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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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gcap 03/03/12 - 08:35 pm
Think about the real reason

Think about the real reason the city wants Walmart to have the land. It's not about the $40,000 gain. It's about long term sales tax revenue that will dwarf the small gain. If GHSU gets the land, the city gets zero. So the city will do whatever it takes to get the, loot.

countyman 03/03/12 - 09:32 pm
The negative comments are

The negative comments are coming from people who live all the way in the suburbs.. They don't spend time in the inner city, and it's the main reason they disagreed with the 'County of Excellence' award.. They haven't seen the new homes, roads, parks, townhomes, and neighborhoods in Laney Walker.. They don't know about the disposable income surrounding 15th street. The reason Harrisburg got the Kroc Center is because it's located near high income areas(Summerville, CBD, Waters Edge).. Along with the neighborhood being diverse, visible street(broad), etc.

I've yet to hear from anybody living in the immediate say this isn't great for the inner city.. I remember people told us the Kroc Center would have the problems of the raggedy side of Harrisburg....


Nobody shops at the Kroger because it looks undesirable and in need of renovation.. The residents of Summerville, CBD, Waters Edge, Olde Town, and the CBD will shop at the new Walmart. Not to mention the people working in the Medical District/CBD, and Paine/GHSU students..

1. New
2. Nicer than Kroger
3. 24hr

While Walmart doesn't have the same guidelines of Target, they don't build stores anywhere especially neighborhood markets.. They pay people big bucks to find the perfect spot around town..

Insider Information
Insider Information 03/03/12 - 09:36 pm
countyman, once again, you

countyman, once again, you say that breaking the law is OK.

Little Lamb
Little Lamb 03/03/12 - 09:51 pm
Riverman posted: GHSU offers

Riverman posted:

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.

I think the response to RM's statement can be found up in the article, where Fred (What, me worry?) Russell, in a moment of rare, plainspoken candor, said, “My concern is, I don’t know when it (redevelopment plans) would come to fruition.”There is the city's dilemma. They could sell the land to the MCG Foundation and the parcel could just sit there for decades, a drain on the tax base. The MCG Foundation has become little more than a real estate speculation office.

So selling the land to a developer who has put a construction plan on the table is the "half a loaf is better than none" standard.

Of course, if Attorney Hudson is correct, it is a shame that the commission violates sunshine laws to get their way. But sunshine laws are never enforced anyway. There is no penalty for violating them.

Riverman1 03/04/12 - 08:09 am
LL, are we at the point where

LL, are we at the point where Russell and the Commission have become anti-GHSU? His comment you quoted was pretty close to that. My goodness, folks, we are talking about GHSU v. a Walmart.

We fought a losing battle in Evans to keep the Walmart out. The foundation is an altruistic, privately funded group that seeks to improve GHSU in AUGUSTA. GHSU provides thousands of good paying jobs from housekeeping to PhD.

Should we start tearing down some of GHSU buildings and try to entice a Dollar Store, too?

Riverman1 03/04/12 - 08:18 am
The nebulous process we have

The nebulous process we have here of who can buy the land reminds me of the contracting department with their little song and dance committee that could award contracts no matter the bid. It was have the bidders come in before the committee and give them 2 minutes to perform then the members held up a number.

When you put unpublished conditions on government actions you are really doing nothing more than awarding or selling based on your personal whims which may have good intentions or may NOT.

Little Lamb
Little Lamb 03/05/12 - 09:47 am
I like your analogy about the

I like your analogy about the city operating like American Idol or some such talent show. The only difference is that the Augusta Idol show is done in secret so that the public cannot see the show.


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