Businessman and former mayor Bob Barker accused the town of violating the spirit of the state’s Open Meetings Law by holding discussions about a proposed arts center behind closed doors.
The board rejected a plan Monday to spend $13 million to renovate one of Barker’s buildings for a cultural arts and convention center. Instead, the board approved in a 3-2 vote spending nearly $600,000 to buy Stars Theater, a small venue downtown.
Discussing the acquisition, negotiations of a price or contract of real property in closed session is permitted under North Carolina Open Meetings Law.
Town Attorney W. Mark Cumalander said the privacy is meant to save taxpayers money. Keeping the town’s options and negotiations secret, he said, protects the board’s negotiating position by keeping landowners from inflating prices.
Members of the Fuquay-Varina’s Cultural Arts Study Committee, who have spent seven months exploring the arts center plan and made the recommendation for Barker’s building, said they weren’t informed of the Stars Theater plan before it was acted on Monday night.
Barker said by meeting in private, residents didn’t know how democratic the process was to replace his plan with the scaled-down version.
“Did the town board make this decision, or did the mayor and the town manager?” Barker said.
Town staff and elected officials apologized for the lack of communication, but stood behind their closed-door meetings.
Town Manager Adam Mitchell said in an interview they followed proper protocol in calling closed meetings following the public part of regular town meetings.
He said several closed sessions were held in February and March, with the final decision made after the town’s April 6 meeting. The town board’s official minutes show closed sessions held for the purpose of discussing property issues or attorney-client questions after all four town meetings in that time period.
It’s unclear if the town held closed sessions at its annual retreat Feb. 6-8 in Pinehurst. No official or unofficial minutes from the retreat have been posted.
Several members of the study committee said they are upset they were never consulted.
“To not even know when something is done about it, and just hear about it, is just disrespectful,” committee member Marilyn Gardner said. “I don’t know what the protocol is, but I would’ve expected common courtesy.”
Mitchell said Stars Theater was one of three properties whose owners approached the town in the last few months, in addition to Barker.
“That is how municipal, local government discusses property acquisition,” Mitchell said.
Barker said Mayor John Byrne and Mitchell met with him privately in mid-April to inform him his building no longer was being considered for the center.
Mitchell said he couldn’t divulge any information about the other two properties because the town might still buy one or both of them.
“We haven’t closed the door on them yet, although it might not be something we pursue in the immediate future,” he said.
But Barker called the decision “a slap in the face.” He said he also was offended by how the committee was treated. Barker isn’t a committee member, but his daughter Nancy Johns is.
“It seems you have completely ignored your study committee’s input,” Barker said. “You surprised and disappointed scores of people.”
Mitchell, who was on the study committee as the note-taker, apologized for the lack of communication and said he deserves the blame.
“Having spent seven months of their time on an arts center proposal for our community, it’s understandable why they would feel disrespected or slighted,” he said.
The commissioners commended Mitchell for owning the blame but apologized.
“When you have a meeting where so many angry people show up, the board has probably screwed up somewhere along the way,” mayor pro tem Charlie Adcock said.
Keith McCombs, a committee member, is also the former chief financial officer and chief deputy for the N.C. Department of Revenue.
He said he wished he would have had the chance to warn the board that spending nearly $600,000 to buy Stars Theater – not counting any future costs to rehabilitate the building – was a poor choice.
“Making no decision would have been a better decision,” McCombs said in a written statement after Monday’s meeting.
Doran: 919-470-2604; Twitter: @will_doran