Citing Beautification Change Of Direction, Berlin Council Questions Mayor’s Communication Style

Citing Beautification Change Of Direction, Berlin Council Questions Mayor’s Communication Style
The memorial garden at the corner of Main and West streets in Berlin is pictured. Photo by Charlene Sharpe

BERLIN – Town council members asked for better communication from Mayor Zack Tyndall in the wake of a decision related to beautification efforts in Berlin.

Council members expressed concern this week regarding Tyndall’s recent decision to end the town’s arrangement with a local resident who maintained the memorial garden on Main Street. They indicated they wanted to hear about changes from Tyndall before they heard about them upset citizens.

“We’re not trying to interfere with the day to day operations of this town because you and (Town Administrator) Jeff (Fleetwood) and the staff need to have the authority to operate this town, but when there comes a change, a change in the operation or the plan of this town, I think it’s only considerate to share that with the council,” Councilman Dean Burrell said.

At the end of Monday’s council meeting, Councilman Jay Knerr questioned Tyndall’s decision to terminate the services of Judy Ashton, a local resident who has taken care of the memorial garden for the past decade at a cost of $3,200 a year. Tyndall said he’d advised her her services wouldn’t be needed past September, as the town was hoping to leverage the funding allocated to the memorial garden to get some beautification grants.

“The way this came to a head now, as opposed to budget planning process, is a check was actually written to Ms. Ashton for $800 after we had talked about discontinuing those services,” Tyndall said. “So when that check was issued, the town administrator and I talked and we said we were going to honor the check that was sent out to Ms. Ashton and that brought her services all the way through to September… It has nothing to do with the level of service she has provided. It has nothing to do with the care she provides to the flowers at the memorial. It’s just that we have a finite amount of resources and we want to try to take those as far as we possibly can.”

Knerr said if Tyndall had intended to discontinue Ashton’s services she shouldn’t have been provided a purchase order.

“I understand you want to do other things, that’s all well and good, but if the intention was to use her services for a year then we should have used those services,” Knerr said.

Tyndall said that was not his intention, as budget discussions had related to terminating Ashton’s services.

Burrell said making changes was within the mayor’s authority but that those changes might “sit a little better” if Tyndall shared details with the council during the process, not after the fact.

Tyndall said he didn’t understand Burrell’s comment.

“When we look at this, none of this is a fun part of the job,” he said. “Like nobody gets happy fuzzy feelings when they have to call somebody and say ‘hey look we’re redirecting some of that money in a different way to help leverage a little bit.’”

Burrell said he thought the change was a good idea but would have preferred to hear about it from the mayor. Tyndall said there had been opportunities to discuss it during the budget process. He said the recent contact with Ashton had been a result of the fact that she was inaccurately issued a payment.

Finance Director Natalie Saleh objected. She said Tyndall and staff had talked about creating a beautification committee and ending the relationship with Ashton but that no specific instructions had ever been issued. She said instructions to stop paying Ashton came after the check had been cut.

“That’s not accurate information,” Tyndall said, adding that the statement made during the budget process was that the town would not be continuing with Ashton in fiscal year 2022.

Ivy Wells, the town’s economic and community development director, corroborated Saleh’s account of the budget discussion.

“We were going to continue her services for a year while we investigated, and that’s why we wrote the grant to see if we could get some extra money—to be able to use that money to help with some other gardens—but I don’t recall at all canceling Judy in the middle of the year,” Wells said.

Tyndall said he recalled otherwise.

“I remember that slightly differently but memories are fickle,” he said. “I understand that is something that could have been inaccurate. Needless to say we are not moving forward with Ms. Ashton’s services at this time.”

Knerr said he wished Tyndall had informed the council of that earlier.

“This is a new role for me,” Tyndall said. “It’s a new role for many of us. I feel that sometimes the target is moving. I want to do a good job, I want to be transparent with everybody, but there are a lot of decisions that take place in my position on a daily basis.”

He said he tried to summarize what he felt were sizable changes in communications with the council. He said he’d provided a page summary of the garden changes when Councilwoman Shaneka Nichols had asked him about it.

“That was after I had gotten phone calls, or I had gotten email messages, saying ‘what is going on? What happened with Judy?’ And I’m like wait a minute what’s going on?” Nichols said.

Tyndall said he tried to keep the council informed and that his fellow elected officials were always welcome to reach out to him. Nichols maintained that she’d have preferred to know about this change earlier.

“Then it would have been something we would have been able to respond to rather than react to,” she said.

Burrell echoed that sentiment.

“We as a council want you to be successful because when you are successful we are successful, the town of Berlin is successful,” he said. “What I’ve tried to do, I’ve tried to offer you some advice on how to keep us together and moving in the same direction. If you would share your ideas and share your aspirations before you take action, especially when it impacts on the nature and operation and plans of the town, my comment was intended in that light.”

Tyndall went on to advise the council that he was suggesting they form a beautification committee to target flowers and gardens throughout town. Burrell said he’d like to see more detail before proceeding. Councilman Jack Orris said he’d like to see Ashton on the committee and that the town should reach out to her.

“I can’t speak for everybody but maybe some sort of apology/please continue to help us out if you’re willing,” he said.

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.