Commissioners' Minutes Reflect 3 Private Talks About Selling County Land for a Bojangles'
The Moore County Board of Commissioners discussed the possible sale of county land in Carthage to Bojangles’ three times in a closed session, at least twice of which were against the advice of its attorney, according to newly released minutes of those meetings.
The written minutes from the private sessions on Oct. 18, 2011, Feb. 7 and May 15 reflect that Bojangles’ wants to buy a site next to the Veterans Memorial, and that a broker had originally offered $280,000 for 1.3 acres.
The state’s public meetings law allows governmental boards to meet in closed session to discuss buying land but not selling it. The Pilot filed a request to release the meeting minutes after Commissioner Tim Lea accused fellow board members last month of violating the public meetings law.
Fellow commissioners at the time disputed that characterization.
In both the Feb. 7 and May 15 minutes, County Attorney Misty Leland is noted as advising the board it cannot discuss the land sale to Bojangles’ in closed session.
“Misty said this was not supposed to be discussed in closed session. (No one acknowledged her statement),” the Feb. 7 minutes state.
On Tuesday night, Board Chairman Larry Caddell proposed releasing only written minutes from the meetings. Lea then asked to amend the motion to include “voice recordings and additional documentation” related to the subject. No other commissioner supported that, and the board voted only to release written minutes.
That’s contrary to state law, which requires all forms to be released.
N.C. Press Association attorney Mike Tadych said the board was legally bound to provide all information connected to the closed session minutes.
“Based on review of the minutes, most of the information contained on the audio tapes would be a public record subject to inspection under the Public Records Law,” he wrote. “The board does not get to choose what form of public record to release.”
Leland said Thursday morning the staff was preparing audio recordings for release, but they were not available by press time.
Tadych said that the board relinquished the privilege of keeping the audio portions to itself. “To the extent that the board has legitimate claim to some portion of the audio tapes of the closed sessions as being subject to attorney client privilege, their release of the written minutes which contains counsel’s advice waives the capacity to maintain that privilege,” he said.
The issue with Bojangles’ first surfaced Oct. 18, 2011, according to meeting minutes, when a broker made an offer “for $280,000 for 1.3 acres on which a Bojangles’ would be located.”
The minutes read that Commissioner Nick Picerno “suggested Bojangles’ buy a piece of property the county would be interested in near the Health Department to potentially move DSS to one day, and then swap for the county-owned piece of property by Hardees in which Bojangles’ was interested.”
Picerno said Thursday that the Oct. 18 closed session meeting was all about “swapping, not selling” county land.
“When Bojangles’ first approached us I was the board chairman, and I asked the county attorney to look into this with swapping in mind. That’s what the October meeting was about. Swapping one piece of land for another, if the vision took us there,” Picerno said.
Regarding the discussion of land sales during the Feb. 7 closed session meeting, Picerno said that, in retrospect, the board should have “shut up.”
“Bojangles’ came to us again and wanted to know if we were interested. One commissioner immediately made the comment that it was not a good time to sell, and I responded that one can always sell property, but these comments were not specific to Bojangles’. The discussion built from there, and we probably should have listened to the advice of the county attorney not to discuss the issue.
“We went over the line.”
Commissioner Craig Kennedy said that, while the board may have been technically in the wrong, he felt “in his heart” that no action was planned to “give anyone an unfair advantage” in regard to selling county land.
“Were we procedurally wrong to discuss land sales in closed session?” Kennedy said. “Our attorney says we were, but in my mind we were never once saying that we were going to make something happen.
“If it came to taking action, we would advertise. I’m sure that Misty will keep us in line regarding the advertisement of property sales.”
But state law does not let government officials go behind doors to hash out ideas or speculate about the possible sale of land.
Neither Caddell, Commissioner Jimmy Melton or Leland returned calls seeking comment on why the issue was discussed at all in closed meetings.
Little note is made in the minutes regarding a land swap, but extensive notes mention specific sales figures and strategies:
“Larry (Caddell) said to (County Manager) Cary (McSwain) that he would tell them to put an offer in writing, and if they came back and said $200,000, and the County has said it would take $400,000, then the price is $400,000.”
Land sale prices were again discussed during the closed session meeting of May 15, where it is recorded that Caddell “said he thought when Commissioner Picerno had suggested $500,000 as an acceptable offer, the board was agreeable to that … He said the board would be shortsighted not to look at this.” In the same meeting, Leland told the board that they “would have to decide in open session” that they were willing to sell the property.
Picerno said he felt the May 15 meeting “made it right” in vindicating the board.
“We went to the county attorney and asked how to do it legally, and then discussed the property in open session,” he said. “I still maintain that it is too early to talk sales because we still don’t have a vision for the county. The ongoing space needs allocation study is designed to get us back on track. That’s why you will hear me say the word ‘premature’ on the audio.”
Another issue related to the Bojangles’ land sale concerns the location of the 1.3 acres in question. The tract on which the fast food restaurant would be located is adjacent to the grounds of the Moore County Veterans Memorial.
Lea, a U.S. Marine who served from 1967 to 1971, objects to what he calls the “desecration” of the memorial by possible litter and loitering.
At Tuesday’s meeting, more than 25 Moore County military veterans and their supporters made their opposition to the land sale known. Almost a dozen people addressed the board during the public forum period. One of them was Charles Spelman of Seven Lakes, who serves as president of the Moore County-based Vietnam Veterans Chapter 966.
“Certain individuals feel that a monetary gain means more than the lives that we lost and the memorial that has been built in their honor. I don’t want to hear ‘May I take your order?’ as I pay respects to those who made the supreme sacrifice. I am asking for any help that this ground remains for now and always a place where those who have lost loved ones can come and spend time remembering. Please don’t let our patriotism fail those who we remember on this ground.”
For Carolyn Mealing, president-elect of the League of Women Voters, locating a Bojangles’ restaurant adjacent to the Moore County Veterans’ Memorial in Carthage is “dishonorable.”
“We ask you (commissioners) to honor the memorial and the purpose for which it was established,” Mealing said. “Those veterans whose names are engraved on the memorial have served our country and in many cases given their lives to protect our democracy. We must not forget them nor lessen their sacrifices by selling county property in close proximity to the memorial for a purpose that would diminish the memorial’s very reason for being.”
Following comments from the veterans, Commissioner Nick Picerno said he was “moved” to state his thoughts.
“The sale of this property is not imminent,” Picerno said. “I’m sorry if a political football was tossed your way and upset you, but I would never do anything to desecrate this memorial. As far as I know, this board has made no decision to sell the property.”
To emphasize the board’s empathy with and respect for the veterans, Picerno noted his father’s service as a Korean War-era prisoner of war, while Caddell cited his own service record.
“I left home on a cold December day in 1969 and returned on a cold December day in 1971,” he said. "I couldn’t wear my uniform at home at Christmas. I just want to make that known.
“I have great respect for the military.”
Contact John Lentz at (910) 693-2479 or email@example.com.
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