The town of Zebulon did not conduct business properly when it unofficially rejected an offer on one of its former office spaces in private.
That’s the opinion of Raleigh First Amendment attorney Mike Tadych, who said if the town received a formal offer the best policy would have been to put it on the agenda for the next town board meeting and discuss it there first.
“The preamble to the entire open meetings law basically says given the public agencies exist solely to conduct public business the hearings, deliberations – which I would consider this to be – and actions of these bodies should be conducted openly,” Tadych said.
Town Manager Rick Hardin said he and Mayor Bob Matheny agreed to proceed with polling the commissioners prior to the board’s next meeting in an effort to get a quick response to the prospective buyers.
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“We didn’t have a meeting scheduled anytime soon and wanted to give them a preliminary answer,” said Hardin, who said he made phone calls to each board member. “In a perfect world, we carry (an offer) to the meeting, but we wanted to get them a response quicker. We just wanted to give them an indication on where we were with that.”
Tadych said if there was a time-sensitive issue regarding the offer, the town could have called a special meeting and addressed it there.
The $90,000 offer was made March 3 by Mark Cronk, Blake Lewis, Glenn Lewis and Dallas Pearce, who wanted to turn Zebulon’s former town hall at 100 N. Arendell Avenue into an arts center affiliated with the United Arts Council of Raleigh and Wake County. The town is asking $145,000 for the property. Hardin called commissioners the following week to get their responses. The town board was not formally scheduled to meet again until April 7.
Decision felt official
Hardin says the decision is not final until the town board votes on the offer at its meeting this Monday, April 7. But Pearce, a local real estate agent, said the informal decision felt formal enough when checks were returned to the prospective buyers.
“(The town’s) real estate agent came back and said ‘I hate to be the bearer of bad news, but (the commissioners) turned it down, didn’t give you a counter offer and here’s your check back,’” Pearce said.
Only the financial end of the offer was presented to commissioners. Hardin said everyone on the town board, with perhaps the exception of first-year Commissioner Glenn York, is familiar with the prospective buyers and that their intended use of the property is common knowledge at this point.
The board had approved a plan last June to lease the building to a local group started by Pearce that is working to form an arts center, so long as the group formed a non-profit entity and could prove it had finances in place for the UAC’s preferred trial run period of two years.
The group believes an arts center would play a key role in reviving downtown Zebulon, which has been riddled with vacancies for several years. While the town board has generally supported the concept, its informal rejection of the purchase offer was unanimous. It is the only offer made on the property since town offices relocated to the Zebulon Municipal Complex in 2009.
Commissioner Curtis Strickland said he didn’t know what the investors had in mind for the space when he considered their offer. He said his decision was strictly business – that he thinks the current asking price is a bargain considering the corner lot location – and that he would have rejected the offer even if he knew of their plans for an arts center.
Making it public
York didn’t know of the intended use, either, but said he wishes he had before casting his initial vote.
“I would definitely consider the bid knowing it would be used for the arts council,” York said. “Knowing that the folks that want it are for the arts (center), I would definitely be more prone to accept a lower offer, knowing we would get some sort of return on it.”
Tadych said it may have been significant for commissioners to know what the building would be used for and consider its value to the town before having them weigh in on the matter.
“That’s why you have an open meeting,” he said. “Someone might have been there to say, ‘I support their cause.’ There’s a lot of speculation on what could have happened had there been an open meeting.”
Hardin said the intended use of the property would be mentioned Monday night, when the town board is expected to make an official decision.
“The board is in the driver’s seat,” Hardin said. “They can ask whatever questions they want … they’ve got a copy of (the offer) and they know the discussion that’s been going on between that group and the town over the last several months.”