Berlin Cancels Closed Session To Discuss Wage Study Findings

BERLIN – Elected officials abandoned plans for a closed session meeting after hearing concerns from a resident.

The Berlin Town Council on Monday voted unanimously not to go into a previously scheduled closed session after considering an objection from resident Jason Walter. The objection came less than two weeks after officials were advised that one of their January meetings had violated the Maryland Open Meetings Act. Officials stressed that they weren’t trying to do anything wrong.

“Nobody’s out here trying to be nefarious,” Mayor Zack Tyndall said. “Nobody’s out here trying to circumvent the law.”

The council gathered at town hall at 5 p.m. Monday to discuss the wage compensation and salary study that’s been done by Paypoint HR. According to the agenda, the meeting was to be closed in accordance with the provisions related to personnel matters. Tyndall, however, advised the council a complaint had been received from a member of the public.

Tyndall said Walter objected to the session because discussion wasn’t going to focus on any specific employee but rather employees in general. Walter said the discussion must involve individual employees in order for the meeting to be closed and cited opinions that supported that assertion.

“Without the ability to read these opinions cited I really can’t give you an opinion,” said David Gaskill, the town’s attorney, when asked for his input.

Councilman Steve Green said Walter had called him around 4 p.m. to share his objections to the 5 p.m. closed session. He said that after the last open meetings violation, councilmembers had encouraged anyone who received a complaint to share it with the entire body.

Councilman Jack Orris said he didn’t believe the pay study qualified as a closed session item based on what Walter had pointed out. Councilman Dean Burrell agreed and said that in this case the town wouldn’t be discussing individuals. Councilman Jay Knerr said Walter had called him and shared opinions in support of his objection. Based on those opinions he said he too felt the discussion should not be held in closed session.

Green agreed but said he was concerned about deliberations on the pay study moving forward and the looming discussion about setting a property tax rate. Tyndall echoed that concern and said he wasn’t sure how Paypoint HR representatives felt about talking publicly. He said it was important for staff members to still meet with them.

“We still need to move our budget forward and this is a very important part of that,” he said.

Knerr said he also wanted to hear from Gaskill once he’d had time to research the opinions Walter had provided. While the council voted unanimously not to hold the closed session meeting, during the subsequent open session officials stressed that they never intended to operate outside of open meetings guidelines. Orris said the Open Meetings Act manual was essentially a living document and needed to be reviewed regularly. Tyndall said officials should bookmark the link so they could check the manual any time they had questions. Councilwoman Shaneka Nichols said that while things might slip through the cracks, officials had good intentions.

“We don’t sit here and deliberately say ‘let’s see what we can do today.’ That’s not what we do,” she said. “But do we get things wrong periodically? Yeah, we do.”

Tyndall agreed.

“Nobody’s trying to do things that are not above board,” he said. “With that being said, there are groups that oversee the work we do. The open meetings compliance board is an advisory board. We greatly appreciate their advice but sometimes they may advise that they see or interpret things differently than we see or interpret things.”

Burrell stressed that he wanted to hear from the public.

“I think it is imperative that we listen to those folks that have concerns and try to search out the best opinion possible, or the best interpretation, so I want us to be receptive to those concerns that come,” he said.

Green, the newest council member, said he’d been impressed with the body’s level of transparency. He added, however, that officials should err on the side of caution when it came to closing meetings.

“I think we did the right thing today,” he said.

On Tuesday, Walter said he’d objected to the closed session this week because public bodies, while they have 15 exceptions to open meetings, are supposed to act in favor of open meetings. According to Walter, meetings are to be open except “in special and appropriate circumstances.”

“In Berlin, closed sessions are scheduled twice monthly,” Walter said. “The exception invoked this week, like all others, is limited in scope and does not permit general discussion of personnel matters not related to specific individuals. Discussion of a study falls under general discussion.”

In March, the Open Meetings Compliance Board issued an opinion saying a January meeting the council held should not have been in closed session. The town was also cited for Open Meetings Act violations after two meetings in November of 2020. Both complaints were filed by Walter, who believes town officials meet in closed session too often.

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.