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Commissioners Adopt Travel Policy; Berger Fires Back With Accusations

Managing Editor

NEW HANOVER CTY - The New Hanover County Board of Commissioners June 18, meeting got heated during discussion of a new travel policy.
Chairman Ted Davis brought the item to the board largely due to fellow commission Brian Berger not utilizing hotel reservations when attending out of town functions.
Davis explained, "At the agenda briefing on Thursday there was a discussion about the possibility of the commissioners enacting a resolution setting forth a policy as far as travel expenses for commissioners who reserve rooms and the county pays that on their behalf and yet they don't go and stay, and that amount is forfeited, which is taxpayer money, as well as any fees that are paid by the county on their behalf to attend a particular meeting and they do not go. And the county forfeits that registration fee which is taxpayers money."
Davis explained, "Realizing when we had this discussion there will always be the possibility that a commissioner may have an emergency come up and he can notify the clerk's office and his fellow commissioners and there can be an attempt to try and recoup that registration fee or hotel room if possible."
He said, "There was also discussion that this resolution should apply to any county commissioner who is presently in office who has failed to reimburse the county for actions I just spoke about. Also there was talk about... someone could have a valid excuse for not going if its timely given, that this board would have the alternative to consider that on a case by case basis and decide whether or not that commissioner could be able to be excused from that requirement."
He said any commissioner can chose to pay their own way.
Davis had county staff prepare a resolution to that affect and passed out a copy to the board.
Last year the county paid almost $400 in penalties for hotel reservations when Berger missed hotel stays in Washington and Raleigh. More recently, in May of this year Berger failed to show up for the N.C. Association of County Commissioners' Assembly Day. That cost the county about $64 for the hotel and $95 for the event registration.
Commissioner Berger said, "I know some of this stems from an editorial that ran in the local newspaper the other day focusing on me and the decision I made to attend a conference in Raleigh. And looking at the numbers, although there was a cost for loosing out on the hotel room, ultimately the cost benefit analysis resulted in saving money for the county."
He said, "What is equally important but was not included in that editorial and much of these discussions are out of pocket payments that I know I've made for travel and county business where I have not asked for or received reimbursement. Certainly in my case, since I'm the one that was targeted, if you were to look at the... what I cost the county verses what I sacrificed on my own for the county, what you would find on paper is that I spend far more of my own funds conducting county business than any possible loss the county might incur because of my travel habits."
Berger explained, "I think perhaps a bigger issue that we ought to look at is the type and dollar allowance with exceptions in certain instances, somebody is flying cross country... what would be reasonable for an airplane flight."
Berger said, "But chartering a private jet or staying at four or five star hotels at $400 dollars per night is in my opinion a bigger issue."
Chairman Davis asked, "I'm curious, is there a commissioner on this board that has stayed at a hotel that is $400 a night. I would love to know that if that's happened."
Berger said, "I think the prices of hotels changes based on supply and demand."
Davis pressed him further.
Berger said, "The J.W. Marriott.. certainly members of the city council have stayed there..."
Davis said, "That's not my question. My question is, you made a comment that someone on this board stayed at a $400 a night motel. I've never heard of that. So I'm simply asking you, please tell me who the commissioner is."
Berger said, "I do not know those particular dates. I said four-star hotel. If I said four hundred, I was using a rough number for a four star hotel in the Washington D.C. area."
Davis said, "Who on this board has chartered a private jet?"
Berger said, "What I'm bringing up are examples and not accusing or attacking or trying to politicize this like unfortunately was done by some others the other day without being aware that I hadn't planned for reimbursement for expenses that I've incurred that's in excess of any thing that I could possibly have cost the county. I'm not trying to attack anybody here. I'm saying if we are going to revise the rules, then let's look at the possible scenarios."
Davis said, "You made the innuendo that somebody on this board has chartered a private jet."
Berger said, "I'm not specifically attacking..."
Davis said, "Please don't make comments and innuendos if there is no factual basis to back it up."
Berger said, "You went... to a complicit media and were completely dishonest about me personally."
Davis took issue with being called dishonest.
Berger repeated that it was dishonest to speak to the media on the issue without looking at his out of pocket expenses. He said that's not, "An honest perception to be planting in the minds of people when I'm making a tremendous amount of sacrifices."
Berger said, "My decisions are based on what is in the best financial interest of the taxpayers and if that's to participate in a meeting via webinar or teleconference or maybe a meeting is scheduled five months in advance and when the meeting occurs the issue is not important enough for me to justify the expense and there maybe some loss because of reservations made five months earlier, but the net result is when you take out gas and meals, it's costing perhaps the county a hotel cancelation fee, but saving the county in the long run. And I think to talk about me specifically and not be very clear that I have not been reimbursed for numerous expenses over the last few years is very unfair."
Davis said, "I've never come in this meeting and done anything that is dishonest." He said, "It is a fact that the county taxpayers paid $242.74 because you did not stay in a hotel at the 2011 Maco Legislative Conference. That is a fact. That is the truth. The county also forfeited $145.45 in taxpayer money because you did not show up and stay for the 2011 National Association of County Commissioners Annual Conference."
