WILMINGTON, NC (WWAY) — For weeks we’ve been looking into a level of divisiveness among New Hanover County Commissioners. County insiders and simple observation have told us Commissioner Brian Berger has become increasingly frustrated with fellow commissioners and vice versa.
This week a series of e-mails among commissioners show just how high that frustration has grown. Today Berger showed his relationship with one commissioner is especially strained.
In his short time on the New Hanover County Commission Berger has certainly made his mark; much of it controversial. He’s been reluctant to sit down and talk with us about much of that.
So after his latest controversy involving an e-mail tirade launched at county staff and fellow commissioners, News Director Scott Pickey and News Content Manager Kevin Wuzzardo decided they would go to Berger.
Berger joined hundreds of other people at a Smart Start benefit breakfast at UNCW Wednesday morning. As he made an early exit, we asked to talk, and he agreed.
First we asked about why he’s so passionate about the issue the county calls non-attainment – the topic he wants information about but feels county staff is stonewalling him on. Berger launched into a lengthy response to that and other questions.
But it didn’t take long to get to what seems to be the heart of his frustrations.
"Being in Washington, DC, a couple weeks ago, I was able to accomplish more in the morning than my colleague Rick Catlin had been able to accomplish in the weeks preceding that trip to DC," Berger said.
In the e-mail to county staff Monday, he demanded information he’d requested a week earlier. Berger said Commissioner Catlin, an environmental engineer using his expertise to help with the pollution issue, had scheduled "secret" meetings. Because too many commissioners at a meeting creates a quorum and a public meeting under law, Berger acknowledged not everyone could attend. Catlin told us when he scheduled meetings with experts, he invited Commission Chair Jonathan Barfield or a commissioner of Barfield’s choice.
Thursday Berger tried to backtrack.
"Secret isn’t necessarily the word," Berger said. "But when you have a meeting, and you don’t tell your colleagues about it and you refuse to answer questions…"
We asked Berger if he had ever met with a member of county staff or another commissioner without everybody else being there.
"Absolutely," he said.
Berger admitted he wished he could retract his rambling, ranting e-mail that may give readers a reason to question his mental state.
"It does read like a manifesto, and it is certainly conducive to to creating the perception that I’m a crazy person, ’cause it’s typically crazy people that write manifestoes, but I don’t live in a log cabin in the woods in Montana," Berger said.
Throughout the nearly 30-minute interview, Berger both lauded Catlin and chastised him.
Berger has routinely called out the rest of the commission for trying to conduct "business as usual," saying that he won’t play by old rules.
Throughout his run for office and his short time in office, there have been both public and private questions about who is behind Berger.
When we asked Berger about how he prepares for County Commission meetings, he started talking about notes he says another commissioner stole from his desk in the commission chambers. We happened to have a copy of the notes, which seem to show someone else giving berger directions on what points to discuss and even how to vote, though Berger claims how he voted varies in some ways from the sheet of notes. (We have attached Berger’s notes in their entirety)
Berger was unwilling to tell us who gave him those directions.
"It’s from myself," he said. "It’s cut and pasted from other sources."
Pickey asked, "But who’s telling you what to do?"
Berger answered, "I make my own decisions."
Berger went on to imply Catlin stole the notes, but danced around the issue.
"Did Rick Catlin steal this from you?" Pickey asked.
Berger answered, "You’d have to ask him that."
"No," Catlin said. "I didn’t know he had notes until the reporter called me and asked me about it."
We let Catlin watch our interview with Berger and asked him for his reaction.
"I don’t really understand his perspective on things, and I don’t really know how to respond. I’m a little worried about him," Catlin said.
Catlin says he’s concerned that Berger believes in a conspiracy against him, which makes it difficult to communicate with the commissioner.
He said while the media, including WWAY, have helped stir up the tensions between Berger and the other commissioners it is a very serious issue.
"In my personal opinion, I think it’s a very significant problem," Catlin said. "And I think we need to work very hard to try to resolve it. We owe it to the citizens of New Hanover County to try to resolve this problem."
Catlin isn’t alone. Other county leaders have told WWAY they have concerns with Berger and his ability to effectively be part of the County Commission.
Berger has regularly called for transparency, yet he himself has been far from transparent. As far back as the run-off he won against incumbent Bill Caster last summer, we and others have tried to find out more about the man, candidate and now elected leader, including what he does for a living. Berger has routinely said only that he is a consultant for a number of things, but never gives specifics as to what.
As Berger grew angry with our questions Wednesday and stormed off, he still would not answer that basic question.
"You want transparency from everybody else, but you won’t be transparent yourself," Wuzzardo said.
Berger answered, "You won’t find anyone more transparent than me."
"Then what do you do? " Wuzzardo asked. "Who do you represent? What do you consult on? What do you consult on, brian? What are you a consultant for? Who do you work for?"
Berger said he had a meeting and walked away.