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.