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Attorney disputes Walmart land deal

City violated state law with secret action, attorney says

Friday, March 2, 2012 11:07 AM
Last updated Saturday, March 3, 2012 2:02 AM
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The Augusta Commission’s Jan. 17 vote behind closed doors to sell the city’s bus depot is a violation of Georgia’s open-meetings act, according to David Hudson, the general counsel for Georgia Press Association and counsel for The Augusta Chronicle.

The case justifying the secrecy that was cited by city staff attorney Ken Bray – Johnson v. Board of Commissioners, Bibb County et al. – applies to property acquisition, not the sale of property, Hudson said.

In that 2010 case, plaintiffs challenged a closed-door vote by Bibb County Com­mission to acquire land for a new courthouse. The Georgia Court of Appeals upheld a lower court ruling that the exception to Georgia’s open-meetings act for real estate acquisition extended to “voting on acquisition, as well as discussion of future acquisition.”

The case does not apply to the transfer of land, as the Augusta Commission voted to do, 10-0, with the bus property in closed legal session Jan. 17 after special city counsel Jim Plunkett presented a proposal to build a 40,000-square-foot Walmart at the site. Despite a selling price to developers of $505,000, Augusta stands to make only about $40,000 in operating money from the deal.

The vote was not announced in open session during the regular Jan. 17 commission meeting, and Mayor Deke Copenhaver signed a resolution authorizing the transfer that same day.

The Bibb County case “only applies where a public body is acquiring property, not selling,” Hudson said, questioning why city officials decided to “conduct the public’s business” behind closed doors.

WITH THE VOTE in violation, the city’s action is subject to suit within 90 days to set aside the vote, Hudson said.

Voting behind closed doors to sell real estate would be legal under House Bill 397, a comprehensive revision of Georgia open-government laws being pushed by Attorney General Sam Olens, but isn’t the law now, according to Hudson.

City Administrator Fred Russell said late Friday that general counsel Andrew MacKenzie interpreted the law differently and advised the commission Jan. 17 that it was acting properly by taking the vote behind closed doors. MacKenzie has been on vacation all week.

At least one person has questioned the bus depot sale. Jim Osborne, the president and CEO of Medical College of Georgia Foundation, which owns the adjoining Kroger and a small strip mall on 15th Street, expressed disappointment that the foundation wasn’t allowed to buy the 3.5-acre tract, despite making a $1 million written offer for it as recently as 2009.

“We never took that offer off the table,” he said Friday.

Osborne said he was further baffled to learn of the Jan. 17 action because he, two foundation board members, Russell and District 1 Commissioner Matt Aitken met Feb. 15 to discuss plans for the area.

“Fred Russell said he put that deal with the land bank on hold,” Osborne said. “Two days later, we found out something quite different.”

ASKED WHETHER THE foundation might challenge the closed-door vote, Osborne said it was unlikely.

“We’re not in the business of suing the city; we just felt we deserved a seat at the table, and we didn’t get that,” he said.

Russell said he told Osborne and others at the Feb. 15 meeting only that the parties “might be able to get together and talk” later about plans in the area and “that still might happen” but that he was instructed at a Feb. 17 commission retreat to move forward with the Walmart plans.

The foundation has “been asking for it for years,” Russell said of the bus land. “My concern is, I don’t know when it (redevelopment plans) would come to fruition.”

AMONG PLANS FOR the area cited Friday by Osborne were the Harrisburg Blueprint, a new master plan for Harrisburg community resembling the downtown Westobou master plan and assembled last year by several of the same parties, including Augusta Tomorrow.

The blueprint describes Kroger’s damage to neighborhoods behind it “because of poor site planning,” then suggests redevelopment options of single-family housing, mixed-use medical offices or a medical-commercial building, and potentially a park at the Kroger site after the store is razed. It also recommends that Georgia Health Sciences University incorporate the blueprint ideas into its campus master plan, particularly those for the Kroger site and a Walton Way redesign.

Now that the bus property is spoken for, Russell said city buses will be relocated to a new Richmond County Board of Education facility in south Augusta that wasn’t complete when the foundation made its 2009 offer.

