By Josh Davis, Associate Editor
(March 15, 2018) Using public parks for private gain sparked some contention at Monday’s Berlin Town Council meeting, as elected officials weighed in on both sides of the issue.
Resident Alison Giska, a literacy coach with the Worcester County Board of Education, asked about using town parks for Tinkergarten classes, a movement born in Brooklyn and now active in 49 states, according to the official program website.
Giska described the program as “a play-based learning class for kids, ages 18 months to 5 years, that occurs outdoors in local parks and green spaces.”
“The classes build critical thinking, community building and a love for nature,” she said.
Giska attended a Berlin Parks Commission meeting a week ago and said she was encouraged to approach the Town Council. She said the 75-minute weekly sessions cost about $17 each, or $140 for two months.
“The mission is fantastic. Your presentation has been admirable. But, when you go right to the bottom line, you’re asking us to use taxpayer resources for private gain,” Councilman Dean Burrell said. “It has been my behavior to always not allow [that].
“Although your program is, I think, a good one, I would have to vote against it,” he added.
Mayor Gee Williams said this was not the first request to allow a business to use Berlin parks. He encouraged Giska to instead “team up with a nonprofit” to get exposure for her business.
“I would think we would be setting a precedent that we have avoided,” Williams said. “I think that if you’re going to use public grounds, you’re going to need a nonprofit partner who actually benefits from that.”
Councilman Zack Tyndall countered that the town had allowed a private company to use public land in the case of Jeep Week.
“That was a for-profit venture at a public facility,” Tyndall said.
Williams said allowing Jeep Week at what is now Berlin Falls park was honoring an agreement already in place when the town purchased the property.
“But we did approve, post-agreement, with whoever we bought the property from to continue that for another year, and that was at a public park and that was for a for-profit entity,” Tyndall said.
“And we could’ve just turned down purchasing the property or gone to court – we just thought this made the most sense,” Williams said.
Councilman Troy Purnell, the former property owner, said there was a verbal agreement in place to continue Jeep Week before he sold the land.
“It’s the way ladies and gentlemen treat each other in a smaller community. We don’t go around beating people up,” Williams said. “That was something where we could’ve said, ‘just go away,’ but that’s not the way we work.”
Purnell said he always envisioned part of the property including a space “for a commercial entity to come in.”
“I remember you said when we purchased that space … it was not going to be intended to be a typical Berlin park, and this is definitely not a typical Berlin park venture,” Tyndall said.
However, Burrell said a line had to be drawn.
“If we change what we do, we will be in the position of trying to decide what should be and what should not be, and who should be and who should not be – and I think that is a sticky place for a government entity to be,” he said. “I think everybody needs to be treated the same.”
Special cases, like Jeep week, sometime occur, Burrell said.
“But as far as I’m concerned I’m going to vote the same way that I have always voted, which I think is in the best interest of the taxpayer,” he said. “I think we are here to protect the taxpayer and make sure that the tax money they pay is being used for the public benefit.”
Tyndall countered there was already “a lot of dialog” during Berlin Falls Park Committee meetings about allowing private companies to use the space to help pay down the $3 million bond used to purchase the property.
“I think, in the near future, we’re already in that muddy water. We’re going to have to begin the thought process, whether it’s the Tinkergarten today or whatever it may be tomorrow,” Tyndall said. “That’s coming down the pike.”