BERLIN – The Maryland Open Meetings Compliance Board found the Town of Berlin did not violate the Open Meetings Act when it closed three meetings related to the development of Heron Park.
While resident Edward Hammond believes the town used the Request for Proposals (RFP) process for Heron Park to evade the Open Meetings Act, the state board issued an opinion July 24 finding no violations by the town.
“Having reviewed the minutes for these closed sessions, we are satisfied that the Council’s decision to close these three sessions was reasonably grounded in a concern for safeguarding its ‘ability to participate in the competitive proposal process,’” the opinion reads.
Following Town of Berlin Open Meeting Act violations identified by the Open Meetings Compliance Board in March and June of 2023, Hammond asked the board to weigh in on closed session meetings held by the Berlin Town Council that occurred on March 21, 2022, July 25, 2022, and March 23, 2023. Hammond asserted that the council’s plans for the possible development of Heron Park were not specific enough to warrant closed meetings. He also shared concern that Mayor Zack Tyndall started negotiating with Palmer Gillis, one of two respondents to the town’s RFP for Heron Park, before the RFP was issued.
“But whatever the Mayor’s pre-RFP contacts with the developer, it appears to us that the proposal process that the RFP initiated was, in fact, competitive,” the opinion reads. “As we often remind parties, the Board is not a fact-finding body; we do not investigate factual allegations.”
Hammond said this week the board’s review of what occurred in Berlin was limited.
“Nothing in the ruling changes the fact that the mayor tried to negotiate the chicken plant deal in secret when there was no compelling reason to do so,” Hammond said. “The Board’s Opinion does not say that the RFP complied with procurement law nor does it identify any strategy of the mayor’s that would have been adversely impacted by open discussion. As the Board does not establish facts, the scope of its review was far more limited than a court, and the Board’s conclusion that the Open Meetings Act was not violated is limited to its view of the outward appearances of the matter from the Western Shore.”
Hammond said there was currently little agreement in town about what to do with the Heron Park property because not enough of the discussion had been open to the public.
“There has been widespread disagreement among the Town’s citizens with the mayor’s sophomoric attempts at a deal with the developer, beginning with the Town Council members who favor ending the negotiation, and numerous public comments, an unenthusiastic discussion at the Parks Commission, and most recently a unanimous opinion of the Planning Commission that the talks should end,” he said. “To this day, there is little agreement in Berlin as to what to do with the property because of a lack of public engagement and public process by town officials. For that reason, a time limited committee of local experts to develop a clean sheet plan for Heron Park has been proposed, and this plan has been recommended to the Council by the entire Planning Commission.”
He added that most of the public discussion in Berlin about the park had been about using the property as a park, not regarding its sale as developable land.
“Thus there is little agreement in Berlin about disposing of some or all of the property because there has been little public engagement and public process by Town officials on that subject,” he said. “That is one important reason why a time limited committee of local experts to develop a clean sheet plan for Heron Park has been proposed, and this plan has been recommended to the Council by the entire Planning Commission.”