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scorehouse
196
Points
scorehouse 03/02/12 - 12:39 pm
0
0
make only 40,000$? you must
Unpublished

make only 40,000$? you must mean upfront because sales tax revenue alone should exceed that monthly? not to mention future peoperty taxes, etc.

corgimom
32615
Points
corgimom 03/02/12 - 12:50 pm
2
2
A Walmart downtown is a great

A Walmart downtown is a great idea. Go to Walmart, go to Costco. The biggest problem with Walmarts is that if they are successful, they always expand and leave a vacant big-box white elephant for cities to deal with. Hope that A-RC puts some provisions in there for WHEN, not if, that happens.

corgimom
32615
Points
corgimom 03/02/12 - 12:57 pm
6
0
It would also be good if the

It would also be good if the Commissioners insist on a clause that Wal-Mart provide outside security in the parking lot during all operating hours. WalMarts are magnets for homeless people and beggars and crime. I know people would flock there if they knew that the parking lot would be safe. It would then be an asset to Downtown.

dichotomy
33042
Points
dichotomy 03/02/12 - 02:23 pm
5
0
As usual, our commissioners

As usual, our commissioners and the people who give them legal advice managed to do it all wrong and for no good reason. Is it any wonder why everything they touch is screwed up? Who will sue us and how much will it cost us for this? More back room, no sunshine deals from you know who. They can't do anything in an open meeting......except abstain, granstand, or walk out. Everything, even the smallest things, have to be done in a back room deal or a private meeting. The entire commission is afflicted with a total lack of courage and integrity not to mention a lack of smarts. I'm sure y'all will re-elect them. Some of you like the grandstanding and pay no attention to the results.

TrulyWorried
14302
Points
TrulyWorried 03/02/12 - 03:10 pm
4
1
I don't believe there is such

I don't believe there is such a thing as "doing it right" for Augusta/RC

TheOneJustice
52
Points
TheOneJustice 03/02/12 - 04:21 pm
1
1
Great some company offering
Unpublished

Great some company offering to produce jobs, build a profitable company where no one else wants to they panic these commissioners need to go back to economics 101

Insider Information
4009
Points
Insider Information 03/02/12 - 07:08 pm
5
1
Always ask "Why?". Why would

Always ask "Why?".

Why would this be done in secret?

Why are they hiding?

Riverman1
84130
Points
Riverman1 03/02/12 - 07:43 pm
9
1
GHSU offers double the price

GHSU offers double the price to build a facility on the property that will provide well paying jobs that don't take from existing retail entities. Plus a grocery store is already right there. But a key point overlooked is that GHSU will provide ITS OWN POLICE FORCE. A Walmart in the area will have the same problems as the Kroger with the unsavory element.

Willow Bailey
20580
Points
Willow Bailey 03/03/12 - 12:05 am
3
0
It's impossible to have

It's impossible to have confidence or trust in those who cannot be forthright.

countyman
20132
Points
countyman 03/03/12 - 12:24 am
1
3
There's no guarantee Kroger

There's no guarantee Kroger will be here over the next few years.. GHSU can decide to renovate the property without the city having any power to keep an grocery store in the area... We've already seen the Augusta National kick out Food Lion, etc..

Plus nobody wants to shop at that old Kroger, and it's the reason why the middle class to wealthy population living nearby don't..

I'm 100% positive the people living/working in/around the CBD, Medical District, Summerville, Waters Edge, Olde Town, etc can't wait for the Walmart to open..

I remember when people said the Kroc Center would have the same problems compared to the raggedy side of Harrisburg... These people live all the way in the suburbs, and don't know about the demographics intown.. They forget the Kroc Center had to be built next to high income areas(Summerville, Waters Edge, CBD)...

itsanotherday1
43318
Points
itsanotherday1 03/03/12 - 12:34 am
2
0
"it's the reason why the

"it's the reason why the middle class to wealthy population living nearby don't..

I'm 100% positive the people living/working in/around the CBD, Medical District, Summerville, Waters Edge, Olde Town, etc can't wait for the Walmart to open.."

I have a question. Why do the "Summerville" folk not patronize this Kroger, and why do you think they will patronize the Walmart?

allhans
23681
Points
allhans 03/03/12 - 01:21 am
0
0
I think it was said

I think it was said previously that Kroger has 2 more years on its lease.

Insider Information
4009
Points
Insider Information 03/03/12 - 02:06 am
1
0
If this is such a great deal,

If this is such a great deal, why not be proud of it and do it in front of the public and the cameras?

Best case scenario? The law "permits" secrecy, but why did our elected officials "choose" secrecy?

Craig Spinks
817
Points
Craig Spinks 03/03/12 - 05:05 am
1
0
Billy and Paul are vexed by

Billy and Paul are vexed by Deke, the A-RC commissioners, Fred, the Wal-Mart deal or some combination thereof. Otherwise, why would David appear?

Tit-for-tat over the status of the TEE - oh, excuse me- The Convention Center at the Augusta Marriott project is my read.

georgiaranger
8
Points
georgiaranger 03/03/12 - 08:11 am
2
0
Eventually, the new

Eventually, the new China-Mart store will be abandoned. GHSU needs the land as they develop the eastern edge of Harrisburg. They already own much of the old Woodlawn neighborhood on the south side of Walton Way. They will clean up the area, make it safe (GHSU Police), create jobs and will be there from now on. GHSU has been here since 1828. How long do you think Wal-Mart will stay?

