BERLIN — Berlin Mayor Gee Williams was once again publically questioned over his decision last fall to overrule a Historic District Commission (HDC) ruling.
“It’s very questionable as to whether you had the authority to do what you did,” said Ron Cascio at Monday’s Mayor and Council meeting.
While Cascio serves on the Berlin Planning and Zoning Commission, he said that he was speaking only as a concerned member of the public.
“If I exceeded my authority, I apologize,” said Williams.
However, the mayor stands by his original decision, explaining that he felt it was the best course of action given the circumstances.
The renewed focus on a decision Williams made months ago comes on the heels of a letter from the State Attorney General’s Office. The letter offered the opinion that Williams had overstepped his authority when he interceded in an HDC case involving Berlin’s Atlantic Hotel.
The landmark hotel was attempting to replace wooden windows with vinyl, an act which the HDC deemed contrary to Berlin’s Historic Code. Williams however, chose to allow any windows that the hotel had installed prior to seeking the HDC’s permission to remain.
“They [the windows] are not in any way hurting this community,” he said. “Most people don’t even know [the difference].”
In response, Councilwoman Lisa Hall said, “I can tell.”
Hall chose to reopen the case for discussion just before Monday’s meeting was adjourned.
“This matter is not over and not going to go away,” she said.
Cascio asserted that it was more the principle of what Williams did, not the windows themselves that bothered him.
“It’s about authority and process,” he said.
Cascio pointed out that Williams’ disruption of the established chain of procedure could destabilize all of Berlin’s boards and commissions, seeing as how a precedent was set allowing executive interference.
Hall agreed, voicing the concern that Williams had “set the town wide open for anyone to do whatever they want.”
Cascio said, “There seems to be a question about where that line [of authority] is drawn…you’ve crossed that line.”
In response to the worry that his decision might undermine the ability of other boards and commissions to function efficiently, Williams declared that his intercession was a one-time event and would not be repeated in the future.
“I think the point’s been made,” he said.
Cascio wasn’t satisfied with Williams’ guarantee, citing the letter from the Attorney General’s Office and asking Williams how he interpreted it.
“It says that I shouldn’t do it again,” said Williams.
Cascio disagreed, stating that the original deed needed to be rectified.
“There’s nothing there to rectify,” Williams said.
Hall took a moment to clarify her opinion, remarking that she was worried that the hotel was being caught in the middle of the issue and might be catching unfair negativity in the crossfire for Williams’ decision, which they had no influence on.
“I think we need to ask our attorney [for his opinion],” asserted Councilwoman Paula Lynch.
Lynch pointed out that the HDC had made its ruling in a 2-1 vote. She questioned whether that was valid or if the commission needed at least a three-person vote either for or against any case to make it official
While Cascio was in favor of have a legal opinion on the matter, he suggested that, in addition to town attorney Dave Gaskill, a higher authority also be brought in.
Specifically, he recommended that Williams make a request to have the attorney general write him an official letter and to offer his opinion on how to fix things, as the recent letter from that office was only meant to be taken as advice.
“I’d like to hear what the big boys say,” Cascio said.
Hall agreed that something had to be done to put the matter to rest.
“It’s time we got this behind us and moved forward,” she said, expressing the opinion that she would also like to see Williams ask the attorney general for an opinion and advice on how the situation can be set right.
“It just seems we’re in limbo right now,” said Lynch. “It has almost reached the point of a comedy of errors.”
Lynch concluded the hotel’s move to install windows before getting HDC approval, the HDC’s ruling and Williams’ decision to intercede were all three questionable choices.
“Let’s make the next step,” urged Cascio.
What the next step would be was not agreed upon before adjourning the meeting, however. Williams informed the assembly that all parties involved would just have to see how things unfolded in the next few weeks.
In a later interview, Hall informed The Dispatch that she felt an obligation to make sure some type of resolution was achieved and strongly urged Williams to listen to Cascio’s suggestion.
“I’m hoping he’ll do the right thing,” she said.