of the meeting began at 7 p.m., Tyndall listed the Open Meetings Act issues that had been identified by the Open Meetings Compliance Board after it reviewed minutes from a November meeting. He said the town had violated four requirements — pre-meeting notice, properly closing a session, limiting closed session to matters within the exception claimed and providing a closed session summary at the next open meeting.

“We are going to use these findings as an opportunity to enhance our transparency,” he said.

From now on, the mayor said any time the council was going to hold a closed session it would first convene an open session so that citizens would have a chance to object to the closed session being held.

“If there’s merit to the objection we will be weighing that,” he said.

While the meetings currently being held are all virtual, he said the same practices would be in place when the town returned to in-person meetings.

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.