300-Signature Petition For Berlin Park Renaming Presented To Council; Mayor Critical Of Petition Process

Photo by Charlene Sharpe
Photo by Charlene Sharpe

BERLIN – In spite of the mayor’s criticism of a grassroots campaign to rename Berlin Falls Park, town leaders agreed this week to develop a formal policy regarding the naming of public property.

During the public comment portion of Monday’s council meeting, resident Bill Todd presented a 300-signature petition in support of changing the park’s name to James Tingle Park, in honor of a well-known retired mailman. While Mayor Gee Williams called it the “wrong thing the wrong way at the wrong time,” the council, at the suggestion of Councilman Zack Tyndall, agreed to form a committee to develop a policy on how the town will name its properties.

“You can bet your bottom dollar your concern will be considered,” Councilman Dean Burrell said. “That’s why we’re here.”

Todd said he came up with the concept of naming the town’s newest public space in honor of Tingle following the mailman’s retirement after 30 years of service.

“He went above and beyond,” Todd said.

The other impetus behind the effort, he added, was the fact that the park’s current name was misleading. As an employee of Burley Oak Brewery, Todd said he frequently saw people pull into the park’s driveway ready to hike to a waterfall.

In an article in The Dispatch about Todd’s campaign to rename the park, Williams commented that naming rights were traditionally tied to financial contributions. Todd told the council Monday he’d been disappointed by that statement.

“It should be up to the community and not who can write the biggest check,” he said.

Williams replied that there were countless individuals who others thought deserved to have a park named after them. He said citizens had suggested people such as Patrick Henry, Isaiah Fassett, John Dale Smack and Judge Gerald Purnell as possibilities. He quickly went on to criticize the way Todd went about his renaming campaign.

“This effort, the way it was handled, this is Mickey Mouse,” he said. “This is not the way a representative government works. No one called me. No one called the council.”

Williams said one of the most fundamental duties of elected public officials was to represent the people they’d been elected to represent. He said that meant knowing what to do, how to do it and when to do it.

“This is in this council’s experience the first social media driven petition in our history,” he said.
“It does not meet any of the standards I think are critical to a fair and well represented government. I think this is the wrong thing, the wrong way at the wrong time. Nobody even bothered to ask.”

Williams went on to talk about the way the Internet had grown in use in recent decades. He pointed out that while he was not “technophobic,” he did not believe the Internet and social media should infringe on the principles of representative democracy.

“I feel like I have listened to what I consider a very poor precedent of how to do public business,” he said.
“In the real world, decisions do have consequences. I have seen what’s happening in other communities. It’s a shortcut to hell. There’s a way to do this properly but this is not it.”

From the audience, Chrissy Ehrhart asked what the proper way to do it was.

“This is wrong,” Williams replied emphatically. “This is wrong.”

Todd told the mayor he’d talked to people about the effort, not simply suggested something online.

“You’re taking this social media thing and running with it,” he said. “That’s not the deal. What I did was talk to members of the community. James was one of the best ambassadors the town ever had.”

He said he understood that there were numerous people, past and present, who had made equally important contributions.

“To the same tone though nobody started a petition in support of it,” he said. “I put out what I think would be nice, I approach you, and the comment — that wasn’t made on social media at all — right from the paper, was that we had nothing to talk about unless there’s a million dollars on the table. To me that leaves a bad taste in my mouth.”

Williams said the town had responsibilities and was still in the process of hiring a park coordinator. He said the town had decided Berlin Falls Park was a “nice handle” for the property.

“The main reason it was done, we were very concerned that people were calling Berlin’s new park ‘the old Tyson factory’ …,” he said. “I feel very strongly about branding and how you think of something.”

Williams went on to say Todd had put the cart before the horse.

“If you think I’m being unreasonable and unfair, then start another petition,” he said.

Todd maintained that he thought citizens should have input in the name.

“I feel strongly about this,” he said. “I want the people of the community to have a say.”

Tyndall commended Todd for his efforts. He said an issue had been identified and that the town should consult its legal counsel and develop a policy for the naming of property.

Resident Jim McKinley said the current situation was a result of the fact that many members of the community weren’t happy with the park’s name and didn’t know how to bring about a change. He suggested the creation of a foundation that could do fundraising and provide naming opportunities through it.

“You know what if it had been presented that way my attitude would be 100-percent different,” Williams said.

McKinley asked that the mayor consider what residents were saying.

“Maybe you need to draw the community in a little more so we feel part of it and it’s not being rammed down our throats,” he said.

Williams retorted that no one had asked about the park’s name when it was christened Berlin Falls Park.

“It wasn’t being rammed down your throats — you never asked,” he said, adding that in the future there would be multiple naming opportunities at the park as it was developed. “The way this country is going in terms of social media driving public issues is a formula for disaster.”

Resident Mitchell David said the current situation was a result of what Williams himself said when the petition was launched.

“You had an opportunity in the paper to make a comment,” he said. “Your comment was it takes six figures. That’s what set this off.”

He said more constructive comments could have pointed Todd in a different direction.

“You put the price tag on it, nobody else did,” David said.

Resident Matthew Amey said he thought the mayor was the one who had put the cart before the horse.

“You’ve put a name and a brand on something that does not exist,” he said.

The council voted unanimously to support Tyndall’s motion to form a committee to develop a policy for naming municipal property. Burrell assured the citizens in attendance that their concerns had been heard.

“I’d like to suggest we don’t place blame or point fingers,” he said. “As the Town of Berlin, we’re bigger than that. One of our obligations is to listen. We have heard your concerns. As we go forward this is not something we can settle this evening. Your concerns will be weighed.”

About The Author: Charlene Sharpe

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Charlene Sharpe has been with The Dispatch since 2014. A graduate of Stephen Decatur High School and the University of Richmond, she spent seven years with the Delmarva Media Group before joining the team at The Dispatch.