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Woody White, Part I: The Berger Problem

New Hanover County

When New Hanover County Board Chairman Woody White took office December 3rd, he had a slew of issues he planned to address as a new community leader.  The County’s history with embattled Commissioner Brian Berger was not a surprise to White, but the speed with which it took center stage was. 

White talked with WHQR’s Rachel Lewis Hilburn at his Wilmington law office about some major issues facing the County – including elementary school safety.  In this first interview excerpt in a series, White explores where the Board stands on the Berger problem. 

New Hanover County Commissioner Brian Berger was arrested early yesterday morning for driving while impaired.  He was released on an $800 unsecured bond with a January 16th court date.  County Commission Chair Woody White acknowledges the importance of letting the judicial process unfold and remembering that Berger is innocent until proven guilty.

"But Rachel, what we do know is that there has been an accumulation of personal instances over the last two years with him.  It’s not just one thing.  It’s not what happened last night or whether he’s innocent or guilty of that.  It’s a whole laundry list of distractions.” 

That’s a problem, says White, because the County is facing a host of more important and complex issues – such as what to do with its solid waste, city / county relations, the budget, and a new examination of elementary school safety. 

"It distracts us from those real policy discussions to ‘What was Commissioner Berger doing last night at 2:00?’.  What are you going to do now?... It’s very frustrating.”

White says he has plenty of empathy for Berger’s difficult times.  Many of White's clients come to him precisely because they’re in crisis. 

“But he’s not just a private citizen.  He’s a public official.  And it’s evident he cannot conform his behavior within the boundaries of the law.  Regardless of his innocence or guilt, he was arrested.  There was probable cause found.”

One year ago, county commissioners learned that they had no legal means of removing Berger from office.  So then-Chairman Jonathan Barfield and a phalanx of fellow commissioners stood before the news media and called for Berger to resign.  He refused. 

Current Chairman White says that up to this point, he’s made every effort to engage Berger in constructive ways. 

“I sent him a number of texts.  I offered to meet with him on numerous occasions.  I offered him six appointments.  Boards.  His last text to me Sunday night was – quote – I have a better use of my time.”

That was Berger’s response to an invitation to serve with newly-appointed Commissioner Thomas Wolfe on the Cape Fear Public Utility Authority Board.    

“Now this, Rachel, is an authority where for two years he’s claimed corruption and cronyism… on and on and on.  I gave him the opportunity to go to every one of those meetings and root that out and inform us.  If, indeed, there is corruption and cronyism -- we want to know about it.”

Berger accepted an appointment on the committee for the 10-year plan to end homelessness.

Now it’s time for the Board to step back, says White, disengage, minimize Berger’s influence, and let his self-marginalization stand.

“Not out of unfairness.  Not out of spite or acrimony but out of duty… because he’s disruptive to meetings.  He’s distracting us from the real issues and the four of us have a duty to tackle and solve and move forward with these issues.”

With no legal alternatives open to the Board, White says Commissioners can only hope Berger sees the wisdom in stepping down.

“We’re just going to have to wait and see what the future holds.  Maybe he’ll do us all a favor and focus on his personal issues and resign from public office and get the help that he needs.”

Rachel hosts and produces CoastLine, an award-winning hourlong conversation featuring artists, humanitarians, scholars, and innovators in North Carolina. The show airs Wednesdays at noon and Sundays at 2 pm on 91.3 FM WHQR Public Media. It's also available as a podcast; just search CoastLine WHQR. You can reach her at rachellh@whqr.org.