Commissioners tour mall, claim closed session

Published 12:00 am Friday, September 13, 2013

SALISBURY — As shoppers roamed the Salisbury Mall on Thursday, Rowan County commissioners held a mobile closed-session meeting as they toured the for-sale property.
But a Post attorney has questioned the legality of the closed meeting.
The county sent out a public notice earlier this week saying commissioners would tour the property, but Chairman Jim Sides refused to allow the Post access to discussions regarding a possible purchase of the mall.
Sides would not allow a Post reporter to follow him and Vice Chairman Craig Pierce — along with a group of county department heads and the mall manager — as they gathered information about the mall.
“They have to do with information on the mall property,” Sides said of the discussions. “You will not be allowed to be with us as we speak to the group about information related to the property.”
Commissioner Mike Caskey showed up late to the meeting, making a quorum, but commissioners called for a vote and went into closed session without initially providing a reason for the closed meeting.
When asked about the statutory authority, Sides cited an exemption that allows boards to close their meetings for economic development discussions.
But commissioners had not mentioned economic development as a reason for the purchase of the property in comments previously made to the Post. Instead, they’ve talked about possibly using it for county departments, an expanded early college program and warehouse space for the Rowan County Sheriff’s Office.
Post attorney Amanda Martin said the county can’t discuss the specifics of for-sale property under the economic development statute.
“It’s not for a discussion with the property owner,” Martin said of the economic development statute.
When pushed on the property acquisition discussion and the lack of economic development talks, Sides responded, “Very well could be.”
On Thursday, the Post requested a packet of mall information from the county that was delivered in exchange for the county’s $25,000 bid deposit.
County Manager Gary Page denied the Post’s request for the taxpayer-bought packet. He said the information could keep the county out of the auction.
“By releasing the information to the general public through the Post, this disclosure could disqualify the county’s participation in the bid process,” Page said.
The Post’s attorney said the county had no authority under state law to withhold the information.
“They cannot promise confidentiality unless there’s a statutory basis for it,” Martin said. “They can’t just agree not to release something. That’s illegal.”
Shortly after 3 p.m. Thursday, Sides entered the mall and called for a confidential meeting with the Mall Manager Steven Keels and department heads inside a dimly lit Baylee’s Steakhouse.
County Facilities Management Director Don Bringle, Tax Collector and County Assessor Kelvin Byrd and Code Enforcement Director Pete Bogle were included in the tour.
Following the steakhouse talks, commissioners walked the length of the mall, stopping in stores like the former Hibbett Sports and a vacant food court eatery. The Post was asked to keep out of earshot, as Sides explained the group was still in an invisible, boundless closed session.
Commissioners spent the most time in the soon-to-be-empty Belk anchor.
After the tour — and having barred the Post from two meetings on Thursday — Sides declined to comment on the tour, the mall or the county’s transparency.
Pierce said he didn’t think the commission came away from the tour with a better or worse perspective than before.
“What we saw today was just examining some of the mechanicals. We realize that if we were to make an offer on the mall that there’s going to be some monies that have to be spent on it,” Pierce said. “We’re not going into this thing thinking that whatever we pay for it on the auction is going to be the end of it.”
Pierce said he likes the “flexibility” the mall could give the county in future years, especially as the need for more county department space arises.
“What we look at is — we’re foolish if we don’t investigate the opportunities that are here simply because there will be capital needs for the county as we move forward,” he said. “If this could be an opportunity for us to have some flexible space to take care of those needs, then aren’t we being diligent in our elected offices to at least investigate it?”
Commissioners checked out the heating and air conditioning units of the facility, as well as the roof — which is expected to need some repairs.
“There’s definitely issues that would need to be addressed — some long-term, some short-term. But the mall ownership has maintained it through the years, they’ve maintained it, that sort of thing. But it would definitely be an expenditure.”
Still, Pierce said the way the roof is broken up into separate sections, the county could fix the sections they hope to develop as needed.
Pierce also said the current mall tenants would not expected to be asked to leave if the county purchases the mall.
“If we were to purchase it, we would leave all the leases intact. The people that are here now would be welcome to stay until we’ve identified what and if we want to do with it,” Pierce said. “It’s not like we’re trying to take the revenue that’s currently here for these shop owners and customers that come out here. We still want that to maintain itself until we would actually figure out what’s our next step.”
When asked about the discussion in closed session, Pierce said the county’s department head expertise would have worked against the county in a bidding war if the talks were reported.
“There wasn’t anything said in closed session regarding the purchase. It was just simply we were talking to people about pricing and what needed to be done and we didn’t want that made available to the public because, like I said, we have to be aware that there’s going to be other people bidding,” Pierce said. “And we didn’t want that information given to them without them doing their homework or due diligence.”

Contact reporter Nathan Hardin at 704-797-4246.