September 5, 2013

Bath council to air details of controversial sale

Officials reverse their decision to keep private an executive session on a controversial real estate deal.

By J. Craig Anderson
Staff Writer

BATH – In a reversal prompted by a public outcry, the City Council voted Wednesday night to release the details of a secret meeting it held in February to discuss the city's sale of a former hospital.

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A group of Bath residents is complaining that the city sold the Mid Coast Center for Higher Education, seen here Friday, August 9, 2013, for far too little, and violated the city charter in doing so.

Gabe Souza / Staff Photographer

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At a meeting in August, the council voted 7-1 not to disclose details of the executive session to an investigator that the city plans to hire to look into the sale.

On Wednesday, that vote was nearly reversed, with six councilors deciding to "waive" the executive session. Councilors Steve Brackett and Sean Paulhus voted against the measure. Council Chairman Bernie Wyman does not vote unless there is a tie.

Bath officials sold the former hospital for $799,000 in April after receiving an offer from a Phippsburg-based developer, Robert Smith. They never listed the property for sale.

The council approved the sale on April 17. No prior council vote was taken on how the property would be sold, or whether it should be opened up to competitive bids.

Critics of the sale say the property, now an office building, is worth far more than the sale price.

On Aug. 7, the council voted unanimously to appoint an independent investigator to interview city officials about the sale, gather all relevant documents and produce a report to be made available to the public.

Two weeks later, the council voted not to reveal to the investigator what was discussed in its closed meeting on Feb. 6. That prompted a group of angry residents to initiate a recall effort against five of the nine councilors.

On Wednesday, Councilor Mari Eosco raised the issue of overturning the decision to withhold information from the closed meeting.

"This whole situation, I know, has weighed on us all," she said. "I think some really good advice I got was, the more disclosure, the better."

Councilor Meadow Merrill agreed, saying, "Far more harm is being done in our city by keeping the information from that meeting private."

Merrill said nothing inappropriate was discussed during the executive session, so the city would be better off if the information is released.

Councilor Carolyn Lockwood said there are no documents associated with the executive session. However, the council made it clear that it would give the investigator its best recollection of what was discussed. Those recollections will be in the investigator's final report, which will be made public.

The council also voted Wednesday to issue a request for proposals for qualified candidates to be the independent investigator. City officials plan to select one in October.

"We are working on a process that we feel is transparent and serves the city well," Lockwood said.

But, she said, revealing what is said in an executive session isn't something she normally would support. "Let's not make a habit of this," she said.

Brackett said he voted against the majority of the council because it would be unethical for him to change his mind based on public pressure. "If folks have a problem with that, then they can voice it in November," he said.

Since Bath officials announced the sale, a small but vocal group of residents has criticized them for offering the property to Smith, the Phippsburg-based developer, without listing the property for sale or seeking competitive bids.

Smith bought the former Mid Coast Hospital on Park Street, now a multi-tenant office building called the Mid Coast Center, for $799,000.

Critics say the property was worth at least $1.1 million. The Bath Assessor's Office listed the value at $6.5 million.

Larry Scott of Bath, a retired professional investor and one of the city's chief critics, had said that withholding information from the executive session would render any proposed investigation pointless.

City and town councils are allowed to meet privately to discuss legal matters and other sensitive issues, including the proposed sales of real estate. They also can "waive" an executive session once the information is no longer sensitive, such as after the property has been sold.

At the council meeting Aug. 21, only Councilor David Sinclair voted to disclose what had been discussed in the executive session in February. Other councilors argued that releasing details would set a bad precedent and would be redundant because most of what was discussed already has been made public.

During the meeting, Councilor Paulhus said waiving one executive session could create an expectation that other sensitive city matters also should be publicized.

J. Craig Anderson can be contacted at 791-6317 or at:

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