Take it slow on the city-county rift

Published 12:00 am Sunday, October 12, 2014

Chill. Give it a rest.
Time out.
The county is about to sue the city because the city denied its request for a special use permit to move county offices into West End Plaza.
Lawsuits are messy, expensive, and can take a long time.
An election is less than a month away. Three new county commissioners — a majority — will be elected. The county’s attitude toward working cooperatively with the city could change dramatically. Will the new commission want to sue the city? They, rather than the current commission, should make that decision. (Candidates, speak up!)
Even Congress, with its 12 percent approval rating, knows when to back off. It effectively closed up shop last month. It won’t do anything important until after next month’s election.
This process has several peculiarities.
First, two hearings were held, three weeks apart, to give the City Council members time to digest the facts and the law. During that time, they were prohibited from discussing the case among themselves. Other courts don’t operate like that. As a quasi-judicial process, the City Council was similar to a court. When multiple judges hear cases in other courts, they can deliberate among themselves.
Second, during the first hearing, the county proposed moving two offices, the Board of Elections and Veterans Affairs, into about 12,000 square feet in the mall in an apparent effort to calm the buzz of confusion surrounding its true intent. Since the county purchased the mall, different commissioners have expressed different ideas, and individual county commissioners have contradicted themselves. The truth is nowhere to be found.
Third, during the second hearing, the county offered to use no more than 40,000 square feet of the mall for government purposes without coming back to the city to ask again. That implies that larger plans were at stake. It also exposes an inconsistency, begging the question: why ask for 12,000 square feet one week and 40,000 the next? The county is doing the camel trick: sneak its nose under a tent to get a smell, push its little head under to get a look, and then wiggle its entire body into the tent. The city surely recognizes that granting this first request will make it very difficult — if not impossible — to deny or control any future requests from the county since a precedent will have been established.
Fourth, though the law requires that every legal element be met to grant the permit, Brian Miller, the single vote to grant the permit, voted that one element had not been met. Much to his credit, he asked if he was required to vote against the permit since he did not believe all of the legal requirements had been met. Nonetheless, he was told he could still vote for the permit.
Finally, since a city council is not a true judicial panel, the court has a lot of leeway with regard to evidence it can consider and the judgment it can render.
The county says the law gives it only 30 days to file the appeal. If so, the city and county could also agree to extend time limits. In addition, that time clock begins to run only after the so-called “record” has been prepared by the city and delivered to the county. That could take a while, especially because the city knows that the record becomes the basis for the county’s lawsuit. Knowing that, each council member should review that record carefully to make sure it accurately portrays his or her decision.
After the record is prepared, the county can file its petition and the city can respond. Only then can the court hear the case. Lawsuits are not quick.
By then, the election will be history. Maybe a new day will dawn.
Both the city and county have plenty of time.
Use it wisely. Together.
David Post lives in Salisbury.