BERLIN– The town’s strategic planning process will continue but not until January, officials decided this week.
On Monday, the Berlin Town Council voted 3-2 to continue working with Salisbury University’s Business, Economic and Community Outreach Network (BEACON) for phase two of the town’s strategic plan. Concerns about limited participation from residents so far, however, prompted officials to delay public input sessions until January.
“January is a much calmer time, we could market it better, get that date out there early,” Councilman Jay Knerr said.
In August, the town agreed to spend $9,300 with BEACON on the first phase of a strategic plan. John Hickman, director of BEACON, told the council at the time that the program had a dual mission of community outreach and experiential learning and that all projects are completed with teams of graduate and undergraduate students under faculty supervision. Hickman told the council the purpose of the town’s strategic plan was to look at Berlin’s strengths and weaknesses as well as its opportunities. He said BEACON proposed a three-part process for the town’s plan.
Hickman attended this week’s council meeting to share the results from the first phase, through which 111 citizens responded to a BEACON survey.
Councilman Dean Burrell said he was disappointed that BEACON had started the process from scratch and hadn’t used the town’s 2016 strategic plan as a base.
“We use it as context,” Hickman said, adding that his team didn’t want to ask leading questions related to a prior plan but rather open-ended questions.
Mayor Zack Tyndall said the 2016 plan hadn’t been created through the same process as the current plan was being created. Burrell said that plan had been citizen driven though.
“We have missed an opportunity to plot the town’s progress from then until now,” Burrell said.
Councilman Jack Orris questioned if 111 surveys could be considered “citizen driven.” Hickman said BEACON had also participated in a listening session with the town’s business community.
“Is that community listening to you or are you listening to community?” Orris asked.
Hickman said BEACON was collecting feedback and asking how the town could be improved. When asked if he was surprised by the low number of responses to the survey, Hickman said that post-pandemic people were less willing to participate in surveys.
“I’d like more citizen input,” Hickman said.
He added that BEACON hadn’t yet held a citizen listening session but that it was scheduled for Dec. 4 as part of phase two.
“This was phase one,” Tyndall said. “Ultimately this body and the public will have the opportunity to comment multiple times as the plan moves forward.”
Councilman Steve Green said it was hard to be happy with a 2% response rate but that he did believe the responses the town received cited valid issues.
“I mean parking, we hear about it every day,” he said, referencing one of the items mentioned by respondents.
Councilman Jack Orris said he wasn’t comfortable moving on to phase two with BEACON. He said there’d been very little advertising of the session set for next week and that he didn’t feel citizens were engaged and excited about the process.
Burrell asked how BEACON could ensure it reached a variety of residents.
“I’m trying to get those folks we might not regularly see,” he said.
Burrell said he didn’t want to belittle the responses the town had received but felt that more people should have the chance to weigh in on the town’s future. He added that different people were reached through different modes of communication.
“Some folks you can send written information, some folks you have to talk to, some folks you can put it on the internet, some folks you have to have somebody stand and provide the information,” he said. “We need to investigate other possible means of getting the information out.”
Councilwoman Shaneka Nichols echoed Burrell’s concerns regarding the need for more public input. She added that the input session should be held somewhere other than town hall.
Tyndall said the input sessions could be moved. After some discussion, officials agreed that two input sessions should be held in January, after the holidays, with one being at a church and one being at the library. One will be held in the evening and one will be held during the daytime.
Orris made a motion to not move forward with BEACON for the strategic plan.
“I think we can do better, no offense to BEACON,” he said.
The motion, which was seconded by Nichols, failed with a 2-3 vote. A subsequent motion to approve moving forward with BEACON for the second phase of the plan, at a cost of $9,800, passed with a 3-2 vote. Orris and Nichols were opposed. The listening session initially advertised for Dec. 4 will be cancelled and two listening sessions will be scheduled in January.