Wednesday, March 12, 2014
BATH - Residents who say the Bath City Council failed to inform the public about a controversial real estate deal have started a recall drive.
The effort stems from the sale in April of the former Bath Memorial Hospital. The city sold the property for $799,000 a few days before it was scheduled to be posted on a multiple listing service -- meaning some potential buyers didn't know it was for sale.
Councilors said they made the sale because the building, which the city rented out as office space, had been losing money for years.
With many tenants indicating that they weren't going to renew their leases, the city faced bigger losses the longer it owned the building, parts of which are a century old.
But critics say councilors never had any basis for setting the price for the building because they never really put it on the market.
The property was assessed by the city at $6.5 million, and while even critics say that was probably too high, they say the city could have sold the building for more than it got.
Larry Scott, a retired investor who started the recall effort, said the worst part is that the council won't reveal what went on in its executive sessions before the property was sold.
"At some point, you get to the position of, if you don't have something to hide, then why are you hiding it?" Scott said. "Don't make the sale in a closed-door meeting and then refuse to provide any information."
Councilors note that private meetings on real estate transactions are allowed by state law. Although lawyers say the council could be open about those sessions now that the deal is done, it doesn't want to set a precedent of revealing what's done in executive sessions.
Councilor Sean Paulhus said he worries that if the council bends on real estate matters, critics will want information on executive sessions dealing with legal advice or personnel matters.
But, he said, "In retrospect, I think we could have done things differently" in selling the hospital building.
Councilor Andrew Winglass said the council, a part-time body that doesn't have lawyers or commercial real estate experts, felt it made a good deal to get rid of a property.
"There's not exactly a road map for everybody to follow," Winglass said, and the council has since adopted a rule that the city must list any real estate it is seeking to sell before any deal can be made.
Winglass said he believes the council has been open about what went on in executive sessions, which he called "more or less a fact-finding time (when) no decisions are made."
But Scott disagrees and said the critics are off to a good start in collecting signatures for the recall.
They need signatures from at least half the number of voters who cast ballots in the last elections for council seats -- which means about 1,250 for an at-large seat and less for district seats.
The recall is aimed at five of the nine councilors.
Three are up for re-election this fall and one, David Sinclair, cast the lone vote in favor of measures that would force the council to reveal more information from the executive sessions, Scott said.
Bath's recall law is odd, Scott said, and no one can remember a time when it was used.
If backers of the effort get enough signatures, the councilors will essentially be recalled and new elections will be held, with the recalled councilors eligible to run.
He said the council could end the recall effort by being more open.
"There's a lot of information we don't have because they won't give it to us," Scott said.
But Winglass said he thinks the council's critics are making an issue where there isn't one.
"In the end, you're either trying to build up a town and what it stands for or you're trying to tear it down," he said. "This group is trying to tear it down."
Edward D. Murphy can be contacted at 791-6465 or at: