By Josh Davis, Associate Editor
(Dec. 27, 2018) Also grabbing headlines in 2018 were issues ranging from a contentious study released regarding the Berlin Fire Company, to a local church’s objections to a yoga/mindfulness program in an area school:
BFC study controversial
The Town of Berlin in April released the 90-page study on the Berlin Fire Company, which was performed independently by the Matrix Consulting Group and designed to help inform future funding requests to the town.
Both sides immediately questioned some of the results and, at one point, expected funding from the town appeared to have been frozen.
Fire Company President David Fitzgerald said two items in the study stood out.
“The study does confirm what we’ve been saying for many years: the majority of the calls of the Berlin Fire Company are in town limits,” Fitzgerald said. “You’ll see the percentages in there. Those are accurate and we explain that every year to the town.
“And the other thing it clearly states … they have it in several times in the report that the Berlin Fire Company is not sufficiently funded for the level of services we provide,” he continued. “We saw those two things that we appreciate them backing our position that we’ve said over the years.”
Fitzgerald added he found errors in the report.
“We’ve made the town and Matrix aware of those for clarification, like the organizational chart is not correct [and] there’s some other data there in regards to response data and our billing data that’s not correct,” he said. “We talked to Mayor [Gee] Williams and he agrees wholeheartedly that the report needs to be accurate as far as the data, and he’s given us direction to provide that to Matrix for them to provide the necessary edits, once they validate that we’re telling them the data.”
Mayor Gee Williams said six items in the report needed to be addressed by the fire company: billing collection for EMS services, the authority of fire company officers and board members, the budgeting process “and lack of controls,” the cash basis of operations, and the continued use of fire sirens.
“The sixth item … is the physical facilities and their uses and upgrades, and particularly, from our point of view, the station one, which is the Main Street Station,” Williams said. “[The study] made some very clear recommendations on how needs can be met by renovating that station.”
Williams likely highlighted that item because the fire company has, for several years, planned and raised money for a new fire station, while town officials have expressed concerns that taxpayer funding was going toward a station outside of town limits.
He also took issue with a workload breakdown that suggested total calls for service, from 2013-2017, were 54.4 percent (5,259) in the Town of Berlin and 45.6 percent (4,405) elsewhere in Worcester County.
“When you go through the report, you notice that most of the calls are in the immediate vicinity of Atlantic General Hospital – overwhelmingly,” Williams said. “The reason for that is … because of calls to Berlin EMS service to the nursing home to transport them a few hundred feet away to AGH. That skews everything.
“They’re getting a reimbursement from the county for that, but I think that’s something we’re going to have to look into in depth,” he added.
A June public meeting of both parties was contentious.
Robert Finn, a senior manager with Matrix and retired fire and police chief from the Dallas/Fort Worth area, guided the meeting, but it was the shouting down of a Town Councilman by a fire company accountant that made a lasting impression.
Councilman Dean Burrell called for unity and said the Town Council was asking the citizens to “work with us – us and the fire department – to ensure that our fire department is funded equitably.”
“If that takes a tax rate increase or whatever it takes to fund our fire department, we are ready to do that. But it has to come under the scrutiny of the public,” Burrell said.
J Bergey, fire company CPA, had issues with some of the evening’s comments.
“I’m sitting here listening to this shit … and you don’t know what you’re talking about,” he said.
“None of you know what you’re talking about – that’s the biggest part of it. You keep saying we move [money] around … that’s bullshit!” he added.
Williams sprung out of his seat when Bergey again claimed, “It’s all just bullshit.”
“No, it’s not! It is not! It is not!” Williams said.
Burrell also stood up.
“I just want to say one more thing,” Burrell said. “I talked about [us] having different ideas and different opinions, and I believe that is a good thing. But for this thing to work we’re going to have to try to understand each other,” he said. “I’m going to have to try to understand where you all are coming from, and you’re going to have to try to understand where we are coming from.
“And, to sit in a public meeting and say, ‘you don’t know shit’ – I don’t want to be in here, so I bid you good night,” Burrell said, leaving the room.
Bergey later clarified what led to his frustration.
“Those guys were standing up there last night trying to piss in the community’s boots and tell them that it was raining. It’s so disingenuous to have someone stand up there that they have fed all this crazy shit, and this guy [Finn] is a fireman – a professional fireman – and he’s trying to intertwine his good fire recommendations about response times and all that stuff, and reconcile it with a 25 mile-per-hour speed limit and no sirens – it’s so incongruent, it just pissed me off to no end.”
Talks to finalize fiscal 2019 funding levels appeared to go cold in August, but by October a deal had been struck and the Berlin Town Council approved a $605,000 contract for services.
The contract represented a significant increase in the town’s funding for fire and EMS. From fiscal years 2015-2017, the town contributed $1.2 million, for an average of $400,000 per year, according to a Matrix Consulting Group funding study.
According to the terms, both the fire company and EMS will meet regularly with town officials to review recommendations included in a Matrix study. Fire and EMS are to attend council meetings in October, January, April and July to provide quarterly financial and operational reports.
Both must adhere to a fiscal year from July 1 to June 30 and submit to an annual audit, to be paid for by the town and scheduled no later than Nov. 12, 2018. In a separate section of the agreement it states, “all financial information, including the BFC audit, may be disclosed to the public.”
Also in the agreement regarding the new Station 3, on Route 50 near Stephen Decatur High School, all initial capital funds for the new building “shall be taken from a separate and distinct construction account … which shall be kept separate from any funds contributed by the Town of Berlin; nor shall any funds from the Town of Berlin be utilized in any way” to build Station 3.
According to the contract, all parties acknowledge the terms and conditions “are necessary for transparency and accountability to the citizens and tax payers of the Town of Berlin.” Also included, “The parties hereto agree that each shall make best efforts to communicate with the other in order to have a productive relationship.”
In the event of a breach of the terms, the mayor and council have the right to suspend funding.
Snow Hill Mayor resigns
Charlie Dorman in March announced he would run for reelection as mayor of Snow Hill and in May learned he had won a fourth term in office.
However, by October Dorman made a different kind of announcement – his resignation – during a Town Council meeting.
“All their mouths flew open,” Dorman said on the following day.
“It’s just about time, that’s all,” he continued. “I made a statement and I said to them last night it’s been an honor and a privilege to serve as mayor for six years and four months. And you know when it’s time to leave – and it’s time to leave.”
A week later, it was apparent the abrupt resignation wasn’t so simple.
In a statement, Dorman said, “In July the town manager and one of the councilwomen (he later amended the statement to say “the council” instead of “one of the councilwomen”) disagreed with me on some of my tactics to draw new business to Snow Hill. Since then, I’ve become a figurehead only as the mayor, with no authority anymore. I then decided that I would resign [effective] Oct. 31, 2018. I have aggressively sought to sell my residence and I am fortunate to have a buyer. I will be moving in November.
“I sincerely hope that the new mayor will continue to encourage new businesses and make Snow Hill a destination on the Pocomoke River.”
The council emailed a response in the form of a letter to the editor signed by Councilwoman Alison Cook, Councilwoman Jenny Hall, and Councilwoman LaToya Purnell:
“Throughout Mayor Charlie Dorman’s administration, the Town Council had faith that he was making decisions that were in the best interest of the town and its citizens and that he was adhering to the regulations and guidelines of the Town Code … However, it came to light several months ago that there had been actions by the Mayor that we believed to be in violation of the duties of the Mayor as specified in the Town Charter.”
The letter went on to say Dorman made decisions for the town he had no authority to make, including entering into agreements with local business owners in which “Mayor Dorman directed staff to ignore the Code and laws, ignore the memorandum of agreement, and allow this business to open, fully aware it was in violation.”
Additionally, they claimed Town Manager Kelly Pruitt briefly submitted her notice to retire because of “a potential hostile work environment” and “Several other employees were seeking to leave employment because of the hostile environment and being put into situations where they felt uncomfortable.”
While the councilmembers addressed their issues and it appeared Dorman had apologized, “Mayor Dorman has continually made negative comments about the Council and town staff in an attempt to gain public sympathy. He has championed to make the Council and Town Manager look bad in the public eye. As a result, community members and business owners have stated that they feel a divide between themselves and town government. The perceived ‘divide’ stops today,” the letter said.
Former Mayor Stephen Mathews was appointed to replace Dorman. He will serve until a special election is held in May, but said he would not seek election again.
Other election news
In Ocean Pines, 10 candidates in May filed for three vacancies on the board of directors, but only nine were verified. The tenth, former director and interim general manager Brett Hill, later filed a lawsuit claimed he was unjustly excluded.
A fourth vacancy on the board occurred in June, when director and two-term treasurer Pat Supik resigned without public comment.
In August, Steve Tuttle and Frank Daly were elected to three-year terms, and Ted Moroney and Esther Diller were each elected to one-year terms, both replacing directors who resigned before their terms were up: Supik and, ironically, Hill.
Shortly after the election, the new board convened and voted 5-2 to continue Doug Parks as association president. Tuttle was voted vice president.
Two months later, association officials confirmed terms to dismiss the Hill lawsuit had been agreed upon.
Hill, who was a political lighting rod during his nearly yearlong tenure as interim general manager, had alleged a violation of association bylaws after he was rejected as a candidate in the 2018 election. He named the association and Director Colette Horn, responsible for rejecting his candidacy in her role as association secretary, in the suit.
The board apparently voted by email to accept the terms of the dismissal and sources close to the board confirmed the following was part of the agreement:
- Mr. Hill agrees to dismiss the case against Colette Horn with prejudice.
- Mr. Hill agrees to forever discharge and release Ocean Pines Association Inc. from any claim or cause of action contained in the amended complaint.
- Provided that Mr. Hill complies with the terms of the stipulated dismissal, Ocean Pines Association Inc. shall release Mr. Hill from any claim for damages directly arising from Mr. Hill filing or pursuing the complaint against Ms. Horn and Ocean Pines Association, Inc.
Decidedly more straightforward was the Town Council election in Berlin, as three incumbents were reelected without opposition.
In fact, because no other candidates filed, the election was canceled in September.
Town code allows for the cancelation of elections for mayor or councilmembers “in the event that only one individual files for candidacy” for that office.
Per those rules, District 1 Councilman Troy Purnell, District 4 Councilman Dean Burrell and At-Large Councilman Thom Gulyas each won reelection and the Board of Supervisors of Elections on Tuesday night signed the order to cancel the election.
“It feels wonderful,” Gulyas said. “I’m very honored to be able to serve the citizens of the Town of Berlin for another four years. I enjoy it that much.”
Gulyas was first elected four years ago, also without opposition.
With no one filing against any of the incumbents, he added, “Hopefully, it means that we’re doing a good job. That’s what I’m going with.”
Purnell, first elected eight years ago, agreed.
“I hope it means we’re doing a good job,” he said. “It seems to be a good bunch that we’ve been working with and we work great together, so I just want to see it continue.”
Burrell, the second-longest serving member of the Town Council, after Council Vice President Elroy Brittingham, said he felt privileged to continue serving the town.
“If there are no write-ins and the people of Berlin, especially of District 4, decide that they would like for me to represent them for the upcoming term, I will be honored and I feel blessed that they have this confidence in me,” he said. “And, as always, I’ll try to do my best to represent them and the Town of Berlin appropriately.”
Burrell had several theories on why no one filed to run against the incumbents.
“It could say several things, but I choose to believe that it is because our representation has been appropriate and has been sanctioned by the citizenry – that’s how come no one has filed,” he said. “I think the public feels that they’re being appropriately represented and they have that confidence in us to do what is right for the Town of Berlin.
“And, I can never express how grateful I am and appreciative I am of the Town of Berlin’s citizens” Burrell added.
New police station and library
There was much to celebrate in the Town of Berlin this year, not the least of which was the 150th anniversary of the town’s incorporation.
Also notable, Berlin welcomed much-needed upgrades to its municipal police station and the Worcester County Library branch in the town.
The new, $3.1 million police station near the corner of Flower Street and Assateague Road opened in February.
Mayor Gee Williams said the building, which is three times larger than the old station, combined 21st century technology with the 19th century charm that highlights downtown Berlin.
“I hope most folks don’t ever see the inside of the police station except the lobby, but if you ever have a chance to drop by, it’s very impressive,” Williams said. “Definitely, it reflects the heritage of [the town] … I think that means a lot to people.”
The new, $6.25 million Berlin branch of the Worcester County Library on Harrison Avenue had a soft opening in July and held an official ribbon cutting ceremony in August.
Worcester County Commissioner President Diana Purnell raved about the “gorgeous facility.”
“This is what we do when it comes to our community – we partner together that we can have the best of the best, and that’s what we’ve done here today,” she said.
Williams said he and others were “awestruck by this wonderful facility.”
“We certainly look forward to generations experiencing something that I think has set a new standard for informational technology in our county and in our region,” Williams said.
Williams said the library provided a wealth of information, cutting-edge technology, public meeting space, and beauty inside and out.
“As a lifetime resident of Berlin, I do not believe I’ve ever witnessed so much excitement about a public project as I have seen for this new library,” he said. “The anticipation and response is [evident] in every neighborhood within our town, but what I think is particularly rewarding is to have witnessed the genuine excitement the new library has generated among our young people.”
Library Director Jennifer Ranck said the success of the new library was evidenced by the unusually high turnout during summer learning events.
“The children’s programs are doing very well this summer,” she said. “People in general are very excited to come into the quiet space to read and study, and there’s just more room to spread out.”
Yoga program cut
Perhaps the year’s most unlikely controversy was a mindfulness program at Buckingham Elementary School in Berlin that drew ire of a local church, whose pastor condemned the yoga-based exercise as a product of Satan.
SonRise Church Pastor Daryl McCready stated his case against the Buckingham Elementary School morning ritual during his March 26 service and in a Facebook post after witnessing the program at the invitation of school officials.
The “Mindfulness Moments” video series was described as an extension of the morning announcements where students “participate in a mini 6-10-minute mindfulness and yoga session to help them positively start off their day. The coping strategies learned, such as breathing and calming techniques, help provide students with a way to manage obstacles or challenges they may face throughout their day.”
Mindfulness Moments was funded by a grant from the Jesse Klump Foundation and featured local yoga instructors Jayme Mahoney and Berkleigh Diaz of Little Dreamers Wellness Center in Berlin.
According to McCready, “All over this community right now, this assault is happening on who Jesus is and who we are in light of him. It’s a clear assault on our community right now. I’m seeing it everywhere I turn. And, listen, I’m concerned.”
He added, “I understand not all yoga practices are spiritually focused but the foundation of yoga and many practices are of unBiblical nature and to be avoided by believers. The warning for us is that we ought not be supportive of anything that leads people away from God and the truth. Stretching is not the problem – yoga is.
“Even though some exercise called yoga may not be evil, there is a whole lot of evil practices occurring in this town under the name of yoga,” McCready said. “Yoga seeks to draw and recruit people and in some cases indoctrinate them to false truths and practices.”
McCready continued speaking on the subject during an April 8 sermon in Berlin.
“Boy – people did not like me saying that. I took about a week and a half of everybody’s feelings. Some were angry – I mean, real angry. And they let me know it,” he said. “Some took offense, because they did not agree with my opinion or how I expressed it, or they felt judged or condemned. Some had no idea about the connection or the background of yoga, and thanked me for bringing truth and speaking on it.
“I heard a lot of people [saying] ‘you were so angry’ I wasn’t angry – it was called passion. When I see God’s people being swept out by false teachings and heresies and things that God calls detestable, yes, I get angry. It’s my job. That’s my calling,” McCready said.
Mindfulness Moments continued throughout the spring semester, but did not return when the new school year began in September.
“The Mindfulness Moments program was reevaluated after its pilot year in our school,” Buckingham Principal Karen Marx said in a statement. “Interpreting the variety of feedback we received, Buckingham has decided to re-implement the research-based program called ‘Second Step’ moving forward. ‘Second Step’ still provides our students with the critical components of social-emotional wellness that students and families loved about the previous mindfulness program. However, ‘Second Step’ provides a robust, Department of Education-endorsed curriculum as well as supporting materials for the home.
“We are incredibly grateful for the partners that helped us bring to life the ‘Mindfulness Moments’ pilot program last year, as it gave our school the opportunity to more fully address a critical need for our students. We look forward to continuing our work with social-emotional wellness with ‘Second Step.’”
Some parents, including PTA President Jeffrey Smith, said they were sad to see the program go.
“I am concerned that, on the surface, it appears as though Worcester County Schools caved to a religious organization,” Smith said. “To me, this sets a precedent in which any church can come to the county and complain about some program or another and expect change.
“No outside person or organization should be allowed to dictate curriculum or educational policy either at the county level, or at any individual school,” he continued. “Doing so does a disservice to the students, teachers, and administrators at Buckingham Elementary and to Worcester County’s exceptional school district as a whole.”
Kim Klump, founder of the Jesse Klump Memorial Fund, in March said her nonprofit hoped to fund a program similar to “Mindfulness Moments” for the Worcester County Board of Education to implement next school year for all elementary schools.
At the time, Klump said, “All of Buckingham (administrators, staff, teachers, and guidance counselors) were onboard with this program. I, myself, teach once a month along with my outreach coordinator, Shawntel Hall. So, I personally fully support the program.”
In a later statement after learning the program had been pulled, Klump said she was saddened.
“We at the Jesse Klump Memorial Fund Inc. supported this program financially and helped by teaching some classes,” Klump said. “We received feedback from teachers, parents and students that convinced us that the program was making a difference in how these kids handled negative emotions and how it reduced friction in the classroom. Learning these valuable coping skills at a young age, we hope, will reduce the occurrence of mental illness in the future, which should reduce suicide rates as well.”