Davis said, "Let me ask you this Brian, if you've done all these miraculous things at your own expense, just make a list. Because until somebody knows that you've done them, no one can be aware of these sacrifices that you made. I do them, I don't publicize them. I could careless. I just do it because I think it's the right thing to do."
Davis said if Berger wanted to make a list, he would be happy to review them. And if he chose to be reimbursed for them, he would be happy to consider valid expenses.
Davis said, "If you had been at the staff meeting like you should have been you could have been apart of this discussion but as usual you weren't."
He said, "Since you've come on this board you are the only person we've had this problem with."
Berger, whose house was recently foreclosed on and sold at auction said, "That's because other members can play golf, buy golf clubs and stay at four star hotels and I don't."
Davis said, "If you have got any accusations to make about your fellow commissioners do me a big favor, identify who it is."
Berger said, "Don't make it about me exploiting the taxpayers when the opposite is the case. There is nobody who has watched out more for the taxpayers of this county and this board than me."
Davis repeated his call for Berger to identify people saying, "Don't make unfounded innuendos and accusations which you have a history of doing. We will address them. If anybody on this board is doing anything improper or not in the best interest of the taxpayers, we will deal with it."
Berger said he was upset because he didn't have the opportunity to defend himself from false allegations.
Davis said, "When we have a discussion in a public meeting and I have someone to question me about what we discussed, I'm not going to sit there and not say anything, I will answer their questions. And if you had been there you would have had the perfect right to say whatever you wanted to say."
Commissioner Rick Catlin, who was attempting to step in throughout the argument, said, "What's not being address here, and we can't necessarily address  it, is how much the citizens of New Hanover County pay you not to attend meetings and pay you to be late to everything."
The Board voted on the new policy. Berger was silent on the vote. Davis said, "Then it passes unanimously." A failure to vote is a "yes" vote.
Berger said he would put his attendance record up against that of fellow commissioners.
Davis said, "When this commission... did not reappoint you to the other committees it was because of your attendance record."
Last year the board chose other appointments to numerous committees rather than reappointing Berger because of his poor attendance record.
Berger maintains his removal was not legal.
Davis said, "We left you two committees Brian... one was the Legion Sports Complex which meets every other month. You have not attended a single meeting in the year 2012."
Berger said, "I made eleven of twelve Department of Social Service Board meetings last year. My attendance was as good or better than everyone else on this board yet I was the only one that was kicked off of every single board." He added, "My attendance factor last year was better than yours."
Davis said Berger also missed the last three meetings of a Transportation Planning committee.
He said, "Consider how it looks when you don't come to the annual meeting we had with the airport authority, how you don't come to the annual meeting we had with the Town of Wrightsville Beach, how you don't even come to what is probably the most important work session we had" regarding solid waste and, "I can't make you come to things. I don't have the authority."
He said, "The people expect, when they elected you, that you would be an active commissioner and you would take part in commissioner business and we'd have a five member board."
Davis explained, "If you want to take part in county government, seriously... this board has reached out to you." He said, "Please be active, please attend our meetings in a timely fashion and please go to these meetings that we have with other agencies because it's an insult to them, and I think this board, when you don't even show up. You've never given an excuse. You've never given an apology."
Berger said, "My relationship on those boards was better than most commissioner's relationships with their fellow board members." He referenced a previous argument between commissioner Jason Thompson and the Mayor of Leland who both served on a local transportation board.
Berger said, "Did you tell them my attendance record is better than yours?"
Davis said, "Your attendance record is not better than mine."
Berger said, "Look at it on paper, it doesn't lie."
Davis said, "Are you talking about the times I wasn't in a meeting because I was recuperating from heart surgery?"
Berger said, "That's why I was elected because people were sick and tired of being lied to. They are tired of this dishonesty. They want somebody that is going to be on those boards looking out for them, the taxpayers, and that's what I do."
Davis said, "Be quiet or I'll have you removed" from the meeting and, "I mean it Brian, don't test my limits."
Later in the meeting commissioner Jason Thompson said he would reserve his comments for later. Later on following other business, Berger refused to let the earlier issue go. He held up a book he says explains laws that show he was illegally removed from the Department of Social Services Board last year.
Davis said, "Is there anything else you'd like to say as an additional item?"
Berger said, "I know you're not interested in that, perhaps you might be more interested in the United States Constitution and uh... violating... uh... of uh... civil rights to uh... assist in  uh... violating the law with regard to completion of the state law that establishes it to be your term and does not allow for arbitrary removal and replacement gang-land-style under threat of physical harm or false imprisonment."
Davis said, "Brian, you repeatedly do this, and do this, and do this. I will ask you sir, please, if you feel like I or any other commissioner or the county has wronged you, file a lawsuit. Please. And that way we can just flush this thing out."
Berger said, "Another reason why I was elected is people and citizens should not be treated in such a way that the attitude of the legal department is we are going to do what we want to do and if somebody has a problem with it let them come up with $100,000 to challenge the county knowing full well not many people are sitting on $100,000 to challenge a lawsuit and prove the county wrong and they shouldn't have to."