Residents Contend Ongoing Berlin Park Property Talks Violate Open Meetings Act

Residents Contend Ongoing Berlin Park Property Talks Violate Open Meetings Act
The dilapidated former poultry processing plant building located on Heron Park's property is pictured. File photo by Charlene Sharpe

BERLIN – A state board is now considering two complaints related to closed meetings held by Berlin officials related to Heron Park.

Two residents have complaints filed with the Open Meetings Compliance Board (OMCB) regarding closed meetings town officials held regarding Heron Park. The latest, filed by resident Edward Hammond, alleges the town used the RFP (request for proposal) process to evade the Open Meetings Act.

“I filed the complaint because the Town needs to improve the quality of its governance and, to me, that means transparency and broader participation,” Hammond said. “We aren’t a small and stagnant town of 2,000 people anymore, like it was when I was a kid, and that means the town government can’t keep working like a private clique of good old boys.”

The town has spent much of the past year negotiating with Palmer Gillis’ Coastal Ventures Properties, which submitted a proposal to buy about 20 acres of the 63-acre Heron Park property. That proposal offered the town $1.5 million for three parcels — parcel 410,57 and 191 — and would involve partial demolition of the existing structures to create a commercial project. Since then, a subcommittee of elected officials has been meeting with the company to negotiate an agreement. The subcommittee includes Mayor Zack Tyndall, Councilmen Jay Knerr and Jack Orris, town attorney Dave Gaskill and town administrator Mary Bohlen.

In April, resident Jason Walter filed a complaint with the OMCB regarding closed session council meetings that had been held regarding Heron Park on March 21, 2022, July 25, 2022, and March 23, 2023. He also said meetings by the Heron Park subcommittee—meetings that consisted of the mayor, two council members, the town administrator and the town attorney—should have been advertised and open to the public.

David Gaskill, the town attorney, did not respond to a request for comment but in his reply to the OMCB said the contract had not yet been awarded.

“If the Council was required to reveal its negotiating strategy and the content of its negotiations thus far at a public meeting, its ability to participate in the proposal process would be adversely impacted in a far reaching way,” he wrote. “If an agreement is not reached with Coastal Ventures Properties, LLC, the town would be immensely harmed if all the terms it was considering, including sale price, were publicly exposed.”

The board has not yet ruled on the complaint but earlier this week, Hammond submitted a complaint of his own related to the closed session Heron Park meetings. He objects to the fact that they were closed to discuss the RFP for the property.

“Most everyone, including me, agrees that the Town needs to bring closure to the chicken plant mess in a way that makes sense financially and that best satisfies community expectations about how the land should be used,” Hammond said. “To do that, we need a land use plan for the property that has community buy-in.  This has been especially obvious since the bidders for the plant property submitted proposals that would have taken the land and still left us with a pile of debt.”

He said more needs to be considered.

“What sort of park do we want, do we want a skate park, an amphitheater?” he said. “Does the Town still need storage space? How much of the property and what parts of it should be for residences, commercial, industrial, or government?  The townspeople, us residents and taxpayers, never settled any of these questions together. Unfortunately instead of building a plan with community buy-in, what happened is that a few of our elected officials decided that they would take all those questions into a secret room with a big developer.”

Hammond doesn’t believe officials mean to violate open meetings procedures but that they have misjudged the situation.

“The secret process with the developer should be ended, and an open and accessible committee of local volunteers, who have credentials and experience in public planning and land development should instead consult with citizens and put together a clean sheet land use plan for the property,” he said. “Once we know what goes in and what goes where, then we can start selling parts of it off to get out from under the debt and other liabilities the town undertook when it bought the place.”

Walter, whose previous complaints to the OMCB regarding Berlin meeting practices have resulted in violations, has been frustrated regarding Heron Park meetings for some time. He says there is no reason the subcommittee should have met privately and that the procurement exception should not have been used to close council meetings related to the park because those meetings were closed after negotiations had already been entered with Gillis. He’s also worried that the lengthy negotiations will result in the town losing the ability to use the $500,000 demolition grant it received for Heron Park.

“In reality, the Town of Berlin has engaged in backroom horse trading with the developer in a sale of taxpayer owned property and has in my opinion clearly violated the act,” he said. “As a crucial grant dead line rapidly approaches, the taxpayer is being held in jeopardy by delay and a lack of sunshine.”

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.