Negotiations for a new Town Hall site on Kiawah Island involved illegal closed-door authorization of nearly $100,000 for consultants and the down payment to buy the land, according to a lawsuit filed by a resident.
In his suit, Dennis McGill said the spending of town money should have been approved in a public Town Council vote. In response, the town said negotiations with the seller had to be private or the deal would not have happened. Once an agreement was reached, council voted in public on a sales contract to buy the land on Betsy Kerrison Parkway, the town said.
McGill said in an interview that he sued the town out of frustration with how council and the town’s administration conducted business.
“It’s a culture of secrecy,” he said. “There’s not much candor and transparency.”
The town will dispute McGill’s allegations about how the Town Hall site purchase was handled, said town attorney Dennis Rhoad. “The town will fully and properly respond with a supported denial of those allegations,” he said.
Rhoad said he had not yet been legally served with a copy of the suit.
“I believe it’s local politics,” he said.
He challenged McGill’s contention that the state Freedom of Information Act was violated in the process of securing a contract offer for the 20-plus acres where the Town Hall will be built.
“I disagree with him on that. When do you need to make public the contract? When it becomes a contract and you vote on it. The contract was being negotiated. Council did vote in public to ratify the contract,” Rhoad said.
A check for $25,000 in earnest money toward purchase of the new Town Hall site was authorized without a council vote, the suit alleges. It also says that the town privately paid more than $66,750 to consultants who worked on the project.
“If the town made the payments described in the complaint, those payments would have been made in violation of the law unless they had been authorized by a public vote in a properly called public meeting,” said Jay Bender, attorney for the S.C. Press Association.
Former Councilwoman Fran Wermuth said residents were kept in the dark about negotiations for the new Town Hall location. “Council told people nothing. They did everything behind closed doors. That went on and on,” she said.
There is concern about transparency in town government, she said.
Mayor Charles Lipuma said Wednesday by email that he was vacationing in Spain. He said that when he returns in mid-June, he will discuss the McGill lawsuit with Rhoad.
McGill said he filed the suit because of a gut reaction to how council informed the public about the pending purchase of the Town Hall site.
“The property may be a good thing, but the end doesn’t justify the means,” he said.
In late October, council held meetings at which the Town Hall site purchase agreement became public. Council voted 3-2 on Nov. 4 in favor of buying the 21.5-acre site for $2 million. The $10 million project is scheduled for completion at the end of next year.
McGill, who represents himself in the suit, said his legal experience includes serving as presiding municipal judge of Hudson County, N.J., chief judge of Jersey City Municipal Court and corporation counsel for the city.
“I know a little bit about municipal law,” he said.
The suit alleges that from Feb. 24 to May 27 of 2014, the council had nine executive sessions during which members and the property owners negotiated and drafted a formal purchase agreement. Council should have voted publicly on town spending for consultants, including engineering, architecture, environmental review and traffic studies, as well as the purchase down payment, the suit says.
After the May 27 Ways and Means Committee closed-door executive session, there was no statement to the public that the council had decided to sign an agreement to purchase the property and spend $25,000 as a down payment, the suit alleges.
Two days later, the mayor and town administrator executed a draft purchase agreement. On June 5, the sellers accepted the town offer to buy the property, according to the suit.
Alleged secrecy surrounding the Town Hall site location and purchase was an issue in the mayor’s race in December when Lipuma won re-election over Wermuth.
At the time, Lipuma said negotiations to purchase land for the Town Hall were done according to law and on advice of the town attorney. He also said that the process of evaluating the suitability of the property for a new Town Hall took about five months and was done in council executive session. The negotiations had to be handled privately until the terms of a deal were struck, the mayor said in December.
The executive sessions were advertised as being to discuss acquiring property. After each, it was announced that no action was taken, he has said.
“There are some people that are unhappy that this was not an open process,” Lipma said at the time.
He told The Post and Courier in October that the town started talking with the owner of the Johns Island property in June. The town agreed to purchase the property if certain conditions were met and it put down $25,000 in earnest money, he said, which would have been refunded if the conditions weren’t met.
One of those conditions was the town’s ability to get a permit for a septic system from the state Department of Health and Environmental Control. It received that permit in October.
The town had to be discreet about its actions because there were other potential buyers for the property, Lipuma said in October. And a real estate broker representing the seller told the newspaper that the current owners wanted discretion.
After receiving state approval for the septic system, two meetings were scheduled where the public was told everything, the mayor said shortly after his re-election.
“We subsequently had a public vote to purchase the property and a public meeting to annex the property. We’ve been accused of flaunting the Freedom of Information Act, which we have not done,” Lipuma said in December.