Riverman1
84130
Points
Riverman1 03/03/12 - 08:15 am
1
1
Some misconceptions are being

Some misconceptions are being righted here. One Augusta Commissioner came here and in print he typed himself said the foundation had not made an offer. We know that's false now. He may not have known of the offer, but Russell and others did.

As far as the legality of the secret sale, I'll take the opinion of Vietnam veteran, Harvard Law School graduate, David Hudson any old day over our county, contracting out work, legal staff that quivers like a kicked puppy when Commissioners speak to them.

Riverman1
84130
Points
Riverman1 03/03/12 - 08:18 am
2
0
Anyone remember the Sears

Anyone remember the Sears that used to be on 15th St. right in that area? I wonder why it closed? GHSU took it over and made it a productive, well policed facility and area. They'll end up doing the same to a Walmart. As Corgimom said somewhere, Walmarts always eventually close leaving big empty buildings.

jwarner6
63
Points
jwarner6 03/03/12 - 08:32 am
1
0
Sears closed on 15th Street

Sears closed on 15th Street when it moved to the Augusta Mall.

double_standard
166
Points
double_standard 03/03/12 - 11:08 am
2
0
The government does not

The government does not create jobs. GHSU is the government. You people need to make your minds up.

sjsypien
19
Points
sjsypien 03/03/12 - 11:09 am
2
0
It's hard to trust

It's hard to trust politicians who make deals without the publics knowledge. It seems so shady and underhanded. If everything is aboveboard, why must it be done in private. Something in it for them?

Riverman1
84130
Points
Riverman1 03/03/12 - 11:30 am
3
0
About the government jobs,

About the government jobs, although I tend to agree with you philosophically, I doubt we would want to close Ft. Gordon and put a flea market there.

double_standard
166
Points
double_standard 03/03/12 - 11:34 am
0
0
Exactly RM1. Look at what's

Exactly RM1. Look at what's going on in Grovetown that's all government and no one never complains.

Insider Information
4009
Points
Insider Information 03/03/12 - 12:01 pm
2
0
I challenge anyone to name

I challenge anyone to name one legitimate reason to do this deal in secret.

aubaug
62
Points
aubaug 03/03/12 - 01:31 pm
3
1
A 24 hour WalMart...Sure

A 24 hour WalMart...Sure would hate to be shopping down there after 10:00 pm. Who are they going to hire for the graveyard shift? Will they be required to have their Concealed Carry Permit?

Enabling GHSU to grow and prosper will only serve to beautify and develop the downtown area of Augusta; THE primary goal for many, many, years.

Riverman1
84130
Points
Riverman1 03/03/12 - 02:50 pm
4
1
The soon combined police

The soon combined police forces of GHSU and ASU are a key to making much of Augusta safe.

But why in the world would anyone believe an unsavory element that frequents the Kroger will stay away from a Walmart? Or why would people who stay away from the Kroger suddenly feel safer going to a Walmart right there?

itsanotherday1
43318
Points
itsanotherday1 03/03/12 - 05:03 pm
1
1
RM, I axed countyman that

RM, I axed countyman that question above, but he hasn't responded.

Willow Bailey
20580
Points
Willow Bailey 03/03/12 - 06:13 pm
0
1
itsanotherday, that was too

itsanotherday, that was too funny....stop it!

Willow Bailey
20580
Points
Willow Bailey 03/03/12 - 06:20 pm
0
2
True, River, it's not like

True, River, it's not like the City is trading a strip bar for a grocery store. Walmart will be no safer as a shopping center than Kroger is. Do you ever get the feeling this bunch has no common sense whatsoever? They would greatly benefit by asking their "experts" since, they can't think for themselves or hear their constituents.

Disciple21
0
Points
Disciple21 03/03/12 - 06:27 pm
1
0
I don't think GHSU or

I don't think GHSU or Wal-mart should have that land. Why not something different then them both I don' t know exactly what they need in that spot but it don't have to be either Wal-mart or GHSU.

The reason why they did the back door deal is because GHSU is becoming to powerful and the government don't have more money then them. I want GHSU to continue to grow but they don't have to have everything.

Lori Davis
924
Points
Lori Davis 03/03/12 - 06:37 pm
1
1
Riverman, as you know, I live

Riverman, as you know, I live in Harrisburg and would welcome better shopping, however, how this deal was done leaves one suspect for sure. There is something we don't know right now, but I imagine will come to light eventually